MAD Foodcamp Exit Interview: Sean Brock

Chefs from around the world attended last weekend's symposium at René Redzepi's MAD Foodcamp in Copenhagen, including Charleston's Sean Brock, whose restaurant Husk was just named the number one new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit. Brock is renowned not only for the strong bonds he has forged with his purveyors, but for the fierce commitment he has to cooking regionally and letting his producers and the seasons dictate his menus. We discussed with Brock what he learned at the symposium, how he will apply those lessons in his own restaurants and what he would feed René Redzepi if the Danish chef ever finds his way to Charleston.

Why did you decide to attend the symposium? What were you hoping to gain from the experience?

It just seemed like a group of like-minded people. They're people with the same goals that I have: the pursuit of constant evolution, of always moving forward. That's the beauty of being a chef; it provides us with the opportunity to always have something new to look forward to, to have something to learn and to find new people to be inspired by. I sat there in awe. I think that food in general and cuisine in general is moving in such a positive direction. It's been an interesting seven or eight years to watch food. What interests people, and chefs especially, has made food evolve into what it is today. The most exciting thing is the future and when you see this blend of culinary-minded and science-minded people who are constantly digging and wanting to learn more, to find more answers, it ultimately makes food better.

The most inspiring thing to me was to hear everybody's attitude towards the environment and the future. It's such an important thing and it's great to see chefs becoming involved in it because food is such an important aspect of that. We're able to affect and influence so many people through food.

What do you think some of the common goals are for those who attended the symposium?

The common goal we all had was to discuss how to utilize your resources and the history of your cuisine and the knowledge of the people before you, and then using that to jump forwarde. Everybody was very interested in the past, the present and the future, and I think that's the way it should be about. Acknowledging the past is exactly what we've been trying to do at Husk for the past year and in the year before that, when we were trying to put Husk together, it was along those same lines. We're not as refined and fancy as all of those guys [at the symposium] are but our mindset is exactly the same. We have closets full of things fermenting and we have closets full of food in Mason jars. It was very cool to see common practices of the South being the hot topic at the symposium.

It all keeps coming back to understanding a full season and figuring out the best way to preserve for the year. That's something that I grew up doing as a kid and that's just the way of life here in the South. It's certainly what we do here at the restaurant and it seemed like that was a major focus at the symposium. It's about understanding a full year within your region and about understanding wild and cultivated plants in the context of the seasons and utilizing them at their peek, while also preserving them during the months when you don't have anything. It was very cool to see everybody embracing that idea and it was really interesting for me to hear the outlook of other people on it and to see how they go about it. We have our way, and Sweden has their way, and Denmark has their way, and France has their way, but ultimately, we all have a common goal.

More people need to catch on and understand the impact of community farms and food culture, because no one thinks that way right now. Let's just pick one thing out of the sky: cucumbers. You wouldn't believe how many farmers throw cucumbers away here. The people that could have bought the cucumbers for a fraction of the price because the farmers were going to throw them away, those are the same guys that are buying five gallon pre-made buckets of dill pickles for three times the price. We have to lose that mindset and if we do, not only can we make our food taste better, but we can help our communities in a fundamental way.

How would you explain the term New Nordic Cuisine to someone who has no idea what it means?

If I were to describe it to someone from here, it's so interesting how similar it is in this region as it is to Scandinavia. Of course, they're much more fortunate because they haven't spent years and years spraying pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and all of these things that deteriorate their wild plants. As a result, they have a lot more wild plants to work with. But if you go into the mountains here there are beautiful wild plants. If you go to Maine, to Oregon, you find the same thing. They have so much more there because they have 500 years on us. We need to realize how young a country America is and how much we have to learn. That's really one thing I took away from the trip. We live in Charleston and think that because we were founded in the 17th century, that we're ahead of everyone else in the country, and you feel privileged to have that much history to be influenced by. But then you look at Denmark and they've had many more centuries to figure it all out and to evolve. I do feel like America is moving in the right direction, but I don't think it will ever be what Denmark is.

What did you learn that was new to you at the symposium and what did you take away from it that you will apply in your own restaurants?

For me, I really love what David Chang was talking about [with food microbiology]. We've been talking about it for a long time, but it was cool to see where it's going and what we're learning on the subject. I really loved Harold McGee's presentation [on the flavors of plant life] because it explained why, for example, when you eat a borage flower it can taste just like a cucumber. It blows your mind. Another thing I loved about McGee's presentation was when he was talking about the cycle of the plant's life and when it's at its peak a plant that's been attacked by a bug actually tastes better [because a plant's chemical weapons are frequently the flavor in a plant that appeals to a human's palate]. It was amazing. And we throw that plant away. We turn our noses up at it. I envision a world where we pay more for arugula with bug holes in it.

Was there anything that you wished the symposium had explored that wasn't talked about?

I hadn't really thought about that because I was so overwhelmed with everything. They covered so much from plant microbiology to urban farm systems to foraging to ant eating. There was so much going on. It might have been interesting to have another American speaking about a regional theme in the context of history and the future.

How can an American chef transform what was communicated at the conference into something tangible within the context of their own restaurant?

I think that the biggest thing that an American could have taken away from the symposium was about the importance of the relationships with the people who bring you your food. Work on developing friendships with these people and build a strong relationship with them that enables you to be in tune with their cycle of production so that you can utilize that more for both preserving and for serving fresh food on a daily basis. If you look back through everything, it was a lesson in relationships. Get to know a forager, get to know a chemist, get to know a vegetable farmer, get to know a pig farmer, but really make an effort to put them into your daily life. That will then shape your cuisine. That's what happened at Husk. We don't create the cuisine here, we don't write the menus here. We don't do anything other than make [a million] phone calls to our producers, and then the menu writes itself. In a way it's a very, very easy way to cook. The foragers tell you what to do, the farmers tell you what to do, the seasons tell you what to do and that's because we have forged incredible relationships with incredible people. I think that's really what René was trying to get across: Look deeper, dig deeper, look further into the future and realize that it's all about creating relationships and being inspired by others.

Did you taste anything in Copenhagen that was new to you or a revelation?

There are a couple things that stick out. I had some really amazing meals. The langoustines that they have there are amazing. It might be the most perfect thing I've ever eaten. I was at Restaurant Herman and they served a langoustine on a plate that had been sautéed with some lemon thyme. It was perfectly cooked with three little dots of chamomile marmalade. That was the entire dish and it was the best dish I ate the whole time I was there. You eat it and feel so pissed off that we don't have those langoustines in America. They're such a perfect thing and every restaurant that I went to had them and served them in that simple format of just putting them on the plate with one other flavor.

I tasted this wild plant called garlic mustard and I couldn't believe how delicious it was. I've had a lot of the wild plants they had there, not all of them obviously because they have a much wider selection, but the one that really made me jealous and angry was the garlic mustard.

If René came to Charleston, what would you want him to try?

I think our chanterelles are really good here, I think our vegetables are really amazing here. I would want him to try Ossabaw pork, a lot of the stuff that's indigenous to this region that you can only get here. I'm sure he would appreciate it as much as I appreciated all of the wonderful things that I tasted for the first time in Copenhagen.