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Interview with Sean Brock

McCrady's, Charleston, SC

What's your favorite new ingredient?
Methylcellulose is the coolest thing. We use it to encapsulate ingredients inside each other. We make a mushroom puree and encapsulate butternut squash juice inside it. When a customer cuts into it, the squash juice oozes out. We use it to make edible candy wrappers, including one made with Sauternes for foie gras caramels. We like to manipulate classic flavors.

What's the most versatile spice?
I'm having fun with different peppercorns, like the Lampong variety, and Thai long peppercorn, which is very floral. We also use smoked peppercorns from Terra Spice Company.

What's the most underused spice?
My favorite in the world is ras el hanout [a Moroccan spice blend of cumin, coriander, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, nutmeg and dried rose petals] we use with our marshmallows. I enjoy Indian and Moroccan spices, but I use them in small quantities, just for curious background notes.

What items should be in every pantry?
I'm really into hydrocolloids, so I'd say gellan gum and carrageenans, which are really great, because they can withstand heat better than gelatin. They do what an egg does in a flan or custard. Pectin is another one. We add it to cucumber juice to make elastic sheets of cucumber gel for wrapping. Hydrocolloids are really catching on with other chefs, and it's only a matter of time before they catch on with home cooks. They're so easy to use, especially xanthan gum.

What's your favorite knife?
Watanabe Blade [watanabeblade.com], a Japanese brand. It's really just one guy whose family has been making knives by hand for over a century. They're scary sharp. You can look tell they're handmade.

What's your favorite pan?
Copper pans, because they conduct heat so easily. All-Clad makes good ones. I also like Sitram. They make pans that are nonreactive, so they're great for citrus reductions.

What's your favorite mail-order source?
JB Prince [jbprince.com] for equipment and cookbooks, and Terra Spice Company [terraspicecompany.com] for spices and some hydrocolloids.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
A freeze drier. It's great for making vibrant, intense powders. You could put a whole lobe of foie gras in a freeze drier, then grind it into a powder. It would reconstitute in your mouth. Right now we buy freeze-dried products, like corn and peas, from a company called Just Tomatoes, etc! (justtomatoes.com). I'm an eBay addict. I've purchased 12 immersion circulators on eBay.

What's the kitchen appliance you're buying next?
I'd like a plancha, which is essentially a large-scale griddle that can reach extremely high temperatures.

If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
A plate that would stay hot or cold through a whole meal. I'd want to customize the exact temperature of each dish, maybe using a digital device.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
The hearts of palm dish at Grant Achatz's Alinea [in Chicago] is spectacular. Each heart, placed on individual pedestals, is hollowed out and filled with things like fava bean puree. And Homaro [Cantu] is my hero. Anything at Moto [in Chicago] is too much fun.

What's your favorite sushi place?
The most fun I've had with sushi has been at Blue Ribbon Sushi in Manhattan.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
Manresa in Los Gatos, California, and Moto in Chicago.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
I'm addicted to Krystal and White Castle, so I'd do high-end mini burgers with lots of different flavors, like foie gras burgers and truffle burgers with onion confit and Rogue River blue cheese.

Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
Large tasting menus with more options and themes. I think 12 courses is a great number. Anything beyond that and people get miserable.

A lot of chefs are getting into doing things completely from scratch, like making cheese. What would you like to do from scratch?
I grew up in a small coal-mining town in Virginia. My grandmother kept beehives and had a big garden. I watched her make her own vinegars and she would say that, during the Depression, vinegar was a great gift to give because you could use it to make more vinegar. So I want to make flavored, customized vinegars.

On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
My goal is to find a balance between the two, so I'd be a five. I want to be completely respectful to in-season ingredients, and elevate them with science and knowledge.

Which newfangled piece of equipment (i.e., sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, the Thermomix or a dehydrator) do you think will gain a real place in home kitchens?
I think sous vide will make it first. FoodSavers are cheap at Wal-Mart. Eventually, sous vide will find a place.

What's your favorite cookbook?
That's like asking me to choose a favorite child. I really like Dani Garcia's book, Técnica y Contrastes [available only in Spanish]. He dedicates a chapter to liquid nitrogen. He dedicates another to gellan. I got it at JB Prince.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
I really like what Heston Blumenthal is doing [at The Fat Duck in Bray, England], things that chefs can use on a daily basis. He's breaking things down on a molecular level, like really understanding how to cook a piece of beef, or at what degree Celsius collagen breaks down. Once you understand these things, you can set your water bath at the exact temperature and do sous vide perfectly.

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has been a big influence on chefs recently; what or who do you think will take his place?
I hope that no one will. To me, there's Auguste Escoffier and Ferran Adrià. If you look at any avant-garde chef, you know they wouldn't be where they are if not for Adrià. He's as big as Escoffier. Grant Achatz and Homaro Cantu are the next generation of inspiring chefs.

If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
If I could get it for $1,000, I'd buy a freeze drier. I'd also want a new immersion circulator. For $10, I'd get a small offset spatula. We use them for everything. They're great for really delicate stuff.

Do you have any good stories about your regulars?
I once slept at the restaurant three nights in a row, because the Eagles were here and they had me on call 24 hours a day. They never ordered anything! We don't listen to the Eagles in the kitchen.

Do you have any food-related superstitions?
Superstition is a big thing for me. I wear gray T-shirts. I put my notebook in my back left pocket. I wear a black-and-white-striped apron and black socks. If one of these is off, I'm all out of whack.

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