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Monday, April 4, 2016

Sean Brock looks back at 10 years at McCrady's

Brock steady

Posted by Kinsey Gidick on Mon, Apr 4, 2016 at 9:04 AM

Just before his first day at McCrady's, nearly the entire staff quit - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Just before his first day at McCrady's, nearly the entire staff quit
On Mon. April 4 Sean Brock celebrates 10 years running McCrady’s kitchen. And to do so, he's hosting an all-star alumni dinner. His predecessors and apprentices, including eight McCrady’s veteran chefs, will all return to prepare a sold-out, eight-course, $125 meal.

On the eve of his big anniversary, we reached Brock by phone and asked, from plating powdered foie gras to running an internationally known restaurant group, what has he learned and where does he wants to go from here?

City Paper: Hi. May I speak to Sean?
Sean Brock: Speaking.

CP: Hey Sean. How you doing?
SB: Oh, I am ill with the flu.

CP: Oh god, I’m so sorry. I didn’t expect that response.
SB: This is the worst I’ve ever had.

CP: If you need to get up and run and puke, just go ahead and go.
SB: Well, what’s really fucked up is I had this stomach flu and that lasted almost two weeks. Then I was traveling a lot in six or seven different cities, festival circuits. Then it got better for three days, then I woke up with like the regular flu, which I went to doc right away for and she said that it’s like the nastiest flu because it morphed out of that faulty flu shot this year.

CP: So you had a flu shot.
SB: No, but it’s grown out of that. The virus was worse because of the faulty flu shot.

CP: Oh jeez. You’re seriously down for the count.
SB: Yea.

CP: I’m so sorry. Do you still want to talk?
SB: Oh hell yeah. I can’t take any time off.

CP: I hear whisky helps, just so you know.
SB: [Laughs]

CP: That’s really shitty, but we’ll try to proceed. When I got the email from McCrady’s saying it’s your 10th anniversary, I couldn’t believe it. That’s a pretty big date. It’s kind of like going back to your 10-year high school reunion and people having all these weird, mixed feelings. I was wondering if you’re feeling the same way looking at this number.
SB: Yeah, it didn’t hit me until I saw it in print. Then I started really thinking like, wow, it was 10 years ago that I packed up and moved from Nashville and walked into McCrady’s and entered the Charleston super-dome dining arena. And I was 27.

CP: You were baby.
SB: I was 27 or 28. Yea, I guess 28. That was the most terrifying moment of my life was walking into that kitchen. I’ll never forget that day. I still have a picture of my toolbox as I sat it down. It’s on my blog somewhere. You have to think about Charleston dining 10 years ago. In 2006 it was — write down the top 15 restaurants in 2006 and write down the top 15 in 2016. You start to realize how long 10 years really is. But it’s also a moment to step back and reflect and say “Wow. We’ve stuck in there.” And we haven’t stopped evolving and that’s what McCrady’s will always be to me — my hub to constantly evolve where there are no limits and no rules and no regulations, because Husk is very disciplined by design. It always will be. There’s no bending of the rules there. So McCrady’s will always be the place where I can bend the rules and express that part of my brain.

CP: It’s sort of a left-brain, right-brain kind of thing.
SB: Yes, it totally is. It’s hard for me to exist without both mentally. I love them both equally the same. If you look at even before me, that’s what’s interesting about this dinner is the chefs before as well.

CP: That’s really interesting. I guess I hadn’t realized that.
SB: It’s the chefs who put McCrady’s on the map. So it’s Michael Kramer (Table 301, Greenville) who really put McCrady’s on the map and then he left. Steven Musolf (The Lazy Goat, Greenville), he was the interim chef between Kramer and myself. He did an amazing job and cooked some extremely beautiful food. Then David Breeden, who is now the chef de cuisine at the French Laundry, which is crazy to think that the person running the French Laundry right now trained in McCrady’s kitchen.

CP: That is crazy.
SB: It’s a retro, look back. And you start to realize how McCrady’s is like these stables. This very intense training goes down in this very intense work environment. Once I started putting up this announcement, I started getting all of these messages from people. “I remember the first time I staged there or trained there or walked into the kitchen there or had my first day there. I had never been in an environment that intense.” You could walk in there tonight during service and it’s a very intense kitchen. There’s like this crazy energy in the air and that’s always been in that kitchen. That kitchen has always held this intensity and seriousness. I love working in that kitchen. If you look down the list of the people who are going to be cooking there, they’re all people who were part of that and made it that intense.
They also benefited from that and have gone on to do their own things from what they’ve learned in that kitchen. To look back to what an important place that kitchen is, it also reminds us how lucky we all are. Not just the cooks in the kitchen or the employees of the restaurant, but anybody who gets to step foot in a building from the 18th century that is that gorgeous. It’s one of the oldest restaurants in America historically speaking. It’s just one of the more special restaurants in the country and to be able to work there, is just a great privilege and honor and it makes us realize as operators, if you look at McCrady’s as a timeline and you draw it all the way to 2016, we’ve been there the last 10 years. That’s not a huge section of that timeline.

CP: Right, it’s a blip.
SB: So it makes you see the big picture and how special that building is and how many people have eaten there. Of course, we all know about George Washington. But how many people have gathered in that building and shared a meal and the conversations that have been had in that dining room? Pretty remarkable. If you look back at all the great chefs I’ve invited in over the last 10 years, it’s a pretty amazing list of people. Charleston will continue to be able to have these amazing world renowned chefs coming in there. I mean, Cook it Raw alone. Then the last Gelinaz event and if you look at all the guest chefs.

CP: Magnus Nilsson.
SB: Yeah, Magnus Nilsson. And if you look at all of the chefs from the Wine + Food Festival who have cooked there over the last 10 years, it’s pretty remarkable. So lots of special things have happened there and this is a celebration of that.
We’ve decided to treat it as though it were a normal service. So it’s not one of those situations where 100 people sit at once and 100 plates go out in courses. That’s just no fun for anyone. And the food, you can never plate that food properly.
We’ve staggered it as though you’d have a dinner reservation at 7 or 8:30 p.m. and we’ll set the kitchen up just like a normal service. That’s cool from our standpoint as chefs. We’re in the trenches again. These dinners, you’re just plating 100 of each course, it is what it is. But it’s not the most intense and fun and exhilarating thing to do. So this is full-on, full-blown service. Tickets being called out all over the place, crazy expediting of all these eight courses going out to 90 people. It’s gonna be a hell of a night.

CP: It actually sounds like it might be even more entertaining to sit in the kitchen to watch all of these people at work.
SB: Yeah, maybe there is room in the kitchen for a two top for the highest bidder.

CP: Sneak one in. Going back real quick to what you were talking about your first day at McCrady’s. That’s a monumental amount of stress to have on a 28-year-old’s shoulders. What did you have to do to mentally get yourself like “I’m good enough. I can do this and I’m doing it” to lead a kitchen in which, I presume, some people were older than you?
SB: Well, so what happened, I don’t even think this story has been printed...

CP: Do tell.
SB: When I showed up, everyone except for three people quit.

CP: What? That day?
SB: The entire team quit. It was everyone except for three people. They all quit.

CP: Why?
SB: I think they were terrified of my cuisine. They saw me coming in there with all of these hydrocolloids and all these machines and circulators and centrifuges and liquid nitrogen. I’m sure they’d seen my blog, which is pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram, crazy blog called Ping Island Strike —

CP: Oh, I was a follower. I read it.
SB: That’s a Bill Murray reference. They’d seen foie gras powder and they’d seen olive oil listerine tabs and all this crazy stuff and I think they just became terrified. I’m sure, they spoke for the entire city.

CP: Ha.
SB: That was the buzz on the street. Who is this Willy Wonka kid coming in? What the hell is he going to do to this old McCrady’s? So it was really, really tough. We were all working seven days a week, coming in at 9 a.m. and leaving at 2:30 a.m. It was Travis Grimes, Andy Allen, and Tim Moody and myself. And Windburn Carmack stayed, a pastry chef. We slowly started building a team of likeminded individuals.

CP: Were you sourcing them locally? Or were you calling friends in other cities?
SB: I brought a guy with me from the Hermitage Hotel, Eric Foster. He was a sous chef at the time. It was really just us running every service. We slowly started trickling in any cooks who we could convince that we were doing something exciting and fun that few people in the country had seen, much less Charleston.

CP: How many months after that first day did you feel like, ‘OK, we’re OK. We’ve got a staff. We’re gonna be OK?’
SB: It was at least six months — a six-month struggle.

CP: Did you think about quitting?
SB: No way. There was a point where we were all so exhausted that we actually had to close the restaurant for a couple days, just so we could rest. We were just running at this insane schedule because everybody wanted to come see what we were doing. We were doing 250 covers a night, every night, seven days a week. And what we were trying to do, the food was very difficult. It was a lot of prep and a lot of technique and a lot of fabrication. A lot of sourcing the ingredients and it was very, very tough. One of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. The amount of sleep I’ve lost and the stress and anxiety I put on my body and my brain during that was just crazy. You gotta remember that, I was originally hired by Piggly Wiggly.

CP: I don’t think I knew that.
SB: Piggly Wiggly owned McCrady’s.

CP: OK.
SB: So Piggly Wiggly owned McCrady’s and I did all of my interviewing — so let’s back up. This is a crazy story. You ready for this story?

CP: Yea, I’m ready.
SB: So I’ll do it justice now because this hasn’t been in print. This is an amazing story.
I had a fantastic job at the Hermitage Hotel in Nashville. I was 26 years old running a five-star, five-diamond hotel and I was doing 30-course tasting menus and they were selling out every night in the dining room was full of all these people eating black truffle air and flaming this and floating that. I was having a blast. Nashville was really supporting that and I had a great following and I still cook for a lot of them at Husk now. But I knew that my ultimate goal and what I really wanted to push myself to do since I was 18, was stand in the shoes of the Bob Waggoners, the Frank Lees, the Bob Carters, the Donald Barickmans, the titans of that era when I arrived in Charleston in 1997.
So I arrived in late 1997, went to school and left in mid-2000 I think. That’s when I was working at Peninsula Grill and went to Johnson & Wales. I had created this image in my mind of what success was and what my ultimate goal was. And that was to be included in that group of chefs. Someday. I didn’t know if it would ever happen. It was a 98 percent chance that it was never gonna happen. But during the three years I was cooking in Nasvhille, it was always in the back of my mind. This is what would really make me happy. This is what I’m gonna push towards. So I always kept my ear to the ground. I almost took the job at Tristan.

CP: Oh really?
SB: I interviewed for the job at Tristan and nearly took that job. I had a contract on the table, all I had to do was sign it. I had a team ready to go and everything.

CP: Why’d you hesitate?
SB: I’m not sure exactly. It just didn’t feel right. It was tempting. Extremely tempting because that could have been the move to get me to my goal. But it was part of a hotel and I’d been doing the hotel thing and it was really starting to wear — breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and room service is a distraction from what I really wanted to do and that was a dinner-only, modern, forward-thinking restaurant. They were prepared to let me do whatever food I wanted. That was very attractive. Just the idea of being back in a hotel was the deciding factor. So I decided not to do it.
Then I heard about Michael Kramer leaving.

CP: Ah ha.
SB: And I said holy cow because that was always like my favorite place. To me, during that time, that was the only place in Charleston doing like more modern food with the obsession with ingredient sourcing and just presentation wise to me, it was always a very special place. And I remember having some amazing meals there ... when I could afford them.
So, someone called me and said, I know you’re wanting to get back to Charleston. Michael Kramer just left, you need to make a call. I went straight to the telephone, called McCrady’s asked to speak to the GM. She picks up and I said, “Hey, I know this is gonna sound kinda crazy, and I’m not even sure if it’s true, but I heard Michael Kramer has left and I imagine you guys are looking for a chef. I’m sure you’ve gotten a million phone calls. I’d just love to start the process of putting my name in the hat.”
She goes, “Well actually, you’re the first person.”
And I said, “Alright. I’ll be there tomorrow.”
She was like, “Excuse me?”
I was like, “I’ll be there tomorrow. I’m gonna cook you a meal.”
She was like, “Slow down, slow down.”
I was that aggressive about it. I don’t think I left the next day, but it might have been two days later. I packed up all of my equipment — a tank of liquid nitrogen, circulators, centrifuges, all the powders, and hydrocolloids, and the minicooper. Drove from Nashville to Charleston, which is eight hours, overnight after service with my pastry chef at the time, Eric Foster. I show up, go through all these crazy interviews at the Piggly Wiggly headquarters.

CP: Wait, where? Where is the Piggly Wiggly headquarters?
SB: I can’t remember. In North Charleston or something. Here I am, walking into the Piggly Wiggly headquarters, trying to convince these people that I need to be the next chef at McCrady’s.

CP: Did you cook for them there? Or at McCrady’s?
SB: I cooked for them at McCrady’s. I have the menu, still the original menu. I posted it on social media last year for my anniversary. So it’s on there. I had it on my fridge, I just took it down so I’m not exactly sure where it’s at.

CP: Uh oh.
SB: It’s here somewhere. I’d never lose that thing. It’s actually the original menu that I printed out and cooked with notes on it and everything to get the job. And I cooked for, obviously, Clint Sloan the sommelier, the GM, the assistant GM, and a huge table full of the Piggly Wiggly executives.

CP: And they must have liked what they saw.
SB: It was wacky as hell. It was crazy wacky menu. I’m sure there’s pictures of it somewhere.
click to enlarge Sean Brock keeps the copy of the menu that he prepared to get the job at McCrady's on his fridge - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • Sean Brock keeps the copy of the menu that he prepared to get the job at McCrady's on his fridge

CP: Do you look at it now and think it stands up?
SB: I would totally serve that menu tomorrow. It was so badass. Yeah. Because I was fighting. I was like, ya know what? This is the menu I have to write to get the job that I’ve always dreamt of having. This is the menu that’s going to decide whether or not I get this job or not. So I really pulled it all out and it was a really badass menu. It was really, really good. The food was beautiful and innovative. It still kinda told the story. You see me using all of these Anson Mills products, which is kinda cool.

CP: Was that because you were already ahead of the curve having heard about those products?
SB: Yeah, I’d been using Anson Mills since like 2000. And that was a big part of my cuisine in Nashville was the Anson Mills stuff.

CP: Obviously, you have this wild effort and then you have to get in your car and drive back to Nashville? Or were they like, “You’ve got the job, Sean”?
SB: I did a final exit sort of quick interview that night after I cooked the meal. They seemed very impressed and excited, but they weren’t really gushing. I guess, on purpose. So, I went back to Nashville and went back to work and didn’t hear from them for like three weeks. Or a month.

CP: That’s evil.
SB: So I was like, “Shit. I didn’t get the job.” But I figured I might as well just call and ask why. So I called and spoke to the GM. I’m like “Hey, doesn’t seem like you guys are interested. I’d just like to ask why?” And she was like, “Well, we’re very interested. We were blown away by the food. But we’re very concerned that your style of cooking will require us to spend an enormous amount of money on all of this crazy scientific equipment.” And I said, “Whoa. Wait a minute. I own all of this equipment. I paid for it all. It’s all mine. It comes with me.” And she was like, “OK. The job is yours.”

CP: So if you hadn’t called, you could have been waiting, all of these years. Wow. That’s amazing. That’s a fantastic story. How soon after did you tell the Hermitage you were out?
SB: I gave them like a month or six weeks I guess. Then that’s when I arrived and all the interviews started. You should look back. There’s a great City Paper interview of like me in my house with all my shit in boxes. I can’t even remember the things that were coming out of my mouth at that time. It’s hard to say.

CP: It just goes to show, you’ve been the center of attention for those solid 10 years. At least by local news and then it expanded exponentially. What have you learned as far as all that from going to a really hardworking chef that had a dream to basically it all happen and more?
SB: Well, it makes me feel old as hell.

CP: Ha, sorry.
SB: It makes you realize you’re not 28 anymore. If we were to have this conversation 10 years ago, I would have said, McCrady’s is the only kitchen I’ll ever stand at the stove at. I’m going to be tied to this stove forever. I was that in love with that and I was that naive. Then Husk happened.

CP: Would have you have thought when you took the job at McCrady’s that maybe someday you’d have another restaurant?
SB: No. There was never ever a thought in my mind of doing anything past McCrady’s. That’s what’s funny about all this. It never once entered my mind until the opportunity presented itself. Then I started thinking about the future and 10 years down the road. It’s been almost five and half years now at Husk. Then I started thinking about what it would be like to not touch every single plate at McCrady’s anymore.
Stephanie Barna did a great video interview pre-opening of Husk where I talk about that and how terrifying it is to see other people working the pass at McCrady’s. I had been there every day for four years.



CP: That was your baby.
SB: That was a big moment for me as far as maturity goes and letting go. Now that has continued to evolve into what my goal has become as a chef and that’s to provide opportunities for others. My goal from here on out is creating opportunities and creating jobs and helping other people realize their dreams. And it’s been the most rewarding thing you could ever imagine. Imagine if I’d never let go of McCrady’s. If I was still chained to that stove. All of these people who have been cooking in that kitchen and gone on to Beard nominations [former McCrady’s employees Alex Zink and chef Jeremiah Langhorne’s The Dabney in Washington D.C. has been nominated for James Beard Awards’ Best New Restaurant] and so on and so forth, that would have never happened. You look at the people who have benefitted from that it. It makes me feel great. It’s one of the greatest feelings, something I never understood when people tried to explain it to me because I was so hard headed. I didn’t want to trust anyone else with my plates. I was just so attached and dead set and intense on a specific idea of what it took to become successful.
Now I realize how valuable and important and beautiful the next phase of my life is and how lucky I am to be able to give back and provide opportunities for people who deserve it and have worked for it.

CP: Like a work philanthropy?
SB: For sure. That’s what I want to do for the rest of my life. I’m 38 now. I think I’ve at least got 25 more years in me.

CP: Well, it depends on this flu, Sean. You just don’t know.
SB: It’s gonna take more than a flu to knock me down.

CP: Now you’re in this completely different position where you’re bopping around all the time between multiple locations and I’m sure that has its own challenges. How do you put in your head all these different places that your name goes on? You’re the one who is always going to be associated with Husk and Minero and McCrady’s. How do you balance that?
SB: Well, I’m thankful for that. It’s three fun places to be able to be responsible for. Essentially that’s what it is. These are my responsibilities. These are my children. I’m kind of a coach now. I used to be the quarterback. Everyone has told me my entire career, the secret is hiring people who are more intelligent and more talented than you are. And a lot of people are afraid to do that because of their ego, because they feel threatened. A lot of people make that mistake. They’re so used to being the main person. But if you’re smart, you’ll do like I’ve done and hire people who are more intelligent and more talented.
I watch the food these guys create when I go in the kitchen and I’m working the pass and I just shake my head. I’m not capable of this.
There’s a sweet spot in your chef life. It’s maybe a 10-year period where you’re so focused, you know exactly what you want to do. You have the ability to focus on one menu and one restaurant. And you can create amazing things if you keep your head down. Running back and forth between five restaurants, that’s almost impossible for me to be that immersed in the daily creativity.

CP: I think that’s really interesting that you bring that up. I have this ongoing discussion with my dad that artists have this 10-year window, whether you’re a musician or
SB: So do athletes.

CP: Or whomever, which is sort of, in a way sad. Like, jeez. We only get 10 years to do something great? But at the same time, it’s this one glimpse of when you can really focus in and perfect something.
SB: It’s a moment of intense focus. I’m not saying that the quality of the product can’t continue to be better. But there is this moment where your focus is on a different level. Almost on autopilot. You don’t even have to try.
What’s interesting to me is I struggled with letting that go for a little bit. Trying to get all of my systems in place to allow my chefs to give them the freedom that they needed in order to create on that level. What that’s done for me, it’s freed me back up to be able to focus again. Now the cooking I’m doing, is the best cooking I’ve ever done in my entire life.

CP: Really?
SB: The plates I’m cooking are the most beautiful plates I’ve ever cooked. I’ve never been more proud of any plates I’ve ever put out in my whole entire life. It’s just amazing to me how distractions can impact you. Now that I have these incredibly talented people in place, they’ve been with me long enough to know what I like and don’t like and what’s expected of me when they think of my name. Now I’m freed up again to focus, like I used to be able to focus when I had McCrady’s. That makes me very, very happy. It’s a really great feeling.
Now a lot of my role is creativity, research, development. I’ll get something stuck in my head like crab rice and I’ll work on it for weeks and weeks and weeks because that’s my obsession. I’ll get obsessed with certain things or ideas.

CP: I would never guess that — just kidding.
SB: [Laughs] Then I can pass those on to the other kitchens. Then they can make them fit. It’s a very complex operation, but I think I’ve got it figured out now. It took awhile and a lot sleepless nights and nail biting. I’m very systematic, disciplined with operations. I have a weekly call with every single chef, but also front-of-the-house employees. We have an ongoing discussion list of problems, ideas, goals, from financials to menus to what we’re excited about. Offshoot projects of vinegar making or ham curing. Each week I have a list of things I’m working on with each person. Then the very next week we add more things to it. The systems I’ve put in place for communication have really helped keep everything organized so I don’t have to worry anymore. I know exactly what’s going on at all times in every kitchen.
I get nightly reports from every restaurant — front of house to back of house. If someone didn’t like the catfish at Husk Charleston, I know about it at 1 a.m. that night. Then I can address it right away.

CP: That sounds more stressful to me, but I guess you’re saying that then you can make the choices to fix it.
SB: Absolutely. Every day at 5 o’clock, I get a reservation report for every restaurant. No matter if I’m in Japan. I scan through the reservations for each evening. Then I can go to each individual team and say, “Let’s make sure blank gets this dish” or “Tell this person this for me.” Or “Keep an eye on this person, they’re a sneaky food writer.”

CP: Ha. Right.
SB: So I get the perspective of front of house and back of house before I go to bed and in the morning I can address anything that needs to be addressed. That goes on seven days a week. Then we have lots of Jedi Council — text threads and email threads where every single chef and front of the house is on one thread. If you went into Minero and sat down, the text goes out and everyone in the company knows that you’re sitting at Minero having a margarita.

CP: Whoa. That’s intense!
SB: I have to be. I can’t be there. Normally I’d walk through the dining room and see you sitting there. In order to stay on top of it the way I prefer to, I have to put these systems in place. It’s fun too. When someone thinks they’ve snuck into your restaurant, I’ll just text them like “How’s the burrito?” Then they’re like looking around for cameras.

CP: Cool and yet creepy. I guess my next question is, are you creating another restaurant?
SB: Yes. Our goal is to create more restaurants. Absolutely.

CP: More Mineros? Or something different?
SB: Who knows. The idea is we’ve been given an amazing opportunity where people like what we’re doing and support us and we see that as an opportunity to create hundreds of jobs, create opportunities for people to chase their dreams and accomplish their goals. I don’t see anything wrong with that.

CP: Then, of course, my other question is, it’s gotta be exhausting sometimes to be Sean Brock. You’re constantly written about, you’re constantly harangued.
Because of what you’ve done for the city, you’re a target. How do you feel about that?
SB: I’m thankful for it. It doesn’t bother me at all. It makes me stronger. It makes me more paranoid which makes me more aware and awareness leads to thinking about things a bit further on a different level. If I weren’t the piñata, I’d be hanging out with my feet kicked up.
But to me, I enjoy it because it pushes me to think past what most people have to do on a daily basis. I have to think like a politician. I have to speak like a politician. I am very picky about interviews.

CP: Well thank you for doing this interview, I do appreciate it.
SB: I really don’t do interviews anymore unless I really feel like people can benefit from it. I think if it’s about myself, it’s already been said.

CP: You probably get tired of telling the story of your life.
SB: If the story has already been told, I’d rather spend my time focusing on the restaurants. You grow into this person who, I always say, and the advice I try to give as I’m trying to chain my chefs, to speak with the media and also the guests and how they handle themselves is: Before you say it, say it to yourself and make sure that you can live with that for the rest of your life. Because once you say it, it’s in print and a gazillion people are going to read it and they’re going to base and form and or change their opinion on you based on one simple thing you said. One misstep or stutter can take all of your hard work and sacrifices and wipe them clean. If you say one wrong thing, especially when you see things unfolding on social media where people feel like they can say whatever they want whenever they want. They’re not realizing how many people it’s affecting.

CP: Good reminder. For me too.
SB: For all of us.

CP: As illustrated by these past few days, something that started out as just a couple frustrations and a few critiques [read here, here, and here], kind of became an avalanche of words
SB: You noticed I didn’t say a word.

CP: You did not and that’s why I’m just spewing out, but I’m sure that’s not the first time.
SB: It wasn’t easy for me not to defend myself.

CP: Do you feel like it’s better left to not say anything?
SB: I’m a very thoughtful person and I’ve been burned so many times by just speaking that I take a couple days to collect my thoughts and then I evaluate and say to myself, “Who is this going to effect? Is it going to be positive or negative?” Then I decide if I’m going to react.

CP: That’s a very calm way to approach things. I know because of your position you have to. Maybe more of us should do the same?
SB: [Laughs]
CP: Although I don’t know if I could be one of them.

CP: I appreciate you being so candid about that. 
SB: It’s important that we take these head-on and take them very, very seriously. It’s how we handle ourselves that will get us further down the road. If people start getting angry and upset and people start saying things that they shouldn’t have said that they don’t mean, we’re walking backward. We have to continue to walk forward together and problem solve and discuss in a way that can keep everyone’s heads calm. That’s the only way anything good can come out of any argument whether if it’s with your girlfriend or the guy that just burned the fish. You have to understand how to get the most out of people when it’s needed the most.

CP: Random idea, have you thought about doing some kind of speaker series on managerial skills because I feel like you’ve got enough for another book.
SB: It’s one of the things that unchaining myself from the McCrady’s stove has allowed me to do. To grow as a person. These realizations and wisdom gained have not only made me a better chef, but a healthier person outside of the kitchen. That’s a big topic of discussion these days is the mental health of chefs. It’s very serious and I’ve struggled with that my whole life. We all have. We’re liars and cowards if any chef out there says he’s not struggling with mental health.
When I was only at McCrady’s, I probably wasn’t the most fun person to work for. I was very intense, very aggressive. I demanded perfection and I didn’t care if you liked the way I was talking to you or not. That was a particular moment in my life.
Now, having stepped back and grown older, I look at it from an Obi-Wan Kenobi standpoint.

CP: I’m loving these Star Wars references.
SB: My team call me Yoda.

CP: Do you feel like now that you’re looking back, you want to foster a more positive kitchen? It sounds like this is a more stable kitchen atmosphere than what you started out handling.
SB: I think the way we’re running kitchens now is the same level of intensity because we cannot let that go. Our guests are demanding the highest standards from us. So we have to perform and demand to our employees the same thing or else the guests don’t get it. We’re going in the right direction where we’re all learning how to achieve that same exact level of intensity without throwing pots and pans. Without saying things to people that you regret immediately. It’s about creating a specific vibe and it’s also about respect. If no one respects you, if you haven’t earned that respect, then they don’t care what’s coming out of your mouth. Whether it’s Obi-Wan or Gordon Ramsey. It doesn’t matter if they don’t respect you. Now we’re seeing the value of earning respect and the behavior that takes. And the day-to-day model that you set. If you can calmly earn someone’s trust and respect, they’ll do anything for you. You won’t have to yell.
I’m also very good at reverse yelling. It’s just a guilt trip. “Why would you do that to me? Why would you make my blood pressure this high? You know better than to cook the piece of fish like that.”

CP: That’s like my dad saying I’m disappointed in you. The worst.
SB: That person trusts and respects you. That’s all you have to say. “You’ve really let me down.”

CP: Oh god, knife through the heart.
SB: [Laughs]

CP: In closing, what’s the part you’re most looking forward to with this dinner?
SB: The menu is done. I’m sure they’ll be some minor changes. It’s a very exciting menu. I’m doing the dish I posted recently on Instagram. I’m doing brown oyster stew and it’s a dish that I cooked at Peninsula Grill. The oyster stew, that was one I made hundreds of times working in the kitchen there. I knew its place in Charleston cuisine, but we weren’t right there with the benne or the rice or the oyster harvesting. So now that dish is, to me, a symbol of how far we’ve come. We have the fresh-pressed benne oil, the benne cake flour, the benne seeds, Clammer Dave’s Caper’s Blade oysters, we have Carolina Gold rice. We have the herbs from our rooftop. Everything’s in that bowl. It’s the dish I wanted to cook in 2006 but didn’t have the ingredients for to do it properly. Now we do and it’s a celebration of that. You can put that in there.

CP: I will. That’s amazing where you can show the difference in 10 years.
SB: All these characters in one kitchen again. We have so many memories from 2006 until Travis left for Husk and then Jeremiah taking over and then Dan-O taking over. It’s all so gonna be a blast because when I walked into the kitchen in 2006, all I heard about was David Breeden, Steven Musolf, and Michael Kramer — their food, how they were in the kitchen, how they were outside of the kitchen. So, for one night, we’re all in the same kitchen together. It’s beyond 10 years. 1998, right? Not just plating up 100 dish at a time and having a glass of champagne. We’re gonna be in the trenches, pumping out hard-ass service. That’s the way I want it.
There’s a very specific emotion that you experience at the end of a busy shift. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. When you’re all working together, tickets are coming in and plates are flying out and shit’s getting screwed up, the guy beside you is making a beautiful plate ­— that’s what we’re celebrating. The intensity that that kitchen has seen since 1998.

CP: The question all the readers are gonna wanna know — Are you guys all gonna go out some place afterward? Will this inevitably end at Waffle House?
SB: Well, I think it would a shame if we all didn’t go out and hang out afterwards. I can definitely almost 99.9 percent guarantee The Griffon will be the place. The Griffon was the McCrady’s hangout all the way back to 1998. So if you walk into The Griffon right now, and you stand at the corner of the bar where the cash register is and you look toward where it kitchen is and you look up, there’s a plaster of a diamond shaped $1 bill board that says “McCrady’s” really huge on it. It’s all the people that left when I came on in 2006.

CP: Oh my god.
SB: So the whole team from ‘98-2006 put that up there and it’s hanging right above the door of the kitchen. I adopted The Griffon as my sanctuary right away in 2006. So I think there’s no other place we can hangout than the mighty Griffon.

CP: That’s perfect. I really appreciate you taking the time in the midst of the flu to talk with me. Congrats on 10 years.
SB: Thanks a bunch. It’s been a wild ride.


The chefs included in tonight's Alumni Dinner include, Daniel Heinze (McCrady's), Jeremiah Langhorne (The Dabney), Travis Grimes (Husk), Michael Kramer (Table 301), Dave Breeden (The French Laundry), Steven Musolf (The Lazy Goat), Katy Keefe (McCrady's), Winburn Carmack (Heritage). While McCrady's Alumni Dinner is sold-out, the restaurant is putting individuals on a waiting list. To be added to the list, email Sarah Hebble at shebble@ndgcharleston.com. 

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