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Charleston's Husk restaurant celebrates farm-to-table purity

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By Harriet McLeod

CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - Contrary to popular notions, not every southern cook relies on the deep-fat fryer.

At Charleston, South Carolina's Husk, named No. 1 new restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appetit magazine this month, executive chef Sean Brock prefers to roast, bake or smoke meat and vegetables in his wood-fired oven and wood-fired smokers.

Brock, 33, makes only one concession to the deep-fat practice, an appetizer of fried chicken skins with hot sauce and honey.

His philosophy is farm-to-table purity, and he buys only from small farmers within the South.

Pigs come from Virginian Bev Eggleston's EcoFriendly Foods, butter from South Carolina's Happy Cow Creamery. Brock mixes the butter with lard to create "pork butter" that diners slather on buttermilk rolls.

He imports olive oil from Texas but makes his own malt vinegar, ketchup and sea salt from ocean water 80 miles offshore.

"Southern cooking is cooking that's at arm's length influenced by the cultures around you or the cultures before you," Brock told Reuters during a recent brief calm period between lunch and supper.

"But there are so many cultural influences all over the region that it was just making my head spin. I decided to remove the cultural aspect and just focus on products. This cuisine is a celebration of Southern ingredients. It makes the food so simple."

Husk opened in the fall of 2010 in a magnolia-shaded, two-story Victorian clapboard house with floor-to-ceiling windows and wide, sweeping porches in the city's downtown historic district.

The restaurant is named for the outer shell of dried vegetables and corn, which Brock considers the South's most important crop because it produces "beautiful things: bourbon, grits, cornbread (and) cornmeal," he said.

DEVOTED TO HIS ROOTS

At a recent symposium on plants with chefs, farmers and food scientists in Copenhagen, he said he learned that "husk" is also the Danish word for "remember."

That's fitting for Brock, who credits his passion for Southern produce to memories of his late grandmother in rural Wise County, Virginia, part of the state's mountainous southwestern corner where he grew up.

She tended a 10-acre garden, cooked all day and preserved what was not eaten, he said. Folks there had to eat what was at hand.

"It's very European -- Spain, France, that's what makes their cuisine so beautiful. You have this picture in your mind of these little old ladies with their cute aprons on, cooking all day. That's how I grew up. We had one really crummy grocery store and zero restaurants."

Brock, who trained at Johnson & Wales University and won the James Beard award for best chef in the Southeast in 2010, took his roots to heart at Husk and beyond.

His left arm has a tattooed sleeve of his favorite vegetables: purple corn, red onions, turnips, red sorrel, fennel, borage, nasturtium, leeks, candy-striped beets and six varieties of carrots.

"What the farmers have, that's what drives our menu," said Husk's chef de cuisine, Travis Grimes.

Like his grandmother, Brock is also a "seed saver." He is trying to bring back heirloom plant varieties that have been genetically modified and are almost extinct, he said.

They include his grandmother's wild goose beans and benne seed, an African sesame seed brought to the South Carolina Lowcountry by slaves.

"When you're a seed saver, it's hard to eat your collection," he said. He gives seeds to farmers, hoping to bring back "things that should be on our plate."

Brock, who is also executive chef of the haute cuisine Charleston restaurant McCrady's, admits that cooking with organic and artisanal ingredients is expensive. Supper entrees at Husk, from Virginia lamb leg terrine to North Carolina catfish, run about $25. Starters such as Tennessee foie gras with South Carolina peaches are about $14.

"I don't want to be just a chef," he said. "There are a lot of great chefs out there. I want to be an evangelist. I just want people to taste the South."

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Greg McCune)