The beauty of Husk, says Sean Brock, is that each one he opens becomes about the place where it is located simply because of the restaurant's mission to use local farmers and fishermen.
Husk Charleston, the first one that opened in 2010, reflects the farms and waters of the Lowcountry, while Husk Greenville, which opened two weeks ago, basks in the bounty of the Upstate, where mushrooms, root vegetables, and greens thrive.
“It’s the best produce on the East Coast,” says Brock. “It’s mind-boggling. We’re putting nothing [but the vegetables] on a plate.”
While Greenville probably doesn’t feel quite like Virginia, where Brock is from, it’s close enough to encompass familiar Appalachian foods like greasy beans and shucky beans. “Shucky beans are a particular kind of pole or bush bean, not a field pea. It has to be full-bodied and robust,” he says. “Greasy beans are just extraordinary. They are packed with umami and taste like meat and earth. The first farmer I looked at, he was offering them for sale and I just remembered that flavor of my childhood; it’s a flavor that most people aren’t familiar with.”
The shucky bean is basically green bean jerky, made by stringing up beans with needle and thread and hanging over a fire or out in the sun to dry and shrivel. “They’re sometimes called ‘leather britches,” says Brock. “What’s neat about it is it shows me the ability of Appalachian cooks to take simple ingredients and make something extraordinary and memorable.”
For Brock, the challenge at Husk is to take that idea further. “What can we do with this bean and apply our knowledge, science, and technology to create something more intense, delicious, and interesting?” he asks.
Brock, in addition to being a native Virginian, claims to be 13 percent Cherokee and thinks the subject of what happened to that tribe of Native Americans needs to be recognized and acknowledged. He feels like food is an avenue for exploring that story.
For instance, he featured fry bread on the menu not because it’s indigenous to the tribe, but because it’s a symbol of the Native American struggle. It was created by American Indians from the Southwest who were forced to rely on government commodity goods during and after their displacement.
“This was not food that their DNA was designed to process,” says Brock. “It’s led to high cholesterol and diabetes. I enjoy the opportunity to tell those stories and raise awareness.”
He also enjoys the opportunity to explore the native dishes that are “so healthy and so smart. Three sisters is a perfect example,” says Brock, referring to the trio of corn, beans and squash that is the basis for most native fare. Not only does companion planting physically beneficial to the crops, but they are nutritionally complementary as well.
Another dish on the Husk Greenville menu that explores this history is the Cherokee bean cake. “It’s kind of like a tamale,” says Brock. “You add ash and water to field corn and boil so the outer layer softens. Then you mash it up while it’s still almost raw. It’s like grits or hominy; not quite masa. Then it’s smashed up in a mortar and pestle. Soup beans are folded in and wrapped in corn husk and then it’s thrown in the fire, boiled, steamed or simmered. At Husk, we griddle it so it gets crunchy like a johnnycake. It’s two ingredients and it tastes unbelievable.”
Brock says Husk Greenville has found a fan base in Greenville. “One of the main reasons for the demand of Husk in particular is that it represents a cuisine of a place,” says Brock. “And Greenville is ready for that place. Upcountry cooking is ready to have its time.”
This is the first time Brock, recently sober and currently in therapy, has opened a restaurant with a sense of calm and purpose and not bloody knuckles and hangovers. “I almost feel guilty about feeling so happy,” he says.
Good thing he’s gotten control of the stress and anxiety that inevitably comes with the opening of resaturants. The Savannah Husk is set to open in the coming weeks. “Orientation starts in a few days,” says Brock. “And training begins. We have classroom seminar stuff that takes a while, and then we’ll have friends and family and a very slow opening.”