Chef Sean Brock lays down roots in Nashville.

It was big news when Sean Brock took off his toque in Charleston, South Carolina, bidding adieu to his revered Low Country restaurants, McCrady’s and Husk, before moving closer to home in Nashville, Tennessee.

Those would undoubtedly be tough acts to follow, but the Virginia son, James Beard Award-winning chef, New York Times bestselling cookbook author, and star of Netflix’s Chef’s Table has always made a name for himself by reinventing the wheel. In fact, over the course of the last two decades, Brock has helped repatriate Southern cuisine, raising its reputation from one of comfort-food classics to revolutionary reimaginations that simultaneously tip a hat to the past and tilt forever forward into the future.

And this duality is exactly what the almost-45-year-old chef is now honing with new fervor in his second act—across his all-star lineup in Music City. From his fast-food ode at Joyland to his rebirth of heyday hotel dining at The Continental to his flagship Audrey, named for his late grandmother, to his 37-seat June, he’s digging even deeper into his culinary roots, and, through food, breaking new ground on the American South’s sense of community, culture, and place.

Earlier this month, we caught up with Sean about his last supper, his latest obsessions, and an otherworldly ingredient he’s created at The Lab at Audrey, aka the new mad-science research arm of Team Brock.

All of your dishes feature some element of nostalgia for the South, but few like your new chicken and dumplings dish at Audrey, which uses a trifecta of Butter Pat products. It’s served in the Eric with the borosilicate glass lid, on top of our cypress drop lid, which is used as a trivet. Can you tell us the backstory of this recipe?

I get asked a lot what my death row meal would be. This is always the answer, and I think it probably will be for eternity. This is something that my grandmother made, and my mom still makes. It’s that one dish in my family that you make someone when they need to be comforted. I love that food can do that. I love that you can do that for someone else. And so that dish has always been very sacred for me, therefore making it more difficult for me to put on a menu, because I grew up with a version stuck in my head that does not translate to executing in the restaurant world.

Why is that?

It’s a long, slow process, and with the demands of a busy kitchen, people would have to wait half an hour, maybe longer, to get their meal. I’ve been struggling the whole time that I’ve had restaurants to figure out a way to produce it faster and easier for dining-room service—but also still something that I would be proud to serve my mom.

How does the cookware come into play?

Seeing the Eric with the glass lid inspired us to chase the chicken and dumplings once more, because it’s the perfect size, and you have to have a proper lid. Both the cast iron and the glass can withstand very high temperatures, so that gives us the opportunity to cook faster. We put it in a section of our hearth that is the temperature of a pizza oven, anywhere between 800 and 1,000 degrees, and we’re able to cook a dish that would normally take 30 to 40 minutes in eight. And that high heat produces this really beautiful fluffy dumpling—the seal forms between the lid and the Eric, and none of that deliciousness can escape. When we take the lid off, we throw in a little bit of wood chip to get some smoke, and then we finish it on another high-heat blast before it goes out to the dining room. It’s my mom’s recipe and technique, which is identical to the way that Audrey made it. I was so excited the first night we put it on the menu that I wouldn’t let anybody else make them—I made every single one all night and just stood in one part of the kitchen and just made chicken and dumplings for five hours. It was some of the best therapy I’ve ever received.


Tell us more about why the lid matters.

The lid allows for flavor distillation, and flavor concentration through distillation, because it’s holding all the flavor and aroma compounds in the pot, instead of releasing them out into the air [via vapor and steam]. Also, it’s the perfect height for the dumplings to souffle up to.

What is that process like for you, translating a recipe that has meant so much to you and your family for so long into something produced at a restaurant scale?

We’re about a year and a half into being open at Audrey. Our menu has evolved constantly, and what it has ended up becoming is not what I originally had envisioned, but that’s how it works. It’s becoming something that is a truer representation of the food that I grew up eating in my grandmother’s house; if you look through the menu now, it’s almost becoming a greatest hits album of Appalachian cookery. And, for me, giving someone salt risen bread for the first time, watching their eyes light up when they tear into it, getting to tell them why it exists and how it’s made and who made it—those dialogues and those stories—that’s the heart and soul of this restaurant. We want to keep tradition alive by talking about it and making it and giving it to people. But we also want to allow that tradition to evolve, and hopefully become better, and to search for new traditions that haven’t been discovered yet.

Are there any new discoveries you’re making right now that you’re particularly excited about?

When I become interested in a subject matter, I dive in and extract all of the information that I can and obsess over it—it’s all I think about for sometimes two, three years. And right now, that’s the forest of Appalachia. I can’t sleep at night; I just want to wake up and go to the woods every day and look under rocks. There’s so much flavor in there that hasn’t been discovered. We’re just now finding truffles that have been growing wild all over Appalachia, and they’re extraordinary. We’re exploring barks of trees, we’re playing with willow and cherry and shagbark hickory, and we’re unlocking a lot that’s hidden in them—salts, and sugars, and the same aroma and flavor compounds that are found in smoke. It’s fascinating! And we’re just getting started. I mean, think about what’s below the surface, in their roots. It’s an obsession that will keep me busy…forever. And the neat thing is, I grew up so far back in the mountains, my childhood was spent playing in the woods. That was my playground. So coming full circle back to those sights and smells and that feeling of being in that enormous range is just incredible.

What brought you back—or reminded you of this frontier?

Midlife crisis.

Where all the good ideas come from!

Yeah! I realized that I was halfway through my life as a chef. I’d spent the first half of my career focusing on the extraordinary low country of the Carolinas and Georgia. And I knew that I needed to spend the next half focusing on where I grew up. And for me, someone who is eternally curious, that mountainside will keep me occupied and stimulated for many, many, many years to come.

The Amazon of the United States. Are there any new, or perhaps rediscovered, tools or techniques that you’re feeling excited about now, too?

Oh, boy—yes. We have a research and development kitchen known as The Lab at Audrey that is stocked with some extraordinary pieces of equipment that allow us to do things that we’ve never been able to do before, like isolate flavor and aroma compounds and extract essential oils—things have been used in the industrial food world for so long for flavor development that we’re just now starting to understand and get our hands on the equipment for. They’re quite expensive, but the results are extraordinary, and they’re what I’ve been missing. These techniques, and a focus on extraction, has changed the way that I cook food. Period. I’m turning 45 in a couple of weeks. And I’m just now happy with cooking. I’m finally at a spot where I’m hitting the mark of the maximum possible flavor that I knew was there, that I’ve been trying to figure out how to squeeze out. 


What are some of the new things that you’ve been making?

Our Lab manager Elliot Silber has a chemistry degree and a culinary degree, so he’s perfect for the job. He developed this technique that has changed so much of how we season our food. As chefs, we’re first taught about salt, then acidity, then fat, then heat, and sours, and then we start to explore the tongue and learn to season that way. But Elliot has created a one-stop-shop product that is salty, sour, umami, and sweet—all at the same time—and it tastes like a concentration of whatever you made it with. And it’s actually an absurdly easy process that requires zero fancy equipment.

How do you make it?

You take an ingredient—let’s say your favorite heirloom varietal of a tomato—and you ferment it; you turn it into sauerkraut by adding two percent salt, sealing it up, and letting it sit for two weeks. Then you throw that into some sort of fine mesh or cheesecloth, and you squeeze, squeeze, squeeze every drop of liquid that you can get out of that ferment. Then you adjust the Brix [scale] to get [the sugar percentage] to a specific level, and then you dehydrate that. What happens is you get the umami from the fermentation, and the salt, obviously, and the lactic sourness, and then the sweetness that you add to adjust the texture through Brix. The viscosity ends up like honey, but it tastes like a tomato that has been seasoned with something sweet, sour, salty, and umami. So all you have to do is slice a tomato, paint that on top, and you’re going to blow someone’s mind. And it looks like nothing but a sliced tomato. And that is what I’ve been chasing my whole career.

What do you call it?

No idea. We call them sour syrups for now. But they need a cool name.  

Outside of your restaurant kitchens, what have you been cooking in cast iron at home lately?

I’ve been doing a lot stuffings and casseroles. I have two kids—a two-year-old and a four-year-old—so the meals have to be super easy, super fast, as does the cleanup. I love making one-pot dishes, because I’ll throw it in the fridge, right in the cast iron, then pull it out later and just pop it back on the stove.

Read Brock’s Recipe in Family Receipts.

Photographs courtesy of John Troxel and Emily Dorio.

March 09, 2023 — Dennis Powell