Chef's Table (2015–…): Season 6, Episode 4 - Episode #6.4 - full transcript


[feedback squealing]

[plucks strings]

[Sean Brock] I'm 39 years old,

and it's crazy to think
that for this long,

all I've done is work in a kitchen.

All I've done
is focus on being a great chef.

That's a long road.

And that's...
a lot of damage along the way.

And to be the chef that I am today
wouldn't have happened

if I hadn't immersed myself
in that level of workaholism.


it nearly killed me.

It literally... almost killed me.

[chuckles softly]

[opening theme playing]

[John T. Edge] The South has long been
a beleaguered place, an insecure place.

It's a place wracked by guilt.

And those insecurities are informed
by our peculiar and tragic-ass history.

And so, for the longest time,

Southerners didn't recognize
the import of our food culture.

We swept the knowledge under the rug.
We swept the people under the rug.

What Sean Brock did was say,

"The products and people
of this place are of deep value,"

and that, "this is the most important
American cuisine one might interpret."

That was bold.

[Adi Noe] Sean is one of the most
obsessive people I've ever met.

He's obsessive about cars,
music, folk art. He's all in.

Sean is 100%. 150%.

If he's into it, it's an obsession.

[Tyler Brown]
So much of Sean's food is story.

Whether it's his grandmother
and her cornbread,

or seeking the origin of okra in Africa...

it all has roads
that lead back to cooking.

[BJ Dennis]
He's retracing the roots of Southern food:

the Native American influence,

the French influence
and the West African influence,

because he wants to tell the true story
of Southern food.

[Edge] Sean has two flagship restaurants
in Charleston:

one, McCrady's,
which is this kind of elegant salon,

this place of luxury,

where you trust the chef to go
on this magic carpet ride.

His second restaurant,

Husk, is resolutely, unimpeachably,
unapologetically Southern.

It's fried pig ears. It's shucky beans.
And it is not fussy.

It is a place that harkens back
to his grandma's table.

Sean can devote himself to doing
ballotines of quail in one moment,

and devote himself to making the best damn
chicken and dumplings in another moment.

And that's one definition of genius,

to hold two seemingly opposing ideas
in your head at the same time.

That's what his cooking shows.

But to understand Sean, you have to
go back to his grandmother's kitchen.

You've gotta go back
to the coalfields of Virginia.


[Brock] Most people have this idea
of what Southern food is:

being unhealthy, and greasy
and calorie-heavy.

But it's so much more than that.

It's amazing ingredients.

Unique ingredients.

It's specific varietals
of plants and beans,

the preserves and the old traditions.

Taking humble ingredients and turning them
into something truly extraordinary.

That's what I see Southern food as.

But, in the South,
we've lost the seeds, the plants,

the stories.

And when we lose these plants,
when we lose these breeds,

we lose multiple generations of wisdom.

We lose that connection to a culture,
to a region and to a place.

Once you realize that, you understand
what a tragedy that is.

And if you have an opportunity
to possibly help change that...

that becomes your path.
That becomes your journey,

and, ultimately, you can make a small
contribution to something that you love.

The mother of vinegar
looks like a jellyfish.

[chef laughs] Kind of looks like liver.

[Brock laughing]
Enter Sean's liver joke here.

I still have a jar of vinegar I made
at McCrady's, at my house.

Yup. So that started
with my grandma's mother,

which was probably 40 years old
when I got it.

It was always under the sink.

That was floating in there
and it used to scare me to death.

That was the first thing
I grabbed after her funeral.

So, all those base vinegars that are
at McCrady's are all my grandma's.

So, we'll be able to keep that going
and going.

I was born and raised
in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia,

deep in the coalfields.

I just remember, as a kid,
playing in piles of coal all the time.

My father grew up very, very, very poor.

When he was 11, he had to start
working in the coalfields,

and that just shaped him into someone

who never wanted his kids to grow up poor,
so he made sure of that.

He never stopped working.

But he loved life.
He really, really loved life.

He ate steaks probably four nights a week.

He was always playing pranks
and driving muscle cars really fast.

And we had an unbelievable childhood.

[car engine starts]

But when I was 11 years old, uh,
my father passed away of a heart attack.

He was 39 years old.

At that point,
we didn't really have a choice.

We moved in with my grandmother.

My grandmother
was constantly handling food.

Huge, huge garden that was for survival.

If we ate something,
we grew it or preserved it.

I grew up in that garden in the sun,
in the dirt,

picking things and eating them while
they're still alive and still vibrant.

Food was this incredible source of pride.

My grandmother was constantly teaching me

the things that her grandparents
taught her about food:

how to know when potatoes
are ready to pull out of the ground,

how to pick beans when they're ready,

how to snap a bean
and string it at lightning speed.

That was just how I grew up.

My vault of deliciousness
will always be there,

and it was formed
during that period of my life.

[Brock sighs deeply]

I remember bein' a kid and, uh...

All of the neighbors around,
everybody had a different greasy bean.

And there would be
this competition every year, who...

how many bushels you grew.

[man] It was a matter of pride.

And you think every single holler,
every single family had unique beans,

corn, tomatoes, squash, everything.

That's a pretty color
that you get on that pod there.

So many of these things, as you've
noticed over the years, I'm sure,

take on different names.
The most common is the family name.

This one came
from Washington Parish, Louisiana,

grown for years by the Jones family,
so they refer to it as the Jones pea.

It's actually gray crowder.

I've told guests many times,
who've come down to the shed...

We're talkin' about peas, beans,
butter beans, you name it.

After a while,
you'd, uh, look at that and you'd say,

"Yeah, I see that.
What else you got to offer?"

It's not till you put that living history
with it, the story with it.

You've got a chain this long,
with no links missing, all...

passed down to today and all that history
that went in between.

[Brock] Remind me what this is.

[man] It's, uh, Jimson weed.

One of my friends, uh, ate it
and then ate a whole bag of dog food.

-Ate a whole...
-[both laughing]

[man] Ate a whole bag of dog--

-I gotta remember that.
-[Brock continues laughing]

-Oh, man... [laughs]
-Ate a whole bag of dog food?

Living in the country,
you gotta find some way to have fun.

[both laugh]

[Brock] At the age of 15, we moved

to a larger town in Virginia,
called Abingdon,

and that's when
I got my first restaurant job.

First day I walked into that kitchen,
it was not what I was expecting.

-[indistinct chatter]
-[objects clattering]

It was the scariest,
craziest thing I'd ever seen.


Heavy metal playing so loud...

-[music playing loudly]
-[indistinct chatter]

Tickets waving in the wind...

There was a smoking table in the kitchen.

And all of these people moving so quickly,
and screaming and yelling,

and talking about how much whisky
they drank the night before.

It was like a pirate ship.

And I remember, the first few nights,
being splashed with hot oil,

and just burns everywhere.

And people seeing my arms
and thinking I'd been abused.

And I would say with pride,
"[stutters] Oh, I'm a chef. I'm a cook."

I was hooked immediately.

[seagulls squawking]

[fog horn blowing]

[church bell tolling]

[Brock] After high school,
I knew that I wanted to be a chef,

and so I started looking into
the best culinary cities in America.

Charleston was the closest, so I packed up
and moved to Charleston.

[Edge] If you think about
restaurant cities in the American South,

the most storied cuisine
emanates from Charleston.

And Sean arrives like a tourist, almost.

This kind of wild-eyed kid,
who was so excited, just curious.


It was such a culture shock for me.


It might as well have been Japanese food
to an Appalachian guy.

I had never ever stepped foot

in any restaurant
as nice as the ones are here.

To see a kitchen
full of professional chefs,

turning out
these gorgeous plates of food...

it was exhilarating.

At that time,
the chefs doing fine dining in Charleston

were taking these iconic
and classic dishes,

like Hoppin' John, and shrimp and grits,

and cleaning them up,
making them beautiful.

I wanted to learn how to do that.

So, I threw myself
into the craft of cooking.


[chef 1] Want to eat a palmetto tree?

[chef 2] It smells pretty good.

-Cook something directly on here?

[Brock] Ah! We cook rice in this!

Yeah, and it'll seal.

So, we could put rice in this,
seal it off and throw it in the fire.

It definitely gets super fibrous
at the end--

That's edible.

-It's delicious!
-[chef 2] It is. It's delicious.

-[chef 3] That's so good.

Sean and I met in 1997 at Peninsula Grill
in Charleston, South Carolina.

First impression of Sean was how serious
he was about being a chef.

Sean worked at Peninsula Grill,
went to school,

and, on his days off,
he worked at another restaurant.

I remember asking him,
"Don't you need a day off?"

He's like, "No, all I wanna do is work."

[Brock] I was insane about learning,
about trying to master my craft,

trying to make the knife cuts perfect,
the sauces perfect.

That was my source of pride.

But when I discovered modern cooking,
that changed everything.

Yeah, it's translucent, it's beautiful...

[Brock] The idea that I could
manipulate ingredients

into this magical experience.
That was incredible to me.

No one was cooking Southern food that way.

And so modern cooking
became my new obsession.

[Edge] I remember the first time
I heard about Sean.

He was a molecular wunderkind,

this kind of experimental chef,
doing ham-fat cotton candy.

Playful, inventive food that surprised.

I saw him one time
with some barbeque sandwiches

and liquid nitrogen.

And he had been
steeping the sandwiches in milk,

and then slowly began to make,
on the back of his pickup truck,

while drinking whisky from a bottle...

He began to plunk out little pellets
of barbecue ice cream.

And I saw, in that moment,
kind of the beginnings of Sean.

He was the guy on a path to figure out
who he is and what he wants to cook.

[chef] Grab the nicest one.

[Brock] Yes.

Will you grab a flower?

[chef] Whoo!

[Brock] The first time I was hired
as the head chef of a restaurant

was at the Hermitage Hotel,
Nashville, Tennessee.

And I was 24, and it was the first time
I'd really had the freedom

to create my own plate of food.

My own menu. My own vision.

I could do whatever I wanted.

I was so excited to show off.

And so, when we opened the restaurant,
our tasting menu was 30 courses.

I had this idea that modern Southern food
could be this amazing thing.

We opened on Valentine's Day.

We booked 275 guests,

and I think we fed about 50 people.

To be standing
in the middle of that kitchen,

watching food just be overcooked
and thrown in the garbage,

and food coming back, and...

the people who hired me to do that job
standing there just like...

"We made a mistake."

That feeling was terrible.
I mean, it was just terrible.

A few days later, the review comes out.

I felt such guilt and shame.

I've never ever wanted to quit something
so bad in my entire life.

But instead, I walked in the next day
and I apologized,

and I said,

"I'm not gonna take another day off
until we get a good review."

I was determined to figure out
how to execute my vision

to prove myself worthy of that job.

I worked for ten months straight,
every day.

I didn't leave the kitchen.

I slept under tables with mops as pillows,
and I was living in the kitchen.

Perfectionism was all I cared about.

Every single aspect of every single thing
had to be done my way,


and I wasn't very nice about it.

I would get so mad
when people wanted to take days off.

I couldn't understand why
no one else cared as much as I cared.

It's important to watch
the color of the smoke.

Pretty much the entire kitchen staff quit.

But I couldn't fail.

I couldn't fail.

Ten months later, the paper in Nashville
came back to the restaurant.

And so, I sat outside of the place
where the papers were being printed,

until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning.

That ten months of extreme workaholism...

It worked.

And so that was the way I worked.

That was the way I thought.

That was the way
I expected everyone else to feel.

[pigs grunting]

[farmer smacking lips]

What's up, Mother hog?

Can't believe there's still greenage.

[Brock] Right?

-I got this pig from John Foltz.
-[Brock chuckles]

[farmer] Alabama is her name.
She's an iron-age pig.

It's, uh... basically an Ossabaw
crossed with a Meishan

and some other mixes.
Carl Blake, out of...

out of, uh, Iowa, was doin 'em.

What an amazing creature.

-Four hundred years, it's been here.
-[farmer] Right?

[Brock] What'll you do with the Hereford?

I'm just using it to cross
with our Ossabaws.

People are so used to pink, white pork.
Big, fat portions.

No fat.

No inner muscular fat.

You can't take a grocery store pork chop

and cook it in a skillet now
without burning the shit out of it.

Whereas, you took
a heritage-breed hog pork chop, uh...

throw it in there
and just add salt and pepper,

its own fat.

I worked on this breed for years

and we ended up calling it

Everybody that raises pigs
thinks they're gonna create a "super pig."

Yeah, I was trying to do that.

Yeah, I've met ten pig friend farmers
on Facebook and all the social medias,

and they've all got the "super pig."
You know?

So, it's really... That is pretty comical.

This brings back a lot of memory

of running through all this,
chasing pigs for the hell of it.

[farmer] Right? Time flies.

[Brock laughs]

[indistinct chatter]

[Brock] After three years
at the Hermitage Hotel,

I started wondering about the next step.

When an opportunity came up to be the chef
at McCrady's,

the best restaurant in Charleston,

I was so excited to show off my vision
of modern Southern food to this city.

But when I arrived, I was frustrated
with the produce that was available.

The varietals that I wanted.

The quality that I wanted.

I was trying to push
this cuisine into the future.

And that can't happen
if the ingredients don't exist.

And that's when I met Glenn Roberts,

the seedsman who was restoring
the pantry of the Lowcountry.

[indistinct chatter]

[Roberts] Here, we have 4,000-year-old
different rices from Africa.

They're salt-tolerant, water-tolerant,
disease-tolerant and they're fast.

Wicked fast.

-See the milk?
-[Brock] Wow. Did you see that?

[Roberts] Yeah. Try that one.

-It, like, exploded milk.
-[Roberts] Yeah.

-[man] It's awesome, isn't it?

[Roberts] And you can take the leaves,
juice them, and then dye the rice kernels.

[Brock] That's really cool.

Glenn knew that in order to revive
the cuisine of the Lowcountry,

you have to start with the specific
varietals of the Carolina rice kitchen.

[Dennis] To understand Charleston cuisine,

you have to understand its roots,
which is based in West Africa.

It's a very layered cuisine,
heavily influenced by rice,

because obviously rice made
a lot of people in the city rich

through the knowledge
of enslaved West Africans.

Those who were enslaved
brought their knowledge of rice culture,

the okra, the greens,

these different vegetables
that we see on that Southern table.

[Edge] All these crops
of West African origin

or West African expertise

are what made dishes that are dependent
upon rice for their backbone,

like Hoppin' John, like Limpin' Susan,
so specific to Charleston.

But we lost these ingredients
after the Civil War,

when people of West African descent
quit the rice fields for jobs in the city,

or moved the hell out of South Carolina
and went to Philadelphia and New York.

And that's justice.

Right? That's progress.

And yet...

if you value the agricultural knowledge
that West African peoples brought,

and then nurtured in the American South,
in the Lowcountry...

you do lament that loss of knowledge.

You do lament that loss of beauty
in those rice kitchen dishes.

It's complicated. Like everything
about the South, it's complicated.

[man] What do you usually roast it in?

[Brock] My favorite way is roasted
in a cast iron pan with a little lard.

-That's it. [chuckles]
-Lard's the best.

[Brock] That's how you can convert
okra haters.

-[plants rustling]
-[beans pouring]

-Smells like roasted okra.
-[chef] Yeah.

[Brock] I had to be a part of putting
these varietals that were nearly extinct

back into production,
back on to the plate.

Yeah. Unbelievable. Shit, that's good.

I was going from farm to farm to farm.

"These are the seeds we have to grow.

Plant. Plant. Plant. I'll buy everything.
I'll buy it all."

And, little by little, our pantry
was being stocked with ingredients

that were unique and true to this place.

And I was able
to push this cuisine forward.

And the food got crazier and crazier,
and, for me, more fun.

All of a sudden, the restaurant's
gaining a lot of attention.

People were traveling
from outside of Charleston

to come see
what was happening at McCrady's.

In 2010, I got nominated

for the James Beard Award
for, uh, Best Chef: Southeast.

And I won.

I had shown to the world that
modern Southern food could be amazing.

[door squeaks]

At McCrady's, I was so focused

on creativity and being different,

I thought I had to be
in the kitchen all the time.

But I kept hearing these romantic stories
from farmers about seed saving

and the pride that came along with that.

I had to experience that for myself.

And so, I found a plot of dirt,

begged Glenn for seeds.

He gave me a few ears

of this beautiful, super dark,
almost black-red corn

that was almost extinct,
called Jimmy Red Corn.

And every day I would wake up at 6:00
and just work on the garden.

Being back in the sun,
watching that corn grow,

taking care of it, worrying about it

was a part of the puzzle
that'd been missing since I was a kid.

And I fell in love with dirt again.

That first pan of cornbread I made

felt just like eating
at my grandmother's table.

And it just came full circle.

I knew what I needed to do
and what path I needed to take.

And a few months later, we opened Husk.

At Husk, our mission

was to celebrate simple, soulful
Southern recipes and traditions,

just like my grandmother did.

The defining principle at Husk
since its inception has been,

"If it's not Southern,
it's not walking in the door."

[Brock] When you can't just
pick up the phone

and order balsamic vinegar from Italy
and olive oil from Spain,

you make your own.

You study the traditions.

And so we started making our own vinegars
and oils and salts

and grinding our own flours.

And it was so much better than anything
we ever cooked with.

We became collectors,
scouting the South for ingredients.

It felt we were doing something
that had meaning.

It felt like it needed to be done.

And I ate it up.
I couldn't get enough of it.

[Edge] There's this rediscovery
of Southern food that's pinned to Sean.

He helped revive.

He helped to re-frame.

He helped us see again
the value of these foods.


That vote of confidence
for the South meant a lot

when Sean shouted it
through his megaphone.

[Brock] And not long after
we opened Husk in Charleston,

Bon Appétit named us
the best new restaurant in America.

That's when everything took off.

Life was moving a thousand miles an hour.

I was running back and forth
between Husk and McCrady's,

cooking for 500 people a day.

People were paying attention
to Southern food,

becoming interested on a different level.
It was exhilarating.

In a two-year period,
I opened four restaurants.

At that point of my life
was a lot of running around.

Cameras in my face and every word printed.

My role as a chef in the South had grown.

I was representing
a cuisine and a culture.

That's an enormous amount of pressure.

And so, I just worked harder.

One day, I woke up
and stood up out of bed,

and it felt like the room was spinning.

I'd lost my balance.
I had to sit back down.

And when I opened my eyes again,
uh, I couldn't focus my vision.

I was seeing double.

I couldn't do anything.

The first time in my entire career,
I didn't wake up and go straight to work.

I was helpless.

But all the doctors I saw
were just stumped.

They couldn't understand
what was going on.

That's when the surgeries began.

A spoon popped into my eyeballs
while I'm awake,

hearing and smelling and feeling them
cutting away at my eyelids,

lying on the couch
with ice pads on my eyes

and blood dripping down my face.

I had six surgeries total,

and the double vision and droopy eyelids
just kept coming back.

It was like a horror movie.

And this is keeping me from working.

And that was making me crazy.

I just became so angry at the world.

I was so frustrated and scared to death,

just thinking, "Am I never gonna
be able to cook again?"

And the only coping mechanism I had
to equalize or to numb

was a garage full of bourbon.

I didn't know what to do.
What am I supposed to do?

-[woman] Hey, Sean, how are you?
-[Brock] Hey. Great.

[woman] Come on back.

Good, good, good. Take a look at my nose.

[Brock] Almost two years passed,
not working,

just miserable, until I finally flew
to the Mayo Clinic.

We did a number of tests,

and the neurologist says,


sounds and seems like myasthenia gravis,

the really rare disease that affects
neuro-muscular communication."

This disease is exacerbated
by stress and fatigue.

There's no cure for this

other than controlling stress,
controlling anxiety.

But to treat the symptoms,
the doctor gave me a bunch of pills,

and I immediately started feeling better.

My vision was perfect.

My eyelids were perfect.
I felt like Superman.

To be able to use a knife again
was such an amazing feeling.

I had a year and a half of ideas pent up,

a year and a half of dishes
swimming around in my head.

So, I just started cooking like crazy

and being back in the kitchen
was incredible.

[Noe] He basically dove back in
full force and beyond full force,

in, just, this desperation
to make up for lost time.

But he was on something
like 16 mg of prednisone,

and that can make
anyone feel like Superman.

[Brock] I thought I had
everything under control,

and then, one day, I was driving to work,

and my vision just snapped
and went straight into double vision.

The pills had stopped working,

and, the next day, my doctor told me

the myasthenia was graduating
from my eyes into full-body myasthenia.

And that was really bad news,

because, when that happens, the future is
living with tubes down your throat.

And, uh...

I, um, just hit a level of depression

that, uh, I'd never experienced before,

and I drowned my pain in bourbon.

I was in the depths
of misery at that point.

I stopped caring. I just gave up.

He wasn't himself.
He had a vacant look in his eye.

He was beyond
just needing to see a therapist.

[Edge] There was a darkness about him.

He was grappling
with stuff I didn't understand.

There was something missing there, like...
He needed help.

That was, uh...
He was crying out for help.

[Brock] I remember I was upstairs
and my doorbell rang.

I opened the door and there were
three people standing there

that weren't supposed
to be standing there...

three people standing there
that I respect.

They were trembling, full-body trembles.

I knew exactly what was happening.

And I...

felt this amazing, uh, relief,
to be quite honest.

It was almost like...
like the, the help had arrived.

And, uh...

we all sit down at a table
to have an intervention,

and I remember saying,
"You can do whatever you want.

You can read whatever you want,
but I am going.

I will go right now."

[distant thunder]

Thirty-nine, I am.
Thirty-nine years old.

The same age my father was
when he passed away.

I nearly broke myself,
trying to save Southern food,

but you can't save anything
when you're dead.

When I got to rehab, I didn't have
work and whisky to hide behind.

I had to face the person in the mirror.

I realized that my desire to always be
at work is exactly how my father was.

The moment that I knew it didn't have
to be that way anymore was unbelievable.

[insects chirping]

[birds chirping]

I was standing in the grass,

admiring the sky,
and how green the grass was,

and I could hear the birds again,
and I was like,


I'm awake."

I saw that connection
between taking care of myself,

and how that affects my disease,
which affects my happiness.

My vision was fine.

My muscles were fine.

It was such an amazing feeling.

But the new perspective
that I have takes...

an enormous amount of work every day.

To slow down...

That's difficult for me.

[whistles] Dakota, refill.

[Brock] And if I skip self-care,

I feel the old Sean creeping back in.

He'll be there for a long time,

in the parking lot, doing push-ups,
waiting for that moment.

[sniffs] Smells like Willett Distillery.


-How long you gonna let this one go?
-Two months.

-Yeah, that's alcohol. Whoo!

-Hello, old friend.
-[both laugh]

Now the trick is to keep that edge,

to keep that passion,
to keep that intensity

while taking care of myself.


Now my goal is happiness,

and the food that is created now
is the best food I've ever cooked.

[man] When I was a kid,
the triggerfish was actually shack money.

If they only knew now
what they were missing.

[Roberts] Carolina Gold Rice
was here prior to 1863.

-[Brock] It's like a time vault.
-[Roberts] It's like a time capsule.


[man] Nice.

That'll be delicious with a little butter.


-[speaks indistinctly]
-[Brock chuckles]

[Brock] This corn is just like me.

It started in Appalachia
and ended up in the Lowcountry.

[birds chirping]

[man] Audrey Morgan's bean.

[Brock] I know these.

I'll never forget that time
I brought my mom here.

-We were doin' a talk.
-We were doin' that talk, and then, uh...

-That brought her to tears--
-I looked over, and my mom was crying.

I was like, "Uh, what just happened?"
And then I saw...

What did I say? [laughing] grandma's name sittin' there.

-That's the power of it all.
-[laughs] I know it. It is.

[Brock] Someday, I hope to see these
on menus all over the South.

[man] Wouldn't that be something?

[Brock] The thought of these being served
in restaurants all over the South

and my grandma's name being mentioned
every time...

[stutters] That's legacy. That's her life.

That was her passion, these things.

That's better than a monument
in the middle of the town square.

[Brock] Yeah, it is.
I appreciate what you do.

[man] Well, I love it.
That's the whole purpose.

[Brock] Oh, wow.

[man] That's it. See that?
You recognize that?

[Brock] Man, look at that.

I'll be able to spend the rest of my life

on this crazy journey
of rediscovering Southern food

and what it can be.

And there's no way to know
what's gonna happen a year from now.

There's just no way, but...

today is today.


today is a good day.

[music playing]