So Charleston, in this tale of two cities, you won, we lost. We thought he was happy here in Nashville, a city that has really gone big time in the last decade. We've gotten professional football and professional hockey. A magnificent art museum that regularly snags important touring exhibitions. A $160 million Symphony Hall will open this fall, catty-corner from our acclaimed Country Music Hall of Fame. The Grand Ole Opry recently celebrated its 80th anniversary, and we've got superstar couples like Tim and Faith and Keith and Nicole regularly sighted all over town.
Not to mention, according to various trade publications, we are the nation's Most Livable City, Best City to Relocate to (just ask Nissan), and Friendliest City.
During the three years he hung his toque here, his restaurant allowed him to set up a virtual laboratory in the kitchen. For God's sake, Sean, what did we do wrong? Why did you leave us?
"It wasn't you, really," assures Chef Sean Brock, speaking by phone from his new place, the kitchen of McCrady's in downtown Charleston. "Nashville was great, the people were really nice. I enjoyed my time there."
In the end, he did it for love. Love of a place, and the love of a woman. Who can compete with that?
Nashville's love affair with Chef Sean Brock began on Valentine's Day 2003, when The Hermitage Hotel (circa 1910) staged the reveal of its $20 million renovation with a gala celebration. Like many downtown properties, the Hermitage had suffered a period of neglect and disrepair, closing in 1977 — just two years after being placed on the National Register of Historic Places. But beginning in 1981, a series of different owners invested varying degrees of money into the property, renovating and restoring it to some of its past glory, though the gorgeous restaurant in the basement, The Capitol Grille, received scant attention from owners or local diners. In 2000, the Hermitage was purchased by a partnership whose sparkling resume included The Kiawah Island Golf Resort and The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va. The fastidious renovation of that century-old hotel earned The Jefferson a five-diamond rating by AAA (American Automobile Association) a credential they hold to this day. Their plan was to do the same for our grand ole' gal; city leaders, the Convention & Visitors Bureau, and foodies all over Nashville held their breath.
A key member of the new team was Sean Brock, a native of a small coal town in West Virginia; though just 24 years old, he was hardly a rookie. His grandmother's farm and kitchen were where he learned and honored the direct route from earth and barn to table. When he was 10, rather than a Nintendo or boom box, she gave him a wok and a set of knives, which he immediately put to good use preparing Sunday dinners for the family. As soon as he was of legal age, he began on the bottom rung of the restaurant business, washing dishes. On a particularly overwhelmed, understaffed day, he went from scrubbing pots to stirring them, and an aspiring chef was born.
After high school, he moved to Charleston to attend Johnson & Wales. Flashing the obsessive passion for perfection, dedicated discipline, insatiable curiosity, and quick study that would eventually drive his career at breakneck speed, he graduated with honors, credentials that would come in handy when he applied for positions at what he considered to be the top three restaurants in Charleston. Certainly, with J&W spewing forth hundreds of eager young graduates a year, competition was fierce, but he ended up just where he wanted to be, at Peninsula Grill, working under Robert Carter. "To me, Bob Carter and Bob Waggoner were rock stars," he says. "I wondered what it would be like to be them. I wanted to find out."
Two years later, he was finding out what it was like to be an executive sous chef at a five-diamond restaurant in a five-diamond hotel, working under Walter Bundy at The Jefferson Hotel's Lemaire restaurant in Richmond. "Walter was amazing to work for, incredibly generous, he gave me so much freedom to learn and create." And when the time came, he let him go, to reopen a restaurant heavy — some might say burdened — with history and laden with expectation, as Brock was plucked from Lemaire to be the new executive chef at the Capitol Grille in Nashville. Brock assembled his staff from 200 interviews; his first two sous chefs were familiar faces, former colleagues at Peninsula, and in all, nine of the 13 cooks hired were Johnson & Wales grads.
At the Capitol Grille, Brock created a menu true to the region: he described one dish on one of the first menus — Niman Ranch pork chop with pork belly, sweet potato and black-eyed pea hash, Anson Mill grits, and local sorghum — as "my childhood on a plate." Like Bundy at Lemaire and Carter at Peninsula, Brock beautifully executed upscale Southern cuisine with classic technique, marrying his roots with his training.
Still, in time he found that he had bitten off not exactly more than he could chew, but more than he could comfortably digest. "The thing with being executive chef at a hotel, is that your job description is so broad. You are responsible for breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and banquets. I can't tell you how many meetings a day I had to have, and I hate meetings. You really are at the mercy of the common denominator, pleasing a broad range of people. There was definitely a formula presented for what would succeed with the people who were staying at the hotel. You don't feel like the people who are eating in your dining room are coming for your food, they are there because they are staying in the hotel."
Still, there existed a segment of the dining population in Nashville who came to Capitol Grille not out of convenience, but affection, and they wanted it to not only succeed, but to excel, to be a place to be proud of, for its history, its inarguable beauty, and its food. Brock's skills with even the most basic dishes were so sublime that critics and diners took note, elevating Brock to the upper echelon of chefs by his third or fourth menu. Naturally, that caught the attention of his employer, and wanting to keep their prodigy happy, they allowed him certain freedoms and indulgences — which in turn kept his select segment of fans coming back for more.
Brock began immersing himself in the avant garde, cutting-edge school of culinary constructivism, led by Spain's Ferran Adria of El Bulli. Though the Hermitage invested in their whiz kid's out-there experiments, Brock devoted unthinkably long hours of his own time to trial and error, and a substantial amount of his own money to equipment.
While the Capitol Grille menu still leaned heavily on substantial comfort fare like Black Angus tenderloin, grits, greens, and the aforementioned pork chop, eventually, the butter-poached lobster morphed into sous vide, an old French cooking technique "under vacuum" that has gained contemporary status. Little surprises popped up on the dinner menu: broth became air, ice cream turned hot, tomatoes to tasting strips. Word of mouth spread, and foodies who had heretofore only read of Adria and the El Bulli movement greeted the development with excitement and anticipation, comparing Capitol Grille meals among themselves. Brock began doing a multi-course chef's tasting menu that explored those techniques.
The ultimate realization of that was a 30-course tasting menu he introduced early in 2005; utter gluttony was avoided by the fact that each course was simply one or two bites, sometimes just a flavor, or little more than a scent. Interestingly, though Brock is never happier than when he is on a veritable culinary space walk, many of the elements still hearken back to his grandmother's farm kitchen in Virginia, a tether of nostalgia.
Inevitably, the grind of the daily meetings, the demands of dozens of brides, the confines of hotel cooking, made Brock less than a happy camper. And then there was the siren song of Charleston; absence really did make his heart grow fonder. "I loved my time there when I lived there, but sometimes you have to leave a place to find out how much you miss it. Charleston is such an incredible city in so many ways. The weather, the beach, the architecture. It is an amazing restaurant city; thanks to the school, there is so much talent there, and diners are so educated and knowledgeable about food, and really eager to experiment and try new things. That makes it fun." And though fiancé Tonya Combs, whom he met in Charleston, had come with him to Nashville, her heart was also back on the mid-Atlantic coast, and she enthusiastically supported a move.
About a year ago, Brock let word out among his chef friends in Charleston that he would love to come back. As soon as he heard that the chef position at McCrady's was open, he sent his resume. "McCrady's was one of my favorite restaurants there, I felt like it would be a dream come true to not only be back in Charleston, but at that restaurant. I was thrilled when they called and we began talking. I knew it was right."
Word of his departure began seeping out in Nashville in early March — much to the dismay of Brock devotees, not just in Nashville, but among regular guests of the Hermitage as well. On March 28, with the contents of his house packed up, Brock made one last stop at the Capitol Grille to pick up his knives and say goodbye to his staff, among them the newly-promoted Tyler Brown, who worked with Brock at Peninsula, and moved to Nashville to be his sous chef. (Note to Charleston: You've got Brock, hands off Brown.)
On April 3, Brock checked in to what he hopes will be a long stay at McCrady's. The restaurant closed for four days while he took the staff through his new menu, introducing them to just a few of the 50 or so cooking techniques he plans to employ as the staff develops. "There is so much positive energy in that kitchen. Everyone is on board with this, it is so exciting."
He also brought a dozen immersion circulators; not coincidentally, Maine lobster sous vide is on his first menu, along with venison sous vide, poached beef tenderloin, and poached white asparagus. Nothing strange about that, right? But what the hell is a 64º egg, Sean?
"Oh, that is one of my favorite new things. It is so cool. You know I am obsessed with food science, with figuring out the exact degree of what happens to foods at certain temperatures. So we have been working with eggs, we've done it over and over, and finally, we discovered that if you place an egg in a computerized water bath at 64º for exactly one hour, it results in the white and the yolk having exactly the same texture."
The 64º egg, by the way, is plated with poached white asparagus, along with tomato confit and crispy parmesan and olive oil broth. FYI: Along with the immersion circulators and the vast repertoire of cooking techniques, Brock also brought nearly 70 different chemicals from his stash in Nashville.
"Manipulating food is entertaining, it's interesting. There are so many possibilities. We looked at Cheese Puffs and wondered if we could do that with spinach, for instance. Now we're doing it with lobster and mushrooms, whatever works. Is it better? Not necessarily, but it's more interesting, and it's fun."
So, congratulations Charleston. With Sean Brock's return, one of your oldest, most historic restaurants is embarking on an all-new adventure. And Sean, speaking for Nashville diners: Thanks, it was fun while it lasted.
Kay West is the food critic at the Nashville Scene.