Sean Brock went to rehab.
That might not seem terribly remarkable today, in the golden age of recovery. But this was Sean Brock, the Southern culinary revivalist with an arm covered in vegetable tattoos, who had collected vintage bottles of American bourbon like a maniacal museum curator.
Brock wasn’t the kind of chef who drank during work, but he was often the last man standing at the end of a night saturated with Budweiser and Jagermeister. In some circles, his name had become a verb. After a long stretch on the line, one cook might look at another and say, “Let’s get Brocked.”
All of that came crashing down in January, when the doorbell rang at his home in Nashville. He was packing for yet another commuter flight to Charleston, where he runs Husk, McCrady’s and Minero. Brock, 39, thought a package was being delivered. Instead, three of the people he admires most were trembling at the threshold.
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“The second I opened the door I knew exactly what was happening,” he said in a recent interview at a cafe here. “We sat down and had us an old-fashioned intervention.”
It was a relief, really. Within a few hours he was flying to the Sonoran Desert to spend six weeks at the Meadows, the Arizona treatment center where Michael Phelps and Tiger Woods have sought help.
By all accounts, he came back a markedly different man from the angry, isolated star chef who more than one person, including Brock himself, suspected might die young. He had been coping with an autoimmune disease that threatened his eyesight, but he was falling apart emotionally, too.
“I was concerned about killing myself not by my choice, but by being unhealthy and miserable,” he said.
Counselors diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, not from a single event but from a pile of them. They told him that the part of his brain that controls behavior and emotion was essentially frozen.
“Freeze is the scariest, darkest place you can imagine,” he said. “The only emotion I knew was anger. I was miserable and angry at the world.”
A new mission
Today his crazy giggle is back, and he is about 20 pounds lighter. Brock had never had a lick of personal therapy until he went to the Meadows. Now, he spends a few hours a day in self-care activities like meditation and reiki and is a regular at support groups and therapists’ offices.
He has taken up inner healing, boundary-setting and other bedrock emotional acts of recovery with the same intensity that drove him to raise an Ossabaw Island hog so he could deliver a perfect slice, cured and dressed in sorghum syrup and wild red bay laurel, as part of his $115 tasting menu at McCrady’s.
And he has a new mission. Forget cooking shrimp and grits, he said, using a much stronger verb. “Anybody can do that,” he said. “I have this opportunity in front of me. If I can inspire people to take better care of themselves in this industry, that will be my greatest contribution.”
It’s not just about alcohol, he said. It’s about teaching people in the restaurant business how to ask for help.
“Suffering is suffering,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are addicted to porn on the internet or you’re codependent or you’re addicted to gambling or if you’re addicted to ‘The Real Housewives of Atlanta.’ You’re suffering, and that’s what gets us into trouble.”
Then again, Brock may be still riding what people in recovery call a pink cloud. Friends worry that talking so publicly about his recovery could jeopardize it, but they support him.
“It’s a way for him to be accountable and to do service,” said his girlfriend, the publicist Adi Noe. “I told him instead of being known for bourbon, you could be known for choosing recovery and choosing health.”
Addiction in the hospitality industry
Addiction awareness has arrived in waves over the last few decades in the hospitality industry, which has been ranked highest among professions for substance abuse disorders, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
There was a period of sobering-up in the 1990s after the cocaine-driven excesses of the ‘80s. Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 book, “Kitchen Confidential,” with its bare-metal descriptions of drug abuse and restaurant life, set off another round of self-examination.
More recently, some notable deaths and a spate of chefs who are singing the virtues of healthy, sober living have given the topic a reboot, this time wrapped in the broader cloak of self care.
Kat Kinsman, the food journalist and author of the recent “Hi, Anxiety: Life With a Bad Case of Nerves,” started a website in 2016 called Chefs With Issues, subtitled “for the care and feeding of the people who feed us.” She thought she might get a few hundred responses to an anonymous mental health survey she posted. More than 2,000 people have filled it out.
As part of that work, Kinsman helped run a panel discussion on mental health for chefs, their staffs and their relatives at the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival in June. The restaurateurs Scott Crawford and Steve Palmer set up a “chill space” at the festival as part of Ben’s Friends, an addiction support group named after a mutual friend who killed himself.
The festival was the first one Brock had attended sober. He hosted a ham and bourbon seminar with the Kentucky distillers Preston Van Winkle and Drew Kulsveen. Not one of the 60 people who attended asked him why he wasn’t drinking. Later, he went upstairs to the chill space. “It was the safest I’ve ever felt,” he said.
Extreme highs and lows
Over lunch in Atlanta the next day, Brock said he hoped the intervention was a final piece of punctuation on years of extreme highs and lows.
He grew up in rural Virginia with a father who worked overtime hauling coal and a mother who read Gourmet magazine. He was 11 when his dad died of a heart attack; he watched it happen, something he didn’t even tell Noe until recently.
By age 15, he was working in a restaurant. “I found a place to hide in the shadows,” he said. “I found a place where I was safe, I was secure and surrounded by people just like me. I didn’t leave.”
There is another curveball thrown in Brock’s story. In January 2014, while holed up in his Nashville apartment nursing a kneecap he had smashed in a fall on the ice, he woke with double vision. His eyelids wouldn’t behave. One would droop while the other would pop open.
His vision became so bad that he couldn’t drive, and had to bend over to see the food he was cooking. After a year and a half of tests and several brutal eye surgeries, he was given a diagnosis of myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune disease that interferes with the way nerves and muscles communicate. At its worst, it can take away the ability to swallow and, eventually, breathe. At best, it might go into remission.
Managing the symptoms requires rest and a drug cocktail that includes the steroid prednisone. Brock didn’t rest much. Feeling more creative than he had in a couple of years, he threw himself into remaking McCrady’s as a dual restaurant, with a high-end American tavern on one side and his boutique experimental dining counter on the other.
With Noe watching over him, he tried to slow down and drink less. He preached the virtues of rest and gluten-free eating. He said he wanted to become an advocate for research into his disease and for a more balanced approach to restaurant work.
Brock told it all to a writer for GQ magazine, hoping for an article about the opening of his new restaurants and the toll that stress can take on a chef. Instead the profile, published last November, was, at least to those around him, an excruciating look at an ego-driven man still drinking, obsessing and lashing out.
“He had lost his ability to see himself,” said Patty Bundy, a marriage and family therapist in Roanoke, Virginia, whose daughter, Melany Robinson, is Brock’s publicist and was one of the architects of his intervention. Noe, an executive director for Robinson’s public relations company, confided frequently in Bundy.
“The article made it clear he was springing leaks all over the place,” Bundy said. “There’s nothing that goes well as the ship’s going down.”
Fights at home became so frequent that neither he nor Noe could remember what it was like not to be in conflict. She would go to bed and he would rummage around his bourbon collection, drinking and staring at the wall until he could sleep.
At work, he was moody and demanding. He punched walls. One day, he went to plate a dish and realized he couldn’t make his hand move properly. “I threw the spoon down and panicked,” he said.
“You get angry, and that anger just builds and builds into rage, and you hurt a lot of people around you,” he said. “You’re just trying to survive. You’re gasping for air.”
Then the disease started to move to his throat. His vision was becoming so bad that he couldn’t make breakfast. In January, he went to the Smoky Mountains resort Blackberry Farm for a Southern Foodways Alliance meeting. The people who knew him well could see he was in trouble.
When it was over, he checked into a Nashville hotel just to be alone. Meanwhile, people who saw him at Blackberry Farm called Robinson. She and Noe decided it was finally time to act, and with Bundy’s help, they planned their intervention.
David Howard, president of the Neighborhood Dining Group, whose portfolio includes Husk, McCrady’s and Minero, was an essential part of the plan. He is Brock’s business partner but also, after 11 years together, a father figure. He helped clear Brock’s schedule for 45 days and pay for the trip to the Meadows.
“In a short period of time, he’s gone from a young guy from a little town in Virginia to a point where he can’t walk down the street in Charleston or New York without someone identifying him,” he said. “That’s a blessing and a burden, and requires you to always be on point. With that comes addiction.”
Brock’s rebirth, as he calls it, could help change an industry that has always demanded too much.
Before he returned to Nashville in March, he made sure that Noe had moved his precious bourbon collection to the garage. There was so much that she had to spread the work out over a week, being careful not to damage bottles that could command thousands of dollars apiece.
Brock sold them all and used some of the cash to buy a black 1969 Plymouth Road Runner on eBay. “I’ve wanted that car since I was a little kid,” he said. “My garage used to be full of bourbon. Now there’s my childhood obsession.”
No one around him doubts that there are tests to come even though the double vision is at bay, he is taking less medicine, and his head is clear. Though he has slowed down, the projects are stacking up. In coming months, he and Howard plan to open Husks in Greenville, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia. A major television project is in the works.
Brock is an official ambassador for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation and is planning a series of fundraising dinners with chefs who have won Michelin stars. He has joined the board of the Heirloom Foundation, which aims to help restaurant workers with mental health issues.
Mostly he plans to enjoy his freedom.
“Surrendering,” he said, “is the greatest feeling on the face of the planet.”