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Brock Is Back

15 August, 2022
A black and white photo of a male chef pointing.

Courtesy of Sean Brock

Sean Brock’s second act

There’s a reason the menu at Audrey is short, and neither restaurant opens for lunch service. One of the fundamental changes that Brock has made for what he describes as his “second act” is to put the welfare of his staff and his own welfare first. Alongside a culinary lab, the building that houses Audrey/June also contains classrooms, a library, and a soundproofed mindfulness centre.

“I knew that I wanted to do something different when I left all the restaurants… I’m not ok anymore with waking up and saying, ‘that’s just the way things are.’ I’m going to create a perfectly delicious, wonderful restaurant that is not stressful to work in, that is not stressful to eat at,” Brock told us, shortly after emerging from his hiatus in 2019, and ahead of the opening of Audrey.

He’s also written a field guide for restaurant workers, called How to Thrive and Not Just Survive, focusing on how to create healthier, happier work environments. This is all at a time, of course, when restaurants are undergoing a period of deep introspection and ingrained work practices are being reconsidered. For our recent Better Business Survey, we spoke to over 2,000 professional chefs, who identified their number one priority as stress and burnout management, something Brock knows all about (especially how not to manage). His hiatus included “lots of therapy, counselling, treatment and rehab”.

“I had pushed myself so far that my immune system shut down and started affecting everything,” Brock told us of the period before he walked away from his first restaurant empire. “Your soul cannot be translated into a plate of food properly, the love can’t be there if you’re stressed out so much you think you’re going to explode."

Zen cooking

Not that the famously obsessive Brock has lost the drive to push himself since returning to the kitchen. Alongside Audrey and June, he has opened Joyland, a fast-casual concept serving burgers, fried chicken and shakes (all the good stuff) and a hotel restaurant, The Continental, at the Nashville Grand Hyatt. That’s on top of getting married and having a family. It’s just that he’s better equipped to deal with it this time and more aware of his limits, both physically and mentally.

“I know how much better I operate when I am zenned out, centered and grounded. The clarity that comes along with that produces results that you can’t get any other way. Most importantly, it allows for courage and confidence to create very simple food. If you ask any chef what they want their cuisine to be: simple, simple, simple,” he says.

Indeed, there’s a sense of coming home for Brock at Audrey, with nostalgia fuelling creativity both in and outside the kitchen. "My idea in designing Audrey was blending the scenes of where I grew up in Appalachia with my passion for modern Japanese architecture — to make it feel like an Appalachian tobacco barn, but also to be contemporary,” he says.

And he doesn’t have any plans to leave. This is where he wants to spend the rest of his life and career. “This is the one I want to cook my last meal in. This is the restaurant that I will retire in,” he says. However, Sean Brock‘s a long way from hanging up his knives. In a way, he’s just getting started.

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