Restaurants don’t get much more personal than Audrey, the long-awaited East Nashville spot from Sean Brock. On the walls? Roughly 250 pieces of folk art, chosen by Brock himself. In the library? The entirety of Brock’s personal collection of cookbooks. And on the sign? The word “Audrey,” in the same handwriting as the restaurant’s namesake: his grandmother.
It’s all the culmination of a career that has earned Brock multiple James Beard Awards and worldwide acclaim, across time spent in both Charleston (McCrady’s, the original Husk) and Nashville (Husk, the delicious fast food spot Joyland, The Continental). He’s written two cookbooks (including Beard-winning Heritage), launched a website to connect service industry workers with the restaurants that need them, and helped create the nonprofit Patchwork, devoted to feeding the hungry in Nashville. He’s also been a mainstay of our annual Shindig.
Audrey also reflects Brock’s personal growth, as chronicled in his recent appearance on Chef’s Table, and in a profile in The New York Times. The restaurant is at once deeply Southern — with a particular emphasis on the Appalachian food he grew up eating — and very 21st century, with a mindfulness studio, a recording space, and, of course, a dazzling and inventive menu. We spoke to Brock about the new restaurant, about his devotion to collecting everything from cookbooks to cameras, and so much more. Here’s what he told us.
“When people come to Audrey, I want them to experience what is possible with Southern food,” he says. “I think we have so many traditions that haven't been discovered, and there are so many new ways to celebrate and cook this cuisine that have yet to be invented. That's important because I want people to realize through a plate of food, how special and unique our cuisine is in the South. If you've never been to the South before, I want this to be the place where you taste Southern food for the first time, and hopefully dismiss any preconceived notions.”
Given his history and his success, we wondered how he maintains his sense of inspiration and wonder, and what drives him to push himself forward. It turns out, jotting down his thoughts and observations serves as a perpetual inspiration machine. “I notoriously carry a notebook,” he says. “Everywhere I go, it's always in my pocket. Once you put something on paper it’s a little bit closer to reality. And I have mountains of notebooks that start all the way back from 1999. And so, those act as an enormous inspiration—Audrey is really a product of all those notebooks. I just love looking through the things that I've visited, or being reminded of things that may have been forgotten, or about what it may have been like to be cooking at night, and what technology was available and how kitchens were set up and how menus were written and how people lived.”
The restaurant also stems from changes in his personal life, including getting sober and focusing on his overall health. “For most of my career, up until the last five years, I've worked within the pattern that has been around for 200 years,” he says. “Long days, long nights, no days off, workaholism perfectionism insanity. And that's actually what drew me to it—my brain really likes those things. And unfortunately in the restaurant industry, you get rewarded for that kind of thinking. Until I completely crashed as a human being—when it did, I started making changes, about how to take care of myself for the first time in my whole life.” These changes inspired a mindfulness center in the restaurant, where guests can book acupuncture, massage, guided meditations, sound therapy, aromatherapy and more. There’s also a recording studio where Brock can create podcasts, some of which might draw on the many field recordings he’s created over the years. “All these different things have become a big part of my life,” he says. “My daily rituals have helped me immensely, staying focused and centered.”
It’s encouraging to see a healthier, happier Brock, and to know that his best work might still be ahead. And it all starts with Audrey...
And now, for our five lightning round questions.
What are you reading or listening to at the moment?
I have this chair at my house — in classic dad fashion, that is my chair — and it is just surrounded by piles and piles of books that I'm currently reading. Right now I'm trying to understand and teach myself critical thinking. The book that started that for me is called The Art of Thinking Clearly. [For listening], I rarely discover a new band that blows me away. Right now, that band is called Idles.
What is a principle you try to live by?
Everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be at all times. No matter how painful or how joyful, everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be. And when it isn't to our liking, because we're lacking knowledge or wisdom somewhere, you're supposed to be learning something. I try to end every day looking back over the mistakes that I made and wonder what it was I was supposed to be learning. It took so much pressure off of me, it took so much stress off me, once I decided that’s how I wanted to live.
What is one hidden talent you possess, and one hidden weakness you overcome?
Wow, let's see. What I'm really focused on right now is studying and understanding vintage guitar amps — looking at their circuits and the transistors and the capacitors.
One thing I’ve overcome: Once I found out we were having [our son] Leo, almost three years ago, I knew that I wanted to capture his life on film through photography, and so I bought a film camera. And my first roll was just so awful. I had no concept of exposure, of composition.
Do you have a favorite camera?
Yes, I shoot Leica, and my favorite is from 1958, and it's called an M3.
How do you keep your inspiration fueled?
My time with my children. Those two kids inspire me so much every single day — to look at the world through a child’s lens.
Do you have a daily practice or ritual?
Right now, I'm trying to figure out my new daily ritual. Sundays and Mondays are no work, no thinking about work, strictly family. On work days I wake up between 7 and 7:30. I go and get Leo up, we recap his day, he tells me everything that I missed at work. And then we go downstairs. I see Louis the Frenchie, take my vitamins, I make a coffee, and I make Leo breakfast. And then we go outside and grab The New York Times, and I sit and read The New York Times while he eats breakfast. And then I'm off to work. I meditate once a day, preferably in the mindfulness room.
At the end of the day, it's very important for me to take an inventory. Every day I take what I call a concern inventory, and I take a gratitude inventory. I write three things down that I’m thankful for that happened that day, and three things that I did incorrectly that I need to fix the next day.