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Sean Brock was broken when he finally decided to step away from the restaurant group he’d worked with for 12 years. He was fronting eight concepts across America, he had critical acclaim around the world, full reservation books and long lists of accolades, however, he was struggling to see. His central nervous system was attacking itself, his own body beating him and doctors didn’t know why.
“I had pushed myself so far that my immune system shut down and started affecting everything. I was running eight successful restaurants in five different cities and to walk away from that, that’s a lot of hard work, a lot of money, a lot of heart and soul that you pour in.”
“For so long none of us have questioned that, the militant mentality of the restaurant industry,“ explained Brock in a recent interview with Fine Dining Lovers, “I don’t have any desire to go back to the restaurant industry the way I left it. It’s not worth it, it’s that simple. Our bodies, our minds and our nervous systems are not designed to be that stressed out for 15 hours a day.”
Fresh from nearly two years of much needed rest, including what he described as “lots of therapy, counseling, treatment and rehab”, a new addition to his family in the form of baby Leo and a different way of looking at the industry, the chef is back with an idea and set of ideals for a new restaurant that should have every young cook in America queuing up to work for him.
“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 aims to do this through a number of different ways. First is to create an environment packed with resources designed to help staff perform and refuel. There will be a mindfulness centre on site, designed as Brock said, “to help regulate the nervous system,” trained counsellors will replace the standard HR team and staff will be offered classes on positive psychology, communication, empathy and whatever else they require to “re-center and refuel.” Brock has taken all the lessons learned over his own rehabilitation and aims to use them to create a new type of work environment. “I’m also building a classroom where you will constantly have people coming in teaching about the science of the nervous system, the complexities of the different parts of your brain, lectures on empathy, lecture on self-compassion, lectures on meditation, mindfulness. It’s all about education and no one in the restaurant industry taught me about these things.”
Listening to the chef describe the nervous system, what a person requires to perform at optimum level, what is required to refill when they’re depleted, the difference between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex, it’s evident he’s learned his stuff. He’s dissected the brain in a pure, honest, Brock way and produced a number of recipes that will allow him to continue to create in the kitchen. Recipes he hopes will also help others produce in a different way, at a different level. “I’m approaching the brain and the nervous system the way I approached a piece of meat when I want to cook it perfectly. I have to know everything about it, I have to know how it reacts when other things happen to it, I have to know where the sweet spot is. I’m researching psychology and the science of the brain the same way I have with food my entire career.”
“I want to make it known to the team that we are here to focus on a healthy environment and we have to take care of ourselves first. We will have a soundproof room designed to regulate the nervous system. When you need to come back down you go in there. There are a million different tools to get your nervous system back down to where it needs to be."
Brock knows that for this to happen, things have to be built differently, but he is also aware how many chefs wear their grueling work hours as a badge of honor and just how many excuses are offered for why restaurants can’t operate differently: ‘Guests demand complicated food, this is the way it's always been, passion means sacrifice, chefs need the adrenaline' - the biggie and one that is hard to argue against - 'food would have to cost double’. For Brock, the answer might lie in simplicity.
“You can not justify doubling your prices because you want your staff to be more relaxed, it ain’t going to work, your guest will eat somewhere else. It’s not because people are mean, it’s because they can’t afford. If I can create a menu, a cuisine, an approach to food and serving that is based on everybody feeling relaxed then that’s where we start from.”
“With the menu and the menu format, how the menu is written, if you look at the simplest purest restaurants, what is it? It’s one menu, you go there and you eat that - that’s the easiest way, the most comfortable and stress free way, you’re not juggling a million different things, you can be present and focus on those dishes and I think that’s what makes the best experience. What happens when we startling living other peoples’ lives and their expectations’ we start to think that everybody needs a hundred choices, I’m speaking about America, specifically the South. When you write a menu there is a formula, I’ve got to have eight first course and eight entrees - that’s a lot of things to worry about and juggle - that’s the format I have to figure, how I can do as little as possible but still create an extraordinary menu everyday?"
For this, as always, the chef is researching, going back to the classic, simpler restaurants of old. "I''m looking at some of the great countryside places of Europe, the Chez Panisses of America," explained Brock before revealing the few factors he thinks all the old-school, homey places share: ingredients, environment and soul. The three things that can make a restaurant truly special, but, just as great ingredients take time to grow, and great enviroments need to be nurtured, so does the soul.
“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. You hear simple so many times, well, simplicity is really hard. The trick is to take as little as possible and make something amazing out of it and that takes a lot of wisdom, a lot of craft, a lot of talent… I call it the complexity in simplicity, its insanely complex thing but in all reality life is simple and life can be easy if you want it to be... Your soul can not 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."