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Bill Addison

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Sean Brock Unveils Big Changes for Charleston Institution McCrady's

Next steps for the historic establishment

When long-standing foundation McCrady's announced it was to shut its hallowed doors in late July, the city of Charleston — along with the food-obsessed community across the U.S. — let out a collective sigh of disbelief. Yes, the restaurant is important because of its rich history. It was, after all, a noted watering hole for George Washington. But it's also notable on a national scale because it's where modern food master Sean Brock came into his own, and continues to hold court as chef and partner. As Eater restaurant editor Bill Addison explains, "McCrady’s gave Brock the freedom of expression to become the food-world figure he is today."

The fact that McCrady's will live on as McCrady's Tavern, still helmed by Brock, got lost in the collective wave of shock. Today, Sean Brock sets the record straight for Eater, explaining the vision behind McCrady's Tavern and the updated McCrady's, which will be reimagined right around the corner at 155 East Bay Street.


McCrady’s

Sean Brock [Provided]

I moved here in 2006 to work at McCrady's, and I've been obsessed with that place ever since. It's a big restaurant, and the food we've always done has been challenging. It's about pushing, forward thinking, and being creative. Looking through things with a modern lens is my passion.

We've always had an internal struggle. We want to do 15-course tasting menu — that's what we're passionate about — but because of the size of the restaurant, we have to do 200 covers, and those things don't go hand-in-hand. The French Laundry doesn't do 200 covers a night. We would find ourselves with 80 people seated with 30 people getting the tasting menu and 50 getting the regular menu, and that's just hell for a kitchen. You can't focus.

McCrady's is taking a little nap, getting a new set of clothes, a little makeover, and is coming back stronger and cooler than ever.

You're going to hear me mention Japan a lot. I've been a bit obsessed since I first went, but they have a culture — and I love this idea — of focusing on one thing and doing it perfectly your whole life with an intense focus. It's been frustrating over the past years. When we take the tasting menu away, the city gets upset, but when we bring the tasting menu back, no one orders it. So, we went back and forth and back and forth. After 10 years, we have to skip that and really focus on sets of clientele and guests to be able to please them more and provide a better experience. Everyone wrote that McCrady's was closing, but that's so untrue. McCrady's is taking a little nap, getting a new set of clothes, a little makeover, and is coming back stronger and cooler than ever.

McCrady's will shrink down to 22 seats [with an open kitchen in the dining room], one menu, and it will be the most intense food I ever created. That's not closing McCrady's — that's making McCrady's into what I always wanted it to be. I'm very excited about that.

It will be the most intense food I ever created...making McCrady's into what I always wanted it to be.

My biggest focus in the new McCrady's is the experience for the guests. The obsession with hospitality is what's keeping me up at night. Every detail of every single detail, from the website, from when you Google it, to the next morning when you wake up — I want to be able to control that in a way that provides an experience you can't get anywhere else. I haven't even thought about one dish. I've sketched out some menu formats and flows, but I'll let that happen naturally. Once we get the Tavern open, then R&D [research and development] will start for McCrady's.

The meetings, and meetings, and meetings we have over selecting a single wine glass shows how we are trying to focus to create something very special. If you think about it, there's not a lot of restaurants providing that in the country, so it's cool to be able to provide that on the East Coast and in the South. We want it to be accessible to everyone. It's no fun if it's too expensive for everyone to experience.

McCrady’s Tavern

McCrady's Tavern [McCrady's]

The Tavern is an idea that's been bouncing around in my head for a few years now. I've always been obsessed with Pre-Depression American cooking. The food after the Civil War, and before the Great Depression, the Gilded Age, was a really, really cool moment for American cooking. This is when people were inventing things like baked Alaska, oysters Rockefeller, and lobster newburg and thermidor.

This food was happening in grand hotels, railcars, and cruise ships, served on grand plates with grand service. We look at it now, and it doesn't seem interesting, but if you think about it, the guy who invented baked Alaska was the equivalent of Grant Achatz at the time — he set ice cream and sorbet on fire, at the table. That's pretty avant garde. I decided that Tavern will be food in that spirit. We're not giving baked Alaska though.

The other time period I've studied was late '80s and early '90s French cuisine — more aesthetically and not technique. I think there's a beauty in that, and there's a craft and skill that's been forgotten, and we're going to try to bring it back.

We look at it now, and it doesn't seem interesting, but if you think about it, the guy who invented baked alaska was the equivalent of Grant Achatz — he set ice cream and sorbet on fire, at the table.

We spent the last five or six months in an R&D kitchen testing and testing and testing. It's just like what we did for Minero, where we get to a point that we cannot not make that dish any better. It's almost too much flavor. It's almost too delicious. We want people to eat this food and start laughing because it's that good.

It will be old school, but in a new way. We're taking everything we've learned in the last 15 years of modern cooking, and cooking in general, and applying that to the spirit of the Gilded Age. We've created food that is simple in appearance, but insanely flavorful with very high-quality ingredients and affordable.

The service will be the same. We don't want it to be formal and stuffy, but we don't want it to be too casual. We'll make people feel relaxed and comfortable, but also well taken care of. It will be very lively. We'll have Led Zeppelin and Run DMC blasting. It will be a fun place you'll want to go all the time.

We want people to eat this food and start laughing because it's that good.

I'm very obsessed with steakhouses and the comfort of knowing exactly what you're going to get. Menus don't change every day at a steakhouse. It's what I call the power of craveability. If you crave something it haunts you. That's what we're trying to create. Every time we finish a dish, if I'm not thinking about it ten minutes later or if I can't stop eating it — even if I'm full — then the dish isn't complete.

In looking at all these old books my entire career, and being obsessed with food my whole career, I've never had an outlet to cook these foods as simple as they should be cooked. If I cooked them at Husk, I would need to use certain ingredients. If I cooked them at McCrady's, it would have to be in a modern way.

We've created a pretty special burger — a burger that rivals the Husk burger.

I'll show you [takes out iPhone]. This is flounder vin blanc. Old-school and classic, but there's hydrocolloids in that sauce, meat glue in that fish, and modern techniques that allow us to keep it consistent and tight and refined. When people were cooking that, that was modern in its time, and I love that. We created a pretty special burger — a burger that rivals the Husk burger. I might like it better, actually, but I've had a lot of Husk burgers.

We'll serve Thomas Jefferson's macaroni. Just like everything else, we said if we're going to serve macaroni and cheese, it has to be more than elbow macaroni and Velveeta, which is fantastic. But ours is the most complicated macaroni and cheese on the planet, yet it won't look that way. And it won't feel that way, because it will just be insanely delicious and addictive. We want you to crave it.

We're fortunate enough to have an R&D program where we can sit in a room for 15 hours to perfect tater tot caviar.

Do you know how caviar service normally comes separated and all the stuff falls off because you can't hold it on there? Keeping that in mind for the guest, I came up with a way to get it all in one bite for it to stay in the vessel. Ours is layered like a parfait with a full ounce of caviar. The yolk at the bottom layer is cooked and thickened, so when you scoop it onto the hash brown, it all ends up in one bite. It's this obsession with taking something anyone else can do and walking through it as a guest and a cook. We take a look at it historically and ask how we can play with it, not to be silly or humorous, but to slightly improve upon it. For example, that yolk, we tested that at 59°, 60°, 62°, 63°, one hour, and 30 minutes, until it stayed on that tater tot [laughs]. We're fortunate enough to have an R&D program where we can sit in a room for 15 hours to perfect tater tot caviar.

I think it's great because McCrady's will now cater to all needs of the guests.

Take our smothered pork chop and herb salad. That pork goes through a lot of things before it gets to the grill, and that sauce has about 25 ingredients. It's not just simple cooking. It looks simple, but that's so much work, thought, and prep.

I think it's great because McCrady's will now cater to all needs of the guests. If you want this food on Monday and a tasting menu on Tuesday, you can do it all in one beautiful building, and I think that's really cool.

As told to Erin Perkins, lightly edited for clarity.

McCrady's

155 East Bay Street, , SC 29401 (843) 577-0025 Visit Website
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