The attraction of a new style of Southern cooking

CHARLESTON, South Carolina – Sean Brock is a Virginia boy who attended the Johnson & Wales University cooking school on this beautiful, historic peninsula where the Civil War began, moved around the South in apprenticeship, and in 2006 returned as the executive chef at McCrady’s, the city’s oldest restaurant.

Late last year, amid a marsh fire of publicity that continues to roar, he opened a large and lavishly appointed new one, Husk, devoted to the excellence and promise of Southern ingredients.

Husk was hailed as possibly the most important restaurant in the history of Southern cooking, even before it opened in November. That remains to be seen. But the culture of the restaurant was clear from the start. Brock was a son of Dixie sounding a locavore’s horn.

Every grain, protein, green and spice placed on a plate in the restaurant would come from the South, in some cases from a small farm he established just outside the city to grow heritage vegetables and fruit.

I came to this port city to see what the fuss was all about.

I discovered a good, young restaurant with a zeal for its location and a passion for selling it hard. Brock makes a mean shrimp and grits at Husk, which is in a beautiful, restored 1893 Queen Anne home in the town centre.

Bartenders carve fine country ham from suppliers like Finchville and Newsom’s and serve it with top-notch bourbon in a barroom next to the restaurant that’s as pretty as any on earth.

It’s comfortable on the Husk bandwagon. Everyone’s happy.

But as they say down here, I’ll tell you what: I ate at McCrady’s, too. And that restaurant is one of only a few outside the first tier of American cities that could compete in any of them.

Of course, coming to this salty gem of a city would be worth it even if neither restaurant had ever opened. Charleston, with fewer than 125,000 residents, is one of the great eating towns of the American South, on par with New Orleans for quality if nowhere near it for size or variety.

Brock built his reputation on the sometimes playful, occasionally brash and always highly technical form of cooking that is often associated with the Spanish chef Ferran Adria of El Bulli in Catalonia and, in New York, with Wylie Dufresne of the restaurant WD-50, on the Lower East Side.

At McCrady’s he installed immersion circulators and stored kilograms of gellan gum, carrageenans and methylcellulose.

In a city that saw its commercial heyday in the 18th century, Brock introduced dishes that nodded to post-modernism as much as history: powdered tortilla chips with jellied salsa, say, and country-ham cotton candy.

Then came Husk, at which Brock declared allegiance to a new style of Southern cooking, one in which the point is to shine light on the ingredients and the people who grow them, rather than on the chef.

That would appear to be the exact opposite of what he does at McCrady’s, which is an occasion restaurant with high prices (for Charleston, anyway, with entrees in the $30 range), and a consistently high level of service.

But whatever passion for science and trickery Brock had at the start of his run at that restaurant five years ago, he appears to have settled down now into a relatively foamless environment, and his cooking is largely free of scientific high jinks.

Instead, Brock’s efforts at Husk seem to have greatly informed his menu at McCrady’s. Now he places Southern ingredients at centre stage at both restaurants and gives them much to do.

At McCrady’s, under soft yellow light in the giant formal dining room that was once the building’s kitchen, I ate country ham aged 17 months and served with local pickles – sweet, almost curried okra and crisp sunchokes chief among them.

A waiter brought oysters out of the Cooper River inlet – south and east of the city, where the tidal waters give way to the Atlantic – along with a local egg fished up out of one of those immersion circulators, some citrus-punching yuzu broth and bits of salty seaweed.

A wee nugget of triggerfish tasted as fresh as the morning, with that distinctive sweet punch that accompanies fish that has never been frozen, that was swimming not long ago.

At Husks, Brock says the restaurant’s purpose is not to rediscover Southern cooking so much as to allow diners to experience the realities of Southern ingredients. His cooks can work only with what they can get from below the Mason-Dixon line.

This leads to simpler, more stew-centric foods than are available at McCrady’s, and to a more obviously Southern menu.

“We didn’t even have olive oil until Chef found some in Texas,” chirped a waitress there.

Still, here was a salad of peppery arugula and thin-shaved turnips, with a fiery pimento cheese from a local organic cheesemaking outfit called Giddy Goat and curlicues of salty, rich Finchville Country Ham, from just east of Louisville, Kentucky. It made the point nicely.

Brock’s luscious shrimp and grits were studded with smoky Benton’s sausage and bits of caramelized roasted tomato, some braised fennel and a triumphant topping of pig’s ear, braised into submission, sliced into a kind of porcine chiffonade and fried.

And his Carolina Gold rice was served as if it were risotto, creamy and toothsome at once, with local mushrooms and an egg from Sea Island (its yolk the brightest orange), surrounded by a broth flavoured with ham hocks.

The dish managed to evoke the marshy salinity of the air that rises off the flats of the Cooper River at low tide, as dogs run into the water below the Carolina Yacht Club. This was the promise of Husk revealed, local cooking at its best.

Or near its best, anyway. For no discussion of excellence in Southern cooking in Charleston can really be complete without a visit to Martha Lou’s Kitchen, a tiny pink-hued soul-food restaurant a kilometre or so north of downtown.

It sits beside railroad tracks, a ramshackle heap with a spotless interior. Martha Lou Gadsden, the primary chef, and Debra Gadsden, her daughter, do well by fried chicken and pork chops and fish, and quite well by chitterlings in spicy brown gravy.

You can eat those for the $8.50 that lunch there will run you, and be happy indeed.

But it is their vegetables, cooked low and forever, that can open horizons for anyone seeking to understand what Brock is trying to do.

A bowl of Martha Lou’s okra stew is as red and as vibrant as the sun slashing low over the Ashley River downtown, near the battery where Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter 150 years ago this spring.

This cooking establishes a baseline of excellence that would be difficult for any cook to top, even Brock.

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