This one is going to end up being a two-parter. For some reason I always end up waiting to write these until there’s a bit of time pressure looming over my head. That usually means trying to finish up my research at 5am before heading into the kitchen. This drives my wife absolutely bonkers, as she’s my editor. She’s also my writing instructor, and the inspiration for my drive to become a more organized person with self imposed deadlines…unfortunately that last one is having trouble sticking.
I started the usual Wednesday morning routine of pouring my coffee, feeding the cat, and sitting down to research. All was going according to plan until I looked down at my clock. I was about halfway through the research I was planning to get through, and in a YouTube spiral of watching Sean Brock in Senegal, and it was already quarter to seven.
My initial intention was to do a quick biopic piece about Sean Brock (the American chef who was the inspiration for a lot of the food in this week’s Love Box) and then get into the culinary history of the South. I always knew that Southern food was interesting from a historical point of view, especially when it comes to soul food. I was pretty naive to think that I could jam pack all that information into one post. See, the thing with a lot of Southern food is that it has its origins in slavery. Hence splitting this up into two parts.
So let’s dig into Sean Brock, as I still have a lot more research to do for the follow up to this post.
Sean Brock is probably my favourite American chef. There’s something about his approach to food that I found always fit nicely with my own understanding. He approaches food in a no nonsense wholesome way, but he always has a reverence for it. He speaks about creating his dishes a bit like a jazz musician speaks about music. It comes from the soul.
I could spend a page going into the details about his life, but this isn’t a book report. To make a long story short, Sean brock grew up in a small coal mining town in West Virginia. His father died suddenly when he was 11 years old. It was then that Sean, his mother, and his brother moved in with Sean’s grandparents. He really fell in love with all things food at their house.
He went to cooking school as soon as he was done high school, and has gone on to lead an incredibly successful cooking career. Just about everything you need to know about his food comes from his roots.
You see, where he was from, everyone had gardens. There were no restaurants, and only one crummy little grocery store. There was simply no need for them. Everyone grew their own food. Pantries were stocked full of preserves, pickles, and ferments. And all of the information was passed down through generations.
If you’ve got the time, check this video out. It’s him cooking his favourite dish with his mom. I think I’ve seen it about 4 or 5 times now, and it speaks volumes to the nature of what I’m trying to get at.
Gardens were a status symbol where Sean grew up. Life wasn’t about who had the nicest car; it was about who grew the best beans, or who’s tomato plants came in the best. I feel like we’d all be a little happier if we were more concerned with produce as opposed to the latest iPhone.
Now when I say garden, you might be thinking of planter boxes and little backyard pots. You’d be better off thinking about it like a medium size farm (depending on how much space you had). Sean’s grandparents' garden was so big that they did their plowing by horse. His youth was spent in the dirt.
Most kids he went to school with hated doing farm chores, but Sean loved them. This fueled so much of what drives his food philosophy. He includes a manifesto in his cookbook Heritage.
I’m not going to list them all off, but a few favourites are as follows.
- “Cook with soul - but first get to know your soul”
- “Cook as if every day you were cooking for your grandmother. If your grandmother is still alive, cook with her as much as possible, and write everything down”
- “Listen to your tongue; it’s smart”
- “Eat with your hands as much as possible”
- “Do as little as possible to an ingredient when it’s perfect and at its peak”
- “Grow your own - Even if it’s just a rosemary bush. You’ll taste the difference and start planting more right away.”
There’s one other thing of note about his culinary career that isn’t found in his roots, or his time hosting the PBS show Mind of a Chef (which I highly recommend checking out), and that is he’s sober. That may not sound like a big deal, but in the restaurant industry there’s a pretty public and well documented tradition of substance abuse.
Sean Brock rose to fame in a relatively short period of time, during which he was running several restaurants, and he was also going blind. He leaned heavily on the bottle to cope with everything, and after some intervention from friends he spent his 39th birthday in rehab.
When he got out, he sold his private bourbon collection which was big enough that he bought a vintage car with the proceeds. He also got surgery for the condition that was causing his lack of vision. Since then he hasn’t been shy about what he’s gone through, there’s a really great Food & Wine article about it all that is well worth the read. He hasn’t slowed down in the kitchen creatively though, his dishes are better than ever.
All in all his story and philosophy have been a great inspiration to me and to countless other professional chefs out there. He’s worth looking into. I’ve got to run to the kitchen now, but I’m going to leave you with one more pull from his manifesto in Heritage to digest.
“He who dies with the biggest pantry wins.”
Until next time,