Since I’m not a fan of chefs who include pork products in every dish they create, I’ve never had any use for Sean Brock. I’m clearly in the minority. Over the span of one dozen years he won James Beard Awards, wrote cookbooks, was nominated for a daytime Emmy, opened eight restaurants, and was instrumental in transforming Charleston into the culinary mecca it is today. At one point, he even drank enough Bourbon to become a pal of the late Anthony Bourdain, although he has since been to rehab and mended his ways.
Charleston residents were astounded last week to learn that Brock is abandoning the city and moving to Nashville. He’s actually been living there for some time, but now he’s formalizing his relationship with Music City. He’ll continue to be “founding chef and culinary advisor” to the Husk restaurants in Charleston, Nashville, Greenville and Savannah, but he’s stepping away from the other locations in the Neighborhood Dining Group (McCrady’s, McCrady’s Tavern and Minero).
On the surface, it seemed like a curious move. Any foodie will tell you that Nashville isn’t Charleston. There are some interesting and funky restaurants out in the neighborhoods, but the downtown area is pretty much devoid of places worth eating in. The quality of tourism is also very different in the two cities. Downtown Nashville is undergoing a radical renovation right now, but the goal is to attract conventioneers, weddings, reunions and bachelor/bachelorette parties rather than the serious and well-heeled diners who pack Charleston’s restaurants every night.
Brock is conveniently traveling in Sweden and unavailable for comment. He announced in a statement that he would “focus on his own restaurant endeavors in Nashville going forward,” leaving everyone to speculate about his motivations. Maybe he’s just bored and on a plateau. Perhaps he can’t resist the temptation to start over and recreate his success in another location. Being a big fish in a small pond is always an attractive proposition, particularly if the pond is currently filled with mediocre fish food. Or perhaps there’s another explanation, a more idealistic and hopeful one.
Prior to entering rehab, Brock was probably dying: stress, pressure and alcoholism had teamed up with an autoimmune disease that was threatening to blind him. Since emerging from a high-end Arizona treatment center, he has lost 20 pounds and is once again cheerful and joyful. He is reportedly continuing with therapy and support groups, and he’s involved in both meditation and reiki—a remarkable transformation for someone who used to have one of the largest Bourbon collections in the country. From this perspective, his goal might well be rebirth. It will be difficult to find among the cranes, jackhammers and emerging skyscrapers that dominate downtown Nashville at the moment, but it’s always possible.
Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available on amazon.com; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in Spring 2019.