“It has umami,” says Charleston, South Carolina chef and world-traveling American culinary ambassador Sean Brock as I push him a bit to explain the complexity of heritage turkey. “It’s like the best roast chicken that you could imagine. That savoriness that good turkey has – it’s almost gamey. Those turkeys are older and that is why they are so big. The older the bird gets, the more intense the flavor gets, and that’s what you want. I’m pro-turkey!” Indeed, Brock is pro-turkey, as well as pro-Thanksgiving as I found out during our chat about his favorite holiday of the year.
Is Thanksgiving a big holiday for you?
Thanksgiving is the absolute biggest holiday. As a kid, it was the day I looked forward to the most because it was the day where you woke up and knew that everyone else was waking up with the same thing on their minds: food and eating. There’s a communal aspect of being at a table with your loved ones and we blow it out in the South. There’s 30 or 40 components and you eat for days, like three times in one day. It’s when you bring your best dishes and show off. It’s like a competition!
What’s a typical Thanksgiving menu for you?
Looking back at my childhood and at traditional Thanksgiving recipes, it’s such a seasonally-driven thing. It’s pumpkin, it’s brussels sprouts, it’s all those things. To me, you should cook like it’s Thanksgiving every day at home! Blow it out, go to the markets, pick out what’s fresh and cook it with your family. If you have that opportunity, Thanksgiving shouldn’t be that one day that we get together.
People aren’t following you in that. You need a call to arms!
I think that a lot of people are missing the boat on Thanksgiving. They are buying these genetically-engineered turkeys that taste like nothing. That’s why people don’t like turkey: there’s no turkey on the menu in New York City restaurants. Why is that?
Well, most chefs don’t like to use it because it’s too dry, too gamey, it doesn’t have that much use outside sandwiches.
I disagree 100%. If you eat a real turkey – a heritage breed turkey raised by someone in a sustainable manner with care and love – it is the most delicious thing. It’s going to taste amazing if you cook a heritage breed turkey, even if you don’t know how to cook a turkey. What people are used to eating are these Franken-turkeys that fed all these antibiotics that are terrible for you and all these hormones and all these steroids. Of course it’s not going to taste good. We base our opinions on turkey on that. We try to have turkey on our menu and want people to eat it. We want people to eat it and say, “Wow, turkey is pretty good.”
Which restaurant do you serve it at?
Husk. We do it at McCrady’s too. We have a farmer that raises turkeys just for us. Craig Rogers is a sheep farmer and has a crazy weird passion for heritage breed turkeys. He loves raising them and breeding them on his farm, and they are incredibly delicious. You eat it and say, “I’m never going to eat chicken again.”
What about preparing it? Roasting a heritage bird can be difficult.
There are a couple different ways you can do it. If it’s Thanksgiving, I think you have to have the presentation of the whole turkey. Most chefs actually disagree with me, but I think you want to sit down and have the centerpiece be the turkey. What we do is we separate it out and cook it different. I have developed it a couple of different ways to put the turkey on the table that are out of this world. We’ll salt the inside of it, let it sit for a day and brine it before hanging it with a fan on it for at least a day – three or four days if you can. That dries the skin out and the brine helps keep it moist. Crank your oven to 500 degrees, stuff it with whatever you want – I always try to pair the flavors of the turkey with whatever stuffing you are doing that year. I try to change up the stuffing every year. One year it’s foie gras, next year it’s cornbread and oyster, or chestnut. Take the turkey, truss it up, get your oven at 500 degrees and rub the whole thing with canola. A lot of people use butter, but that’s going to burn.
Because the temperature is much higher?
Canola can take 490–500 degrees at its smoke point and it’s kind of flavorless so you’re not messing with the flavor of the turkey. You rub it with canola oil, 30 minutes at 500 degrees, then I put aluminum foil over the whole thing and turn the oven down to 325. Once the turkey hits 160 on the thigh, take the aluminum foil off, oven back at 500, little more canola oil and brown it up.
What are some turkey dishes at Husk?
We’ll do turkey pastrami and we’ll smoke it and do turkey barbecue.
You’ll barbecue it over wood?
No, we’ll take the leftovers and cold smoke it. You don’t want to cook it anymore – just get that smoke flavor on, shred it and put that barbecue sauce on there.
OK, leftovers. What do you do?
I’m terrible. What I’ll do – because I’m addicted to it – is take really good ramen noodles and the turkey stock, and add kelp and katsuobushi to it and make like a turkey dashi. You shred the turkey, crisp up the skin and put it on the top with poached egg and fresh vegetables. So good. Crazy! Like a turkey ramen bowl.