SoBeWFF: (Updated) What Happens When Culinary Jesus Abandons the Flock?

Categories: Musings
Update: The media relations company representing Sean Brock issued a response to this article. See below.

Celebrated Charleston chef Sean Brock walked out of dinner service he was headlining to party at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach for Gail Simmons' book release.
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The dinner at Yardbird was billed as "A Southern Revival," an 1800s-themed event that cost $375 a head, or $475 for those who signed on for the Pappy Van Winkle bourbon flight presented by Julian Van Winkle III himself. Brock joined Top Chef alums Jeff McInnis and Kenny Gilbert for the collaborative effort in the kitchen.

The dinner was not an official South Beach Wine and Food Festival event but a benefit for the Southern Foodways Alliance that cost $100 or more per person than the most-coveted events of the festival. The star power of Top Chef alum Van Winkle and Brock jacked up the ticket price. (Note: Three guests and I paid $225 a person, forgoing bourbon altogether. It appears the price dropped as the event neared.)

Who is Brock? If you believe the hype, he's this decade's culinary Jesus.

Brock was the subject of a 12-page profile in the New Yorker last October that focused on his heirloom pig farm and his role in inspiring the revival of Southern cuisine. It expounds on the difference in lengthy detail between the two celebrated restaurants he has helmed: his molecular gastronomy temple that has been McCrady's and the more rustic Husk, in which he uses no ingredient made or procured above the Mason-Dixon Line.

More praise. In the New York Times last February, critic Sam Sifton chronicled Husk's greatness, calling a vegetable dish "a side dish miracle." His cooking "establishes a baseline of excellence that would be difficult for any cook to top, even Mr. Brock."

Brock's reputation as a culinary luminary and a pioneer is how a crew of folks with careers in food ended up at Yardbird for the second time on the festival weekend, paying close to $1,000, more than four times the amount of a Thursday night's tab. "It's cheaper than our booking a ticket to Charleston and staying overnight to eat at Husk," said a friend who led the charge. I sat with potential Sean Brock groupies, along with 60 other diners who were there for the Brock-McInnis duo and the Van Winkle pairing.

So you can imagine the dismay when Brock changed into street clothes at the fourth course and cruised out the front door.

The dinner wasn't a disaster by any means and at times was quite polished. During the cocktail hour, servers passed champagne around and canapes of deviled eggs garnished with smoked roe. The CEO of 50 Eggs Restaurant Group, John Kunkel, introduced himself to every guest. Chef McInnis thanked each attendee and introduced his kitchen staff, Julian Van Winkle III, and, before dinner, Brock himself.

Once the five-course meal was under way, the home chefs worked their asses off. A charcuterie board hit the tables, a medley of meats cured by Husk and Yardbird. Which was which? We wondered and asked yet did not lasso a clear answer.

Fried pig ears with pickled sunchokes soon followed, a dish that seemed to harken from Husk. I recalled a former editor swooning over a similar dish during a food-conference visit to the Charleston restaurant. Foie gras biscuits with citrus marmalade rounded out the second course, followed by a bland, Charleston-style seafood stew. Fried chicken and waffles were clearly a McInnis menu staple, served with Tupelo honey and Crystal hot sauce -- a condiment I briefly considered drinking. The fifth course served as a triple slam of pork chops with beer-braised collards; pork belly with grits and gravy; and Carolina rice cakes with pimento cheese and shaved lardo.

While servers ushered family-style plates of pork through the dining room, diners' mouths fell agape as they watched Brock walk out the door of the dinner he headlined. "I've never seen a chef do that," said a woman at our table who goes to tasting menu dinners like it's her job. "He didn't even sneak out the back."

Instead, Brock was en route to the Gail Simmons book party, well before the midnight hour when most partygoers arrived.

What was missing from the evening's dinner -- besides the headlining chef, of course -- were the stories. And the stories weren't told because Brock wasn't able to tell them. It appeared he was in slow motion in the open kitchen. He was half-engaged when he greeted diners like us before dinner, making observations, then wandering away. He seemed too compromised, distracted, disheartened, shy, under the weather, or drunk -- whatever the case may have been -- to engage with his audience. Sixty-plus people opted out of the festival events on a prime night. For a dinner in which Brock showed his enthusiasm by walking out the front door.

"I'd expected more," wrote GQ's Alan Richman of his restaurant in a piece Richman was maligned for called "Where the Heck Is Husk?" earlier this month. He had nixed it from his list of the Ten Best New Restaurants in America and spoke to the question he knew he'd be asked. "Sophistication, I hoped. Care, at least. I found neither."

At the conclusion of the main courses just before dessert, a woman grabbed chef McInnis' attention as he made the rounds to every table. "Did Brock just walk out the door?!" she asked. McInnis was a diplomat. "Well, we're done cooking," he said sheepishly, taking off his hat. He shrugged.

"Husk is proof that a restaurant isn't about what comes in the back door," wrote Richman, a reference to its ingredients and sourcing, "it's about what goes out the kitchen door." Or perhaps it's about the follow-through and a modest display of gratitude.

In a response to New Times' questions today, Yardbird confirmed that the dinner was a collaborative effort that involved a monthlong back-and-forth between chefs, the curating and shipping of ingredients from Brock's sources, and the restaurant group's delight at the outcome. "We are thrilled that Chef Brock was able to participate in 'A Southern Revival' as a guest chef and we look forward to working with him again."

Update: Wagstaff Worldwide, the media relations company that represents Sean Brock, has issued a response to this article.
Dear Melissa, 
It was a pleasure speaking with you. Following are several factual items to be considered for your story. 
-Sean worked with Jeff for the last month on the menu development for the event but the idea was that Jeff would execute and Sean would be there to support the Southern Foodways Alliance and Yardbird. 
-Saturday morning Sean worked with the culinary team to get organized but Chef McInnis asked Sean to come back after brunch service because they were in the middle of a record brunch service. 
-Sean left the kitchen after the last savory course was prepared so the team could open back up for normal dinner service and they needed the space (it is a tiny kitchen space). 
-Sean's departure was prearranged due to a commitment to support his friend Gail Simmons.
Please let me know what questions I can answer.


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