Long before the name Husk Greenville was anything more than wishful thinking, the Charleston-based restaurant’s award-winning chef, Sean Brock, began impacting the Upstate’s burgeoning restaurant scene.
“He changed the way I wrote a menu,” says chef Gregory McPhee, who launched The Anchorage, a true farm-to-table restaurant in the Village of West Greenville, earlier this year.
McPhee opened Husk Charleston alongside Brock in 2010 and quickly learned the restaurant’s trademark philosophy of working with local farmers to inspire their cuisine, a practice McPhee brought to Greenville two and a half years later as executive chef of High Cotton, then Restaurant 17, and now his own concept.
“You ordered and then wrote your menu,” McPhee says, explaining Brock’s method that is opposite the customary practice of planning dishes and then ordering the necessary ingredients.
Whatever was Southern and fresh at the moment was what the 2010 James Beard Award-winning chef would use, and Brock taught his staff to do the same.
On a recent visit to check on progress at Husk Greenville, which is scheduled to open in November in a renovated former grocery and department store at 722 S. Main St., Brock described the philosophy as a way of life.
“It’s the truest, most honest way of cooking,” he says. “It’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
At Husk Charleston, McPhee was responsible for purchasing all of the fish and produce the restaurant would use for the week, which often meant 200-300 pounds of whole fish, not including shellfish.
McPhee says the sheer amount of purchasing power Husk had was enough to boost the Charleston farming community in a major way.
More local produce purchased meant more revenue for the farmers, which turned into more crops available the next season for more restaurants to purchase.
It’s a cycle McPhee says he and a handful of other chefs in the Greenville area have begun to spark by sourcing ingredients from local purveyors only, and he projects getting a boost from a restaurant the likes of Husk could completely change the local farming community.
Chef Nick Graves, who took the helm of Restaurant 17 when McPhee left, also trained with Brock but at Husk Nashville from 2013-14. During that time, Brock was filming the second season of the PBS series “The Mind of a Chef,” and Graves says being around for that experience was eye-opening, exposing him to new techniques and ingredients. But, most of all, he learned to stay local and in many cases, regional, sourcing the best ingredients below the Mason-Dixon Line.
“Supporting everyone is important,” Graves says of how he learned to work with local providers.
Graves says during his stint in Nashville, he noticed more and more restaurants beginning to adopt the Husk philosophy of sourcing.
“Every community had farms long before our restaurant was created,” says David Howard, president of The Neighborhood Dining Group, which owns Husk. “We hope to revitalize and energize the passion for growing more specialty items.”
Howard says while the NDG restaurants certainly aren’t the only ones with this hyper-local focus and commitment, they have a platform that can enhance other people’s businesses through influencing and encouraging the support of local providers.
Chef Jon Buck, who spent five years at Husk Charleston before being named the chef de cuisine of Husk Greenville, has been spending his time prior to the restaurant’s opening in development. For a Husk chef, that means hours upon hours of meeting with local farmers and touring their properties, along with conducting historical research about indigenous food ways and practices.
Buck says much of the meetings serve to establish relationships with the farmers and their families, who in a year will be more like friends than business contacts.
So far, Buck and his team have met with Beechwood, Providence, Reedy River, Crescent, Greenbrier, Broken Oak, and Heritage farms, among others. At each one, they’re looking to source specific crops and animal proteins. Buck says the plan is usually to buy the whole harvest rather than a smaller amount, and it’s that purchasing power that has the ability to change the entire dynamic of a local farming community.
For instance, Buck says they’ve already agreed to buy all of the duck and chicken eggs Providence Farm produces, which could be a game-changer for the up-and-coming farm.
While Buck is working with the local farmers, Brock, who is involved in seed saving in each of the markets where his restaurants are, is researching the local, indigenous crops the restaurant will feature.
For him, it’s about storytelling, about cooking food families crave, and preserving history through forgotten ingredients.
“The scary thing about that is if it’s not brought into modern life, there’s a risk of it going away,” Brock says. “It’s a huge part of what forms a culture. If food goes away, that’s a really powerful component, and we lose part of the story, and the culture dissolves.”
For the Greenville market, Brock is focusing on reviving Cherokee varieties of squash, corn, and beans, along with other Appalachian crops, such as Georgia Hill Rice. He’s also looking at the Native American Three Sisters method of inter-planting corn, beans, and squash because they thrive together, like a built-in crop rotation.
Cherokee and Appalachian flavor profiles may involve incorporating different types of tree bark and acorns, Buck says. A hallmark of the Husk model is preserving produce that won’t be used immediately through pickling and utilizing the whole animal through charcuterie. And while the exact menu is still unknown, Brock says two things are certain at Husk Greenville: There will be fried chicken, likely including cornmeal, and a burger.
The Upstate also presents a unique opportunity, Buck says, because of the large number of farms compared to the number in the Lowcountry and the occurrence of four seasons, providing more crop variety.
Brock says that taking Husk into different areas, including Savannah, Ga., where the fourth outpost will open in December, is like using a whole new language, especially with his drastic life change of embracing sobriety within the last year.
“I have a new perspective,” he says. “I have the giddiness of a 17-year-old line cook.”
During Brock’s quick trip to Greenville, he and Buck met at Eggs Up Grill to discuss Buck’s menu ideas moving into the fall season. Those ideas come from the crops that should be harvested in time for Husk’s opening and also the two chefs’ personal stories from their childhoods, reaching back into the memories from their grandmothers’ kitchens.
“We’re combining inspirations,” Buck says. “I have my stories, and he has his, so we’re meeting in the middle.”
Buck remembers his grandmother’s rum cakes, biscuits, tuna salad, and pimento cheese. His sous chef, Shamil Velazquez, who is Puerto Rican, introduced Buck to Velazquez’s culinary heritage at Latinos Restaurant in Simpsonville. Buck says that was his favorite meal since moving to Greenville, because Velazquez was sharing his memories of his family through the experience.
Buck says, “Every menu we’re reaching back into memories and pulling from other people’s memories.”