Chef Sean Brock is in Dakar, sorting cowpeas in the apartment of Senegalese home cook Fati Ly. Brock is wearing his "Make Cornbread, Not War" baseball cap. "You have to get me one of those," Ly tells him. "I love that message." The Charleston, South Carolina-based chef laughs at her request without looking up from the handful of speckled gray peas he's holding. He's mesmerized. "I've collected more than 300 varieties of peas back home, but I've never seen most of these," he says. "They were probably grown once in the South but got decimated by hurricanes and the Civil War."
As the chef at McCrady's and Husk in Charleston (and a new branch of Husk in Nashville), Brock is one of the loudest voices in the Southern culinary revivalist scene—he's attempting to bring back not just the dishes, but the pig breeds, heirloom vegetable varieties and near-extinct grains of the region. At McCrady's, Brock fuses a traditional Southern larder with the mind-bending techniques of modernist cooking. At Husk, which opened in 2010, he burrows into the past of what's called low-country cooking—named for the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. In his quest to re-create the pure and authentic version of low-country cooking at Husk, Brock has collaborated with historians, plant geneticists and farmers to revive some long-forgotten foodstuffs.
- Beyond Soul Food
- The Help: Southern Food
- Hugh Acheson's Neo-Retro Southern Cooking
- Low-Country Thanksgiving
At a certain point in his research, Brock realized that he needed to follow the trail further back than Junior League cookbooks or vintage menus could take him: across the ocean, all the way back to Western Africa. It's this passion for culinary history that has brought him on a nine-hour journey from his home in mellow, manicured Charleston to the chaotic metropolis of Dakar, the capital of Senegal and one of the centers of the slave trade in the 18th century. "The contributions of Africa to beloved dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and collard greens are monumental," he says. They are dishes born of the terrible legacy of slavery that, as he puts it, "need to find their true voices again."