The award-winning chef spoke to fatherly about fatherhood, finding his center, and why his son Leo is the harshest — and best — food critic he's ever come across.
When we spoke to Chef Sean Brock this past February, he was waiting for more corn meal to arrive. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a chef, but the circumstances were. Brock, the James Beard Award-winning restaurateur, author, and chef behind such beloved southern restaurants as Husk, now lives in Nashville and was preparing food to feed his community after a tornado devastated the downtown area. “We don’t have any electricity, but we’re mobilized and cooking non-stop to give food to whoever will eat it,” he says. “Food is what I do. And right now, food can help.”
One of America’s finest chefs, Brock has always been passionate about nourishing his community. Now three-years into recovery for drinking and workaholism, Brock is a father to Leo, who turned one this past February, and feeling even more focused. Thanks to fatherhood, he says, he’s never been more centered. “I truly believe that the way to live is to take care of yourself first so you can take care of others fully,” he says. “So, every decision that I make is based around on how I can contribute the most to Leo.” In fact, Brock’s latest restaurant, Nashville’s Joyland, was inspired by Leo and providing parents of young kids a worry-free place to eat.
Fatherly spoke to Brock about becoming a dad at 41, the connection between self-care and success, and why, at the start at least, Leo was the harshest food critic Brock ever faced.
Leo celebrated his first birthday in February. How has the first year of fatherhood been?
I just turned 42, so I’m kind of late to the fatherhood game. I’d heard my entire life about how life changing fatherhood is and how it’s impossible to describe. And it’s all true. Everything that everyone said is completely true. It’s just the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to me. Every single day, waking up and hanging out with him, is just makes life so much better and helps me stay centered and grounded and realize what’s truly important.
That’s a lovely thing.
It is. I’d say my biggest take away and I don’t know if it’s just Leo or what but he just exudes unconditional joy non-stop. It just radiates out of him and it has just such a positive effect on everyone around him, even complete strangers. And so, you know, what if we can all be that way and do that for people?
Was there anything you did or worried you that you were trying to think about as you prepared for fatherhood?
Well, it came at the perfect time in my life. I just hit three years in recovery from workaholism and booze and I’ve never been happier, healthier, or more clear-headed. It was perfect timing.
How have you managed to consider work and burnout in a more positive way?
Becoming a father completely reframed everything. My father passed away when I was 11, so I know what it feels like to grow up without a father. That’s extreme motivation to really take care of myself. I truly believe that the way to live is to take care of yourself first so you can take care of others fully. So, every decision that I make, every business decision, every decision every day is based around how I can contribute the most to Leo. The main thing is everything else falls in place. It’s an amazing way to look at life.
You love feeding people and exploring a deep heritage of regional cuisine. I imagine it must’ve been fun being able to feed Leo.
Oh man, I love cooking for him. Every morning I spend two hours with him just making him food and hanging out. He loves food now, but at the beginning that wasn’t the case. Imagine cooking for a living, successfully and passionately, and having a son and him not liking your cooking. It was pretty devastating (laughs)
I had this vision, this fantasy, that Leo’s first experience with food was going to be one that would shape him for the rest of his life. I really focus a lot on preserving heirloom varietals native to the south. And so I carefully chose several varietals of squash from the south that had these incredibly stories behind them. The first one was from the Cherokee Indians and it’s a candy roaster squash. It’s this beautiful, wonderful squash.
My plan was to have a dozen spoons lined up with a dozen varietals of squash so he could taste through them. I braised it really slowly. I pureed it. And then I found this really fine mesh screen and I pushed the puree through it until it had the most velvety texture possible. I’ve honestly never cooked anything with more heart and soul and fear in my whole life. And he just spit it out. [laughs]
That’s so funny.
Now, it is. But, man, I’d never experienced that emotion before.
When did it start to improve?
Well, recently, everything has changed drastically. He went from being so picky to finally, at one year old, starting to really embrace all the different things I’m cooking for him. His favorite things so far is bacon, so that works out great. Right now, we’re tasting through lots of different bacon producers throughout the south.
Do you have any advice for parents who want to introduce new foods to their children?
I just had to keep giving him the same things every day until he realized that he liked it. He would eat it and spit it out and I’d think ‘Oh he doesn’t like this heirloom varietal of tomato.’ But if you keep at it, he’ll eventually love it. Cornbread is one of my favorite things to cook and seeing him not want to eat the cornbread after I made it was really tough. But now? He loves it.
Another thing I’ve found as a chef that was a big surprise to me was the addition of fats and flavored fats to vegetable puree. Bacon fat. Country ham fat. Olive oil. What’s really neat about it is it’s kind of like a very soulful way of cooking, especially in the south. We have lima beans, for instance, we’ll throw a little bit of ham hock in there to give it some soul. So, I’m taking that kind of approach with him. I’m not just giving him a one-note puree. I’m thinking about it in the way that I cook and I’ll add different layers of flavor and that’s when he really started liking food more.
I had this thing in my head that everything had to be so simple and bland because for some reason that’s what we’re wired to think. But the second I started seasoning the food the way I would season it as a chef? He completely lost his mind.
Your New Restaurant, Joy Land, was partially inspired by Leo?
Yeah. I spent my entire life in the kitchen far away from kids as I could get. So now to be around so many kids all the time is great. Joyland is designed with kids and families in mind. It’s like one big birthday party every day. We’re going to build a little playground outside. It’s just cool to have a place where parents can know they can come to and not worry about disrupting others or if there’s going to be food available. We want to create that place. It was never something that entered my mind until I had Leo.
How did you conceptualize the menu that is reflective of your intentions?
We focus on things that you can eat with your hands easily. A lot of the food is designed to be tough and resilient and kids can play with it. So, a lot of things in bite-sized pieces, too.
As you’re looking forward, what is it about being a dad that you would like to pass down to other dads who may be new to the game or thinking about having kids?
I was so nervous that my life was going to change in a way that wasn’t going to be fun because, I think, for some reason our brains are wired to be selfish that way. But things are way more fun now. Like way, way, way more fun and that’s really something that I’d heard but it’s hard to believe those things until you fully experience them. Yes, you’re going to get a little less sleep and your daily schedule is going to change drastically. But we as human beings can get used to anything. It’s crazy how fast we can adapt. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love, love, love spending time with him. It’s wonderful.
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