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.”