Interview with Chef Sean Brock – Charleston, SC and a recipe for Hoppin’ John

How many different varieties of rice can you think of?  How about different peas?  If you are like most people you will probably be able to name a dozen types of rice and maybe half a dozen types of peas.  Would you be surprised to learn that there are over 100,000 varieties of rice, of which 40,000 are cultivated varieties and that Thomas Jefferson cultivated over 20 varieties of peas at Monticello?

So, why is it that when we go to the grocery we typically find such a small selection of produce and meats when there could be more?  The answer is simple. Our food supply has been dumbed down to the few varieties that are cheap to produce, easy to transport and have the longest shelf life. As a result, our culinary tastes have also been dumbed down and the dishes that we ate just 100 years ago do not have the same taste today because we have substituted inferior varieties of produce and other ingredients.

We went On the Road in April to one of our favorite cities, Charleston, South Carolina, to speak with a chef that is committed to bringing back our heritage foods with their rich and unique flavors.  Every visit to Charleston is filled with fabulous food, great chefs and inspiring stories.  This time was no exception and perhaps, our most memorable.

Chef Sean Brock, of McCrady’s and Husk fame in Charleston, is also the recipient of the 2010 James Beard Best Chef Southeast award.  In addition to other awards, numerous articles in magazines and newspapers, television appearances and participating in events like Atlanta Food and Wine,  Chef Brock is writing a book.  He is incredibly busy, to say the least.

Main Dining Room at McCrady’s

Born and raised in the South, Brock is proud of his heritage and Southern food.  He was raised on a farm and spent days as a boy shucking corn or shelling peas.  Some say that he is the best farmer to ever become a chef.  Passionate describes every chef and farmer that we have met since we started our travels, but Brock may be taking that word to a new level in his mission to fix what has been broken in the way our foods are grown and raised.

The bar at McCrady’s

Brock, a graduate of Johnson and Wales, initially came to Charleston for culinary school in 1997.  He began his career at Peninsula Grill in Charleston.  After working in several other restaurants in other cities (The Hermitage Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, Lemaire in Richmond, Virginia, and La Terraza del Casino in Madrid), Brock came back to Charleston five years ago as Executive Chef at McCrady’s.  It was this transition that was a life changing experience for him.

Once known as McCrady’s Tavern (originally owned by Edward McCrady), this historic building dates back to 1788.  It was a local tavern along with a brothel upstairs (at one point) during its history.  Back in those days, the building was located right on the waterfront, but over time the land was filled in and now sets back several blocks from the shoreline.  There have been many notable patrons of this tavern over its long and colorful history, including George Washington in 1791.

This wall is part of the original exterior of McCrady’s Tavern

It was the historical significance of this building and telling the story about that history that has had the greatest influence on this chef over the last five years.  He started to think about the foods that were served in McCrady’s Tavern hundreds of years ago and set out to find the original species of plants that once existed in the region to bring back the true flavor profiles that Charleston is known for.

Dishes that were indigenous to the area like Shrimp and Grits, She Crab Soup, Hoppin’ John and Oyster Benne Stew now tasted nothing like they did.  Local rices, produce and beans used in these dishes disappeared in the 1930‘s.  Over time, genetically engineered rices, dried beans and seafood from cheaper sources took their place.  Brock felt a responsibility as a chef to do something about it.  Inspired by others, he started to grow heirloom varieties of plants that belonged in Charleston’s kitchens on his own farm.  He sourced other heritage products, such as meats and poultry, to bring back the flavors that Charleston enjoyed hundreds of years ago.

Upstairs at McCrady’s

When Brock came to Charleston in 1997 to attend Johnson and Wales, he was excited to be in the same city with great chefs like Louis Osteen, Robert Carter and Bob Wagonner.  He studied the cuisine of Charleston.  One of the dishes that left him unimpressed was Hoppin’ John.  It tasted like cardboard and he couldn’t understand what the excitement was over this dish.  What could possibly be good about Uncle Ben’s white rice and black eyed peas that were stale and dry?

The problem was that it wasn’t the authentic dish.  It was missing the historical link to the proper ingredients for the dish: Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas.  Every chef in the city should have been serving the original version, but they weren’t because the ingredients were no longer available and they substituted easily available ingredients.

Brock refers to the Hoppin’ John theory as a perfect representation of our current food situation.  To paraphrase Chef Brock, certain traditional dishes are still demanded although they are not authentic.  When you start with poor ingredients and there is little passion in preparing the food, you end up with a bad representation of what the dish should be.  This is why we must go back to the original ingredients and recreate these flavor profiles.

The chefs at McCrady’s have beautiful local produce to work with

All of the ingredients were gorgeous

Rice came to Charleston by accident in 1681.  A storm blew a damaged ship from Africa into port and the repairs for the ship were paid for in rice seed.  Two farmers planted the seed and found that it grew quite well in Charleston since the climate was similar to that of Western Africa.  This rice became known as Carolina Gold Rice.

Lardo that has been aging in Pappy Van Winkle casks

Golden fields of rice, hundreds of miles long, were once visible along the coastline of South Carolina and Georgia.  In fact, at one time there were over 100 varieties of rice grown in this area.  Rice was one of the reasons there was so much wealth in Charleston.  However, that all changed when the last of the Carolina Gold Rice was harvested in the late 1920’s due to overproduction, collapse of the market, lack of available laborers and to make way for crop rotation to improve the soil.

The workers (slaves) that were brought from Africa in the 1700’s and 1800’s had a vast knowledge of agriculture and crop rotation and used the Cowpea (brought over from Africa) as an essential source of nitrogen for the soil.  They were growing these peas, but they were mostly used for animal feed or fertilizer and for many years never made it to the main house as food.  (The main house was known as The Big House to the slaves.)

Chef Brock prepared ramps for us at McCrady’s

I can understand why they are one of his favorite things to eat

At some point along the way, the Cowpea (or Sea Island Red Pea, as it is known in South Carolina), finally made its way into the kitchens of the main house and someone tasted the combination of Carolina Gold Rice and the Red Pea and Hoppin’ John was born.  (That is one of the theories for the origin of the dish.) .  Unfortunately, as these ingredients disappeared over time, the authenticity of the dish was lost and white rice and black eyed peas were substituted in the dish.  That combination is very different.  It all goes back to the importance of the ingredients.

There is food everywhere at McCrady’s

Including this rooftop garden

Brock refers to a book from the mid 1800’s,  A Philosophy of Taste, that is a cookbook of plants for farmers and cooks.  There are 26 varieties of cabbage listed in that book.  How many do we see at the grocery store today?  Maybe three or four?  “We have lost the plants and characteristics of our foods”.

Chef Brock with his heirloom seed collection

Chef Brock has been working with Glenn Roberts and Dr. David Shields of Anson Mills for several years to grow and preserve heirloom seeds.  He said that this work would not be possible without the help of Clemson University’s Dr. David Bradshaw.  He showed us his heirloom seed collection with some varieties preserved from hundreds of years ago.  There is even a Global Seed Vault in the Arctic, created to store these heirloom treasures, now with over 500,000 varieties preserved.

This is quite the find

Charleston’s Lowcountry cuisine is a product of its location and availability of foods that were grown at the time based on crop rotation (plants like corn, peas, rice, benne and okra are traditional ingredients).  You harvested what animals were around you (wild boar, alligator and rabbits) and fresh seafood.  The cuisine of Charleston has had its own voice and style since the late 1600’s with influences from Italy, Africa and France.  Brock and many of the Charleston chefs are working hard to recreate this style of cooking with authentic local ingredients and heirloom produce.

Chef Brock’s tattoos represent his heirloom seed projects

If you had asked Brock five years ago what he would be doing now, he said that it certainly would not be this.  Molecular gastronomy and the use of nitrogen in cooking played a large part in his cooking early on (and still does to some extent today).  Now this Chef is reaching back in history to create authentic dishes using heritage ingredients.  In fact, he is hoping to pick up wherever Glenn Roberts leaves off and wants to devote his life preserving heritage products at some point in the future.

We headed over to Husk for a late lunch

This work does not end with heirloom plants.  He is also passionate about changing the way we treat our animals that become food on our table and is sourcing heritage breeds of livestock for his restaurants.  Brock has raised his own herd of pigs (treating them to chocolate and Fruit Loops from time to time).  He had a sleepless evening the night before they were dropped off for harvesting.  However, it was an incredibly proud moment to share them with his culinary team and ultimately, the guests at his restaurant.

In front of the kitchen at Husk

The poultry industry is of particular concern to this chef.  It is appalling the way these animals are raised and treated.  “Every time you buy food, you cast a vote.  Here is my money, thank you so much for treating the chickens that way.  Keep on doing what you are doing.”  He said no one ever wants to see the videos about how the animals are raised and harvested, yet continue to eat certain products and brands.  “We have to fix it.  We have to stop talking and just do it”.

Brock wants to bring properly raised heritage breeds of poultry back into the kitchens.  “If the chefs cook it and taste the difference and write about it, it can change the industry.  We may pay more, but we have to say that is what I need to be cooking”.

I had to try the smoked chicken after getting a whiff of this!

When asked why Charleston has so many great chefs and restaurants, Brock says “The circle is finally complete here”.  There are many elements of this circle.  The local people in Charleston are incredibly supportive and are open to anything he serves.  Dishes that might not be welcomed in some cities are supported by the patrons in Charleston which gives the chef the opportunity to experiment.  This was true in the 1600’s when rice first came to Charleston, and is true today.  The city has grown up on great food, generation after generation.

“The chefs are now cooking with the proper ingredients with unique inspiration based on our history.  People are coming here to experience it.   If it tastes better, you will want more.  It’s best for the environment, the economy and it’s just right.”

Charcuterie plate at Husk. Everything is made in-house.

Rabbit Rillettes with Green Goddess Dressing

If you dine at Husk or McCrady’s, you will eat vegetables that are just hours out of the ground, enjoy buttermilk benne seed rolls, savor housemade charcuterie and have a smoked heritage breed chicken with homemade barbecue sauce.  You will then understand the passion Chef Brock has for bringing our foods back the way they should be and the way they were meant to be enjoyed.  There is nothing better tasting than real food.

Thank you so much to Chef Brock for his time and graciousness during our visit.  It was a truly inspiring and empowering experience.

Sea Island Red Peas

Chef Brock shared his recipe for Hoppin’ John with me.  I ordered the authentic ingredients (Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas) from Anson Mills.  (You can order them here.)  I am a total convert after making this recipe.  It is nothing like the rice and beans that we normally have once a year (New Year’s Day).  This dish had incredible flavors because the focus was on good ingredients.  It is a simple dish, easy to prepare and should be served on a regular basis.  It is that good.

This ain’t your Momma’s Hoppin’ John!

We liked it best served as a stew with lots of broth in the bowl.

I could eat this as a meal by itself

We at Bunkycooks ask that you support your local farmers and bring the best to your table.  Know where your food comes from.

Enjoy!

You might like to read another interview of Chef Brock by Joyce at Friends Drift Inn.

Hoppin' John

Yield: 6-8 as a side dish

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Cook Time: 1 hour

Total Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Ingredients:

For the red peas:
1 cup Anson Mills Sea Island Red Peas, soaked in water and refrigerated overnight, drained

2 quarts stock (preferably pork, but chicken will do)
1 large onion, medium dice

1 large carrot medium dice 

2 celery stalks, medium dice

2 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin

1 bay leaf


For the rice:
1 cup Anson Mills Carolina Gold Rice

Salt and Cayenne pepper to taste
7 Cups Water

4 Tablespoons Butter

Directions:

For the red peas:
In a large stockpot, bring the stock to a simmer and add all ingredients. Cook for 1 hour over low heat, partially covered. When peas are tender, season with salt.

For the rice:
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add the rice, stir once, and return to a simmer. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the rice is almost fully cooked, about 15 minutes (do not overcook). Drain the rice and rinse with cold water.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the rice onto a sheet tray. Place it in the oven to dry, stirring occasionally (mine took about 10 minutes). Be careful not to smash the rice. Dice the butter and spread evenly over the rice. Continue stirring every few minutes until the butter has melted.

Recipe Courtesy of Executive Chef Sean Brock - McCrady's and Husk
Charleston, South Carolina


 

20 Responses to “Interview with Chef Sean Brock – Charleston, SC and a recipe for Hoppin’ John”

  1. 1

    Susan in the Boonies — June 20, 2011 @ 5:06 pm

    We make Hoppin’ John every New Year’s Day as well.

    How cool that you tried it with the local varietals! I’m sure it was well worth it!

    • Gwen replied: — June 20th, 2011 @ 6:50 pm

      Hi Susan,

      You should try this recipe made with the heirloom ingredients. There was no comparison to what I made with the Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas with what I have had in the past. :)

      Gwen

  2. 2

    Lynn Lekander — June 20, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

    This is a really interesting piece – I love Chef Brock’s use of heirloom seed to grow food that he prepares. Beautiful piece, terrific pictures, thank you!

    • Gwen replied: — June 20th, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

      Thank you, Lynn. We had a great visit with Chef Brock and the discussions about our current food situation were truly inspiring.

  3. 3

    Denise@There's a Newf in My Soup! — June 20, 2011 @ 6:22 pm

    Facinating interview. It’s wonderful seeing more and more chefs with their own farms and gardens, Farmers’ Markets cropping up everywhere, and heirloom varieties more readily available. It makes eating out and cooking at home more interesting, enjoyable, and healthy. And that’s quite a work of art on Chef’s arm!

  4. 4

    Gwen — June 20, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    Hi Denise,

    I know you and John appreciate great ingredients and the difference it makes in our cooking. I hope that these interviews make more people aware of the incredible chefs that are out there championing bringing back the heirloom foods that should be available to us. It is what is normal and what is right.

    Gwen

  5. 5

    Nelly Rodriguez — June 20, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    A friend of mine works at Husk and has been telling me of how I should make a little culinary trip to SC! After reading this, I definitely want to! Thanks for sharing!

  6. 6

    Tammy Brawley — June 21, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Sean Brock is, in my opinion, the best chef on the planet. We ate at McCrady’s Valentine’s Day, 2010 and the menu was spectacular. I am dying to get back to Charleston and try Husk. His appreciation for heirlooms, animal treatment and food in general is a lesson for us all, professional chefs and home cooks alike!

  7. 7

    Drick — June 21, 2011 @ 8:53 am

    So great of you Gwen to focus on this chef and the cause of bringing back regional ingredients.
    I remember when I posted my recipe for Hoppin’ John I came across this and thought you might enjoy as to one explanation of the origin of its name – “reported by Raymond Sokolov, former Food Editor of the New York Times, that the dish goes back at least as far as 1841, when, according to oral tradition, it was hawked in the streets of Charleston, South Carolina, by a crippled black man who was known as Hoppin’ John.”

    • Gwen replied: — June 21st, 2011 @ 10:30 am

      Hi Drick,

      Thank you for your comment. I thought you might enjoy this interview. I did come across several theories on the origins of Hoppin’ John and that was one of them. I guess we will never know how it really happened, but when made with Carolina Gold Rice and Sea Island Red Peas, I am glad that someone created the dish!

      Gwen

  8. 8

    Lana @ Never Enough Thyme — June 21, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    What an interesting interview. It is so refreshing to hear of someone with such a passion for bringing back our “heritage” food products. I have been saying for years that our foods just don’t taste like they used to and it’s entirely because of the mass production and marketing of easily produced inferior products. I grew up on a farm where we had our own chickens, cows and pigs along with a large garden every years. Sadly, I no longer have access to those local products. Even many of the local “produce stands” and farmers markets aren’t really selling locally produced goods.

    We just happen to be going to Charleston this weekend. Guess where we’ll be dining?

    • Gwen replied: — June 21st, 2011 @ 6:59 pm

      Hi Lana,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I totally agree. and yes, unfortunately, the Farmer’s Markets are not all selling locally sourced produce. Our food is so bland now that we are having to use more spices and salt just to get any flavor from the dishes. It is so sad that no one knows how food is really supposed to taste.

      Some of the best meals we have had are made with locally sourced produce and humanely raised animals. It tastes like food should and doesn’t need all the extra seasonings.

      Enjoy your trip to Charleston! We love the city and so many restaurants there are fabulous! Let me know if you need any other recommendations other than Chef Brock’s restaurants (and I highly recommend both of those). :)

      Gwen

  9. 9

    Carolyn Binder — June 21, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    What a wonderful and educational review about a topic that is so dear to my heart. I’m ordering the rice and beans right now! Thanks, Gwen!

  10. 10

    Carolyn Binder — June 21, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    I love the Anson Mills site–thanks for the link. I just ordered a ton of goodies to bake with. Yum!

    • Gwen replied: — June 22nd, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

      Hi Carolyn,

      Thank you for the comment and I am so glad you ordered some items from Anson Mills. You will be hooked! Enjoy. :)

      Gwen

  11. 11

    Lori — June 23, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    I finally made it to Charleston for the first time in March. Amazing! I can’t wait to go back. I was able to take a culinary tour and while we didn’t go to Husk, we did hear all about it. Excellent interview and photos! Gives me even more reason to return.

  12. 12

    Kim — June 26, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

    Gwen – wonderful interview!

    I agree that we’ve been dumbed down with that’s mass produced. I had to travel to Ojai to taste the most beautiful strawberries I’ve ever tasted… because they were so delicate they’d never make the drive down to where I live.

    I also had a dream last night that the RGB was open, and were raising chickens both for eggs and for meat that were serving right back in the bistro. By the sounds of this interview, that is quite possible, yes?!

    How about doing another On the Road tour to this place so I can come along this time?!

    [K]

  13. 13

    Carolyn Binder — July 2, 2011 @ 8:53 pm

    Making my hoppin’ John right now. The beans smell amazing. I love how little and perfect they are.

  14. 14

    Carolyn Binder — July 2, 2011 @ 10:29 pm

    The verdict? The best Hoppin’ John we’ve ever tasted. Please tell Chef we loved it, and thank you for sharing. It’s well worth ordering the ingredients you recommended to have a sample of the rich, original flavors. We have given up so much, and it’s great to bring it back.

  15. 15

    Sheila — March 19, 2013 @ 5:28 pm

    Oh what a wonderful write-up! I love Husk, and make a point of eating there every time I’m in Charleston. So wonderful to see this as I plan my next Charleston trip!

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