Lamb in Husk’s back-alley smoker | Almost-smoked heirloom beans
The sun is blazing as a truck packed with whole hogs arrives at the back of Husk, chef Sean Brock’s year-old restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina. A large smoker dominates the space, and soon the air is roiling with a smell that whispers “home” to every real Southerner. The smoker is packed with joints of pork, but also trays of heirloom butter beans and Texan olive oil that will sequester a hint of smoke before the vapors drift into the humid Lowcountry afternoon. What is even more captivating than this back-ally scene is what is largely missing from it--garbage.
Brock’s brand of dogmatically regional cuisine has garnered well-deserved praise. But beyond the devotion to heirloom grains, pickling, preservation and other iconic elements of Southern cooking stands a lesser-known tenet of this celebrated chef. Sean Brock is fanatically devoted to waste. Or, more precisely, the lack thereof.
Open the firebox on that back-alley smoker and you’ll find chunks of barrel staves amongst lemon rinds and charcoal made from pigs’ bones. Walk into the kitchen and you might see chicken being cooked sous vide in the whey left over from daily production at a local cheesemaking operation. The chicken is then plated with a sauce made from the same cheese that shed the whey, and might be accompanied by grilled cucumbers on one night and perched above those bone-smoked butter beans on another. Certainly the kitchen is focused on flavor, but Brock sees an inclusive benefit to such an exacting commitment to repurposing.
He explains that the goal is to “look closely at what we are coming in contact with every day. First and foremost, we don’t want to be wasteful.”
At McCrady’s, the restaurant that launched Brock’s Charleston career, the food is more refined than at Husk, but the waste-not approach is equally evident. He sees the culinary value in the produce that most farmers don’t even try to sell. “They look at me like I’m crazy when I ask them to send lettuce stems and roots,” says Brock. “Sure, when lettuce gets to the end of its life cycle, the leaves start to become tough and bitter. So we use the stems and roots in interesting ways.” One creative use of these geriatric vegetables, his seasonal vegetable salad, is legendary. Each component is cooked separately: carrots braised in their juices, beets roasted in the smoker, fresh collard stems and asparagus “cooked” by freezing them under vacuum pressure. Then Brock smashes up to 20 produce preparations onto a single salad plate.
Talk to him long enough and you learn that Brock’s passion represents a moral imperative. To him, good food and sound practice invariably leave little behind in the trash can. As he prepares to preserve 2,000 pounds of blemished tomatoes, Brock cites the influence of his father, who made him eat every creature he hunted. Once conserved in glass Mason jars, the tomatoes will fill the winter with the flavors of a summer garden, braised with
oxtails in a stew thickened with benne (sesame seeds) at Husk, or even transformed into an innovative gel at McCrady’s. “Most farmers would feed these castoffs to pigs,” he complains. Then Brock moves on to cucumbers. “Do you know how many cucumbers get thrown away because no one wants to buy them?” he asks. “The same people who don’t want those in-season cucumbers spend a fortune on store-bought pickles throughout the rest of the year.”
Garbage for dinner: lemon rinds, bone charcoal and parsley stems
Brock doesn’t believe in byproducts. Every part is important, he notes, and every piece of every ingredient should be welcomed when creating a cuisine. In many ways, this notion is the most Southern aspect of his cooking, one that is deeply grounded in the historical poverty of the region. His sausage-making projects are epic, using parts of the hogs that don’t wind up in the smoker. Closets and coolers are filled with ham, speck, lardo and dry-cured sausages, but Brock’s favorite is a homemade “Slim Jim,” which he’s likely to snap into with a bit of rough ground mustard and a sly smile. Brock may be a zealot, but he’s no persnickety square--that would be decidedly un-Southern.
In his world, even pest-riddled produce can have an unsung perfection. While attending a recent lecture by Harold McGee on plant physiology in Copenhagen, Brock learned that the chemical processes that provide depth of flavor are stimulated when a plant comes under pressure from pests. “When will we start paying extra for the plants with the bug holes?” he asks, before answering his own question. “When we put these flawed ingredients in our mouths, eat them, and realize they taste better than the pretty ones.”
- Bourbon barrels: Used to age Negronis and Manhattans.
- Pork fat: Rendered and whipped into “pork butter,” a creamy spread served with benne (sesame seed) rolls.
- Bones: Turned into charcoal using a method gleaned from New York chef Dan Barber.
- Wine bottles: Reborn as rocks glasses that are used to serve a selection of rare and small-batch bourbons. (Click here to buy.)
- Squash seeds: Incorporated into a savory lamb-neck risotto. (Click here to see the recipe.)
Jeff Allen teethed on his first boiled peanut when five months old and is still searching for the secrets of Southern food. He lives, cooks, writes and farms (but not necessarily in that order) in Charleston, South Carolina, and is a coauthor of Sean Brock's forthcoming cookbook, which will be published in 2013.