Eleven days before his new restaurant Husk is set to open, Executive Chef Sean Brock stands in the midst of the chaos his ambition has created. His cooks are in the kitchen blanching and peeling 1,600 pounds of tomatoes, getting them ready for ketchup production. The front-of-the-house staff is being indoctrinated into the grand theory behind Husk. Boxes are being unpacked. New glassware is arriving. The owners and management team are walking through the space, inspecting progress. Workers are installing a fountain in the front yard of the old white building that houses the restaurant. Newly arrived olive trees are waiting to be planted on the grounds. In the separate walk-in and workroom building, a couple guys in matching blue Dickies work shirts — the staff-wide uniform — are breaking down pigs, removing the skins to make pork rinds. The chefs at McCrady's down the street are texting him with requests to change a dish on that night's menu. He's waving in a woman from the Charleston Area Convention and Visitor Bureau as she walks past, encouraging her to go inside and take a look around. A staffer is hovering nearby, waiting to discuss the convoluted VIP situation that's brewing for the next evening at McCrady's. The governor already has a table, but what will they do with the 17-strong Williams-Sonoma delegation that's coming in?
Sean Brock handles it all with aplomb while preaching his theories with a fiery passion befitting Cotton Mather. Earlier in the day, TIME.com dubbed him the evangelical leader of the modern Southern "lardcore" movement, which writer Josh Ozersky described as "the most purely democratic, un-status-conscious cooking to come along in a long time."
Brock is unapologetic about his preachiness. "When you believe in something and feel it's right, you get preachy," he says. For him, this moment is the culmination of his desire to challenge himself and his team to do something that has yet to be done.
"The idea is to push as far as we can," he says. "And to prove the theory that we have the best food here in the South."
In order to prove such a ballsy theory, Brock has instituted strict rules for Husk. He will not use anything that has not been grown or produced in the South, a task that has proven to be extraordinarily difficult.
"Out-of-this-world difficult," he says. "Beyond difficult."
Take salt, for instance. It's an essential for cooking, and it's not made anywhere in the South. Brock says he found a stash that the Tabasco people had in Avery Island, La., and they've let him have it. In blocks. "There's no anti-caking agents in it," he laughs.
But under his laugh is a certain edge. You can feel the pressure. "Talk to the kitchen staff," he says. "It's fucking hard. It's so stressful. I hope people realize how hard we're trying to achieve this. It's mentally exhausting."
In addition to chipping blocks of salt down, the staff is making its own type of balsamic vinegar from muscadine grapes. They're preserving and canning pickles and vegetables. They're working ungodly hours, pining for the good old days when they could get out of the kitchen at 11 p.m. instead of 2 a.m.
But Brock has no one to blame but himself. It's what happens when your hard work pays off.
"It's cool to be recognized," says the chef whose profile has reached astronomic heights since winning the James Beard Award last May. "I can't even walk down the street without getting stopped. It's insane. At Whole Foods, I was stopped by eight people before I even got inside. But more attention means more pressure. And we keep working harder. We want to see how far we can push ourselves." He repeats this idea often, like a mantra.
His Chef de Cuisine Travis Grimes decided that his limit, when it came to tomatoes, was 1,600 pounds. When a farmer stopped by and offered 1,000 more pounds at a cut-rate price, Brock was poised to strike the deal, until Grimes threatened to jump off the bridge if he bought any more tomatoes. Brock showed some mercy and passed on the load, despite his inclination to buy and preserve as much as possible.
The two have been working on the pantry for Husk for the past year, canning and preserving thousands of jars of food — four jars at a time. "Nobody else is that stupid," he boasts. "Every detail you take for granted, we've had to handcraft."
They've made 500 jars of Bloody Mary mix, getting ready for brunch service (which starts Nov. 14). They've fermented 3,000 pounds of chiles for their hot sauce.
"We're trying to do something no one else has done before," he says, "and we're getting our asses kicked."
In the meantime, McCrady's, a restaurant that puts out plates of precision food, is doing 200 covers a night. "That kind of food, we really shouldn't be doing more than 50 covers a night," he points out matter of factly. "I've never worked this hard in my life, but it's an incredible opportunity."
And the opportunity is to not only prove that the South has the best food in the world, but to birth a movement that creates an overwhelming demand for heirloom vegetables and local crops. "We're already snobby about tomatoes," says Brock. "Why aren't we snobby about carrots? Why aren't we snobby about rice? Why are we buying Uncle Ben's Rice? That's supply and demand."
Inside the front door of Husk, diners will be greeted with a chalkboard listing the pantry items, the fresh products, and the producers. Putting the farmers and artisans on the menu is all fine and good, says Brock, but having them on the board elevates them to a position of prominence.
"We'll be cooking pure Southern food; it's similar to Chez Panisse," he says, referring to Alice Waters' revolutionary restaurant that elevated simply prepared California produce to an art form. "It's an homage to Southern products. It's a restaurant about the products and the people that produce the food. The chef steps aside. It's about what's on the plate. It's food so simple it's ridiculous."
But just because Husk is purely Southern, with the overreaching goal of being the ultimate Southern restaurant, don't expect to walk in and find down-home plates of fried chicken and mac and cheese. "This restaurant is not about recipes and dishes," Brock insists.
He is focusing on the ingredients that have always informed Lowcountry cooking. He wants to show people the current state of Southern food in 2010. "Fuck proscuitto and red wine. We've got bourbon and country ham."
And come Mon. Nov. 8, Charleston will have its latest foodie destination, one that is sure to attract believers from all corners.