Special Sauce: Chef Sean Brock on the Perils of Working Too Hard

Special Sauce: Chef Sean Brock on the Perils of Working Too Hard


Slice of cornbread with castiron in the background

[Sean Brock photograph: Alex Boerner. Cornbread photograph: Vicky Wasik.]

On the first new Special Sauce episode of 2020, we go deep and wide on a whole range of topics. First the insanely talented chef Sean Brock, whose new book, South: Essential Recipes and New Explorations, has just been published, takes us on part of his extraordinary journey as a chef.

Brock talks about picking vegetables in his grandmother’s kitchen and getting his first job in a restaurant kitchen as a teenager, which he describes as feeling like walking on to a pirate ship. He then delves into how that first restaurant job set him on the path to becoming a James Beard Award-winning chef. But Brock doesn’t just talk about his success; he also reveals how his proclivity for obsessively going down culinary rabbit holes and working in fits of manic intensity threatened his mental and physical health and well-being.

But before we get to Brock, Serious Eater Zack Kreines asked Kenji about his favorite cut of meat, and his answer might surprise you, and our pastry wizard Stella Parks rounds out the episode with the key ingredient to her pumpkin cake (which she says is superior to pumpkin pie), a three-dollar purchase that’ll enable anyone to make the “fluffiest cake in the universe.”

Any episode of Special Sauce that covers Kenji’s favorite cut of meat, Sean Brock’s extraordinary life story, and Stella giving us the key to making the fluffiest cake in the universe is worth a listen.

Special Sauce is available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Player FM, and Stitcher. You can also find the archive of all our episodes here on Serious Eats and on this RSS feed.

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Transcript

Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce 2.0, Serious Eats Podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we begin with Ask Kenji, where Kenji López-Alt, Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that a serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji López-Alt: Generally the cheaper the cut, the more flavor and the tougher it’s going to be.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guests. We have Sean Brock in the house.

Sean Brock: I was born and raised in Virginia, but the food that I was cooking and eating in Richmond, Virginia was nothing like the food I grew up with. We didn’t need striped bass or have blue crab or have peanut soup. That’s why I think it’s so important in this book to talk about the micro regions of the South.

EL: Finally on today’s podcast, a teachable moment from the Serious Eats test kitchen.

Stella Parks: Pumpkin cake. It has all the flavor and custody richness of a pumpkin pie in cake form, plus cream cheese buttercream, which is something that pie demonstrably does not have.

EL: First up, author of The Food Lab, Kenji López-Alt. Kenji, Serious Eater Zack Kreines wants to know what’s the best cut of steak for the money.

JKLA: What is the best cut of steak for the money? It depends where you live and also, of course, what your tastes are. Out in California, probably the cheapest, good, tasty tender, quick cooking steak… Quick cooking cuts, that’s generally what people mean when they talk about steak, so I’m saying that you’re going to serve medium rare. Out here in California, in Northern California, that’s probably tri-tip. Very easy to find. Very inexpensive. Whereas on the East Coast, like up in Northeastern New England where I used to live for a while, it would’ve been a sirloin tip, so flat meat, a very different cut from tri-tip, but also makes a great steak. The expensive cuts are going to be the ones that come from the loin and the tenderloins.

That’ll be your New York strip or your rib eye, your T-bone and your porterhouse and your tenderloin steaks. Those are all going to be real expensive steaks. Most of the other stakes are going to be cheaper, but the cost can vary depending on where you live. I think what happens is that when the steers get butchered, they send the trip-tips over to California and they send the flat meats over to New England because that’s where the markets are for those, so you end up getting those cheaper. As a sort of general countrywide, widely available, inexpensive steak cut, I love skirt steak.

EL: Me too. I was just going to say skirt steak. It’s tender. It’s flavorful. Some people taste-

JKLA: Super flavorful, yeah.

EL: Yeah. It’s super flavorful. Some people think it tastes a little bit too much like organ meat because it’s… But I don’t think that’s true.

JKLA: It can taste a little bit.. I think people would describe it as a little bit livery or like serum I think is the term people would use where it has a sort of blood flavor to it.

EL: Right.

JKLA: Because it is a very sort of dark cut. It’s a heavily exercised muscle. It’s used to breathe, so it’s used all… It’s the diaphragms. It’s used throughout the steer’s entire life. It’s heavily worked, but yet it remains tenders. It’s one of those cuts that is very, very flavorful, but tender. The secret with skirt steak, cook it as hot as you can and don’t let it get past the medium.

EL: Yeah, and it cooks in less than five minutes.

JKLA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. With skirt steak, I wouldn’t go below rare. I wouldn’t go at rare because it has a sort of slippery texture, but medium rare to medium, it’s excellent. Skirt steaks’ up there for me. I would say, and this is probably one that is not too common, but I would say short ribs actually make an excellent steak. If you can find the nice meaty ones, the ones that you would brace.

EL: The ones that are cut Korean style?

JKLA: No, no, no. Well, that sure, but no, but English cut style, so the ones that are on the bone.

EL: Got it.

JKLA: Or boneless short ribs. But the ones that are on the bone, you cut him off the bone. You grill them to medium rare. You slice them really thin, and they have this fat that just kind of melts in your mouth. Really, really nice. Technique, a little bit of technique, you have to cut them really thin because they are kind of tough otherwise, but I think they’re one of the most flavorful steaks you can get. Yeah, I would say tri-tip, skirt steak, short rib and sirloin flap, flap meat, sirloin tips, if you can find those, are all great. Hanger steaks also great. It can be more expensive depending on where you live. Hanger’s great. Chuck steaks in general are…

Hanger is a type of chuck steak, but chuck steaks can be great if you’re willing to cut around the sort of muscle groups in there and cut around with your steak knife and just ignore the kind of sinewy bits.

EL: Right.

JKLA: But yeah, those are the cuts I would look to most.

EL: It’s interesting you were talking about the regional cuts of meat, like tri-tip which is associated with the West Coast and Santa Barbara.

JKLA: Santa Maria.

EL: Santa Maria, excuse me. Yeah, Santa Maria, California. Then you were talking about the Northeast being a place for… Did you say sirloin tips or flap steak?

JKLA: Yeah, they call them steaks… Those are the same things. Sirloin tips are flap steak that has been cut into smaller pieces or strips.

EL: Got it. Is it really true that the meat processors just ship all the tri-tip out to California and ship all the flap steaks to the Northeast?

JKLA: I cannot say that with certainty, but that would be my very… I would be very surprised if that wasn’t the case. You know, not 100% of it, but if they don’t ship the majority of that out regionally which is where it’s demanded, I mean, that just seems sort of basic supply and demand. You’d do that.

EL: Yeah. You know what’s weird? We could leave Zack with this sort of an inverse relationship between the price of meat often in beef and flavor.

JKLA: There can, yeah, because your more flavorful, your cheaper cut… Generally prices link to tenderness.

EL: Right.

JKLA: The most tender cuts of meat are generally the ones that were worked the least during the sear’s life and the ones that are worth the least tend to have the least flavor. Cuts like tenderloin, very, very tender, buttery tender, almost no flavor at all. Whereas a cut like skirt steak, quite tougher, you have to slice it thin, you have to cut it right, you have to cook it right, but it’s packed with flavor. Something like chuck that you’re going to braise or brisket, packed with flavor, but very tough and expensive. But yeah, generally the cheaper the cut, the more flavor and the tougher it’s going to be.

EL: Right. For sure. Kenji López-Alt is Serious Eats’ chief culinary consultant and author of The Food Lab. Do send in your questions to [email protected] We have Sean Brock in the house. Sean is the author of South, which is the follow-up to his award winning cookbook, Heritage. He’s also the chef and co-owner of two soon to be open restaurants in Nashville, Audrey and Red Bird. You do a whole bunch of other stuff that we’re going to get into. Sean, it’s so great to have you here, my friend.

SB: Oh, man. It’s so great to be here.

EL: You just reminded me that we first hung out, that was a long time ago, at my first Southern Foodways Conference.

SB: I guess 14 years ago maybe.

EL: Yeah, yeah. It’s crazy.

SB: I was making country ham flavored cotton candy.

EL: Yes, you were.

SB: For some reason.

EL: I’m just so sick of country ham flavored cotton candy. Tell us about life at the Brock family table growing up. I guess in your case there were sort of two family tables, your folks and then your grandmother.

SB: Yeah, the fondest memories I have are at my grandmother’s table. Now I realize how unique those meals were to the rest of the country and even to the rest of the South. The food of rural Appalachia or Southern Appalachia where I grew up is a really, really unique cuisine that you just don’t find anywhere else. It has these neat little traditions at the table where you eat almost like you would at a Korean restaurant.

EL: You have like Southern banchan?

SB: Yeah. There’s like the main dish, which is usually something really humble and really simple, and then you have a table full of things that you take a bite of in between each bite to keep it more interesting. Something sweet, something sour, something salty, something spicy, something really fresh, something yummy. It just kind of breaks up the monotony of eating a bowl of beans for dinner. Beans and cornbread’s amazing, but if you can keep yourself entertained by playing with all those different flavors. That’s how the old timers ate and that’s how I ate. Now thinking about it like when I’m cooking, it’s easier for me because I’m searching for all those different flavors.

EL: Yeah. Interesting. Your grandmother, Audrey Morgan, was really a small plates pioneer I would say, using Southern style tapas. Is that when you got turned on to the whole idea of gardening and the earth and Southern food and plantings? Was it like a light bulb going on for you when you were a kid?

SB: When I was a kid, it was my chores and it’s what I grew up doing. It’s what I did all the time. I think most people that I grew up with had the same experience. It wasn’t until I moved away to go to culinary school that I realized that that wasn’t the case. Not everyone grew up in a garden with a grandmother who is in the garden most of the day, in the kitchen when she’s not in the garden, pickling, preserving, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner. The kitchen and the dining room table just became… That’s where we all hung out all the time.

EL: Was it a place that you could invite your friends or was it a place that was really just for family?

SB: Oh my goodness. No, it was… There was constantly people coming in and out just hanging out. Because when you open the door to my grandmother’s house, the first room you walk into is the kitchen. There was a table in the middle of that kitchen and that’s where everybody came. When they came to visit, they would sit down at the kitchen table. If I was at my grandmother’s house, I was either outside or sitting at that kitchen table.

EL: Wow. Were you one of these kids who was like getting up on a chair to look at what your grandmother was cooking?

SB: Yes. I know it sounds cliche, but yeah, I was curious at a very young age watching her take flour and mix it with butter and buttermilk, mix it into a dough and pop it in the oven. Watching that transform into a biscuit just blew my mind. I had to know how to do that. Luckily we had biscuits every day.

EL: Was this your mom’s mother or your dad’s mother?

SB: Yes. Yeah, mom’s.

EL: Your mom’s mother. Did your grandmother pass any of these traditions onto your mom?

SB: Oh my goodness. My mom is the most amazing cook.

EL: Really?

SB: Oh yeah, absolutely. She has definitely carried on all those flavors, all those traditions, that mindset. Man, she can cook. Run circles around me.

EL: Really?

SB: Yeah.

EL: Could I be invited to like a Brock regeneration family dinner?

SB: Yeah. That’d be amazing.

EL: Your grandmother died, right?

SB: Mm-hmm.

EL: Yeah. It’d just be you and your mom, but that’d be pretty amazing. What fascinated you about these traditions and just the whole Southern food culture?

SB: Well, once I started working in professional kitchens, it helped me realize how tasteless a lot of the food is or was in restaurants and just in grocery stores. It helped me realize how delicious the ingredients were that I grew up with. I remember talking to my grandmother about it after my first kitchen job. I was like, you wouldn’t believe this lettuce that comes in a box in this plastic bag and you rip it open and it tastes like nothing. She was like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. You just go outside and you cut the lettuces and you put them on the plate and you’d dress them with some hot fat and you have killed lettuces.

SB: I knew early on that something was special, but I don’t think I really became obsessed until I started working in some kitchens around the South and started to see the different traditions in each place and the different set of ingredients in each place and the different flavors. My mind was just blown. I knew that I had a lifetime of discovery headed me.

EL: Interesting. You worked in Charleston restaurants and you worked in Nashville restaurants. There was a distinct difference between the food cultures of those two cities even, right?

SB: Yeah. I even spent a couple of years in Richmond, Virginia. I was born and raised in Virginia, but the food that I was cooking and eating and Richmond, Virginia was nothing like the food I grew up with. We didn’t eat striped bass or have blue crab or have peanut soup. We just didn’t have those things. That’s a great example of why I think it’s so important in this book to talk about the micro regions of the South because it started out we’re just looking at Southern cuisine and then we break it down in the regional Southern cuisine. I think now we’re moving to a place where we’re talking about micro cuisines and micro regions, which is fascinating.

EL: We’re going to get to the book in a second because it is an extraordinary book. I get the impression that these are not projects that you take lightly. Is that safe to say?

SB: Absolutely.

EL: You also talked about when you first went to work in a restaurant kitchen when you were in high school where you described it as it was like going onto a pirate ship when you were a kid. How so?

SB: Wow. I’d never seen anything like that before because I started watching… Keep in mind, this is the ’90s, this is the mid-90’s, and the Food Network had just come out. I became obsessed with watching Emeril cook Creole food. I was just fascinated by this cuisine that was so, so unique. That’s what I would cook after school all the time was Emeril’s recipes. I would like make etouffe after school three days a week. That was my idea of what being a chef was. I watched Great Chefs in The Discovery Channel. You see these chefs in these quiet, sterile kitchens, intricately plating this food. I was like, wow, that’s what I want to do. For my first kitchen job, I walked in and Metallica is blaring and people are smoking in the kitchen.

EL: You said there was a smoking table?

SB: Oh yeah, just in the back in the dry goods area. You could just sit down and have a Marlboro red.

EL: It must’ve been like, what have I stepped into? But also if you’re a teenager, that’s a pretty exciting environment.

SB: Oh, I was hooked right away. I started out washing dishes, and I would just study every single move of those cooks. For the first time watching someone cook for 200 people in a few hours, it was like watching a ballet.

EL: You just figured out, I really want to learn this choreography.

SB: Yeah. I mean, I’ll never forget the first time I got to cook on the line. Well, the first job after the dish room is garde manger. I went and bought a set of knives, but I didn’t have any money, so I bought really cheap cerated ones. After the first couple of days, I had bandaids on every single finger. I’d cut myself trying to put the knife away and clean it and cutting. Yeah, I’ll never forget the first time going on the hotline and feeling the weeds and feeling the tickets piling up and hearing them piling up and having that crazy rush.

EL: Like this jolt of adrenaline, right?

SB: You have to think so quickly. You go into this autopilot mode. We’re using a lot of muscle memory, but it’s almost like when it’s over you don’t even barely remember doing it. I think when you can tap into that part of your brain where… I don’t even know what to compare it to, but where you’re just doing it and doing it quickly and accurately and precisely. You’re just in a different part of your brain. That’s so neat.

EL: Yeah. I get the feeling that you didn’t and probably you still don’t regard what you do as work.

SB: No. It sure feels like works at times.

EL: Sure.

SB: My life has always been about exploring and being curious. If that’s what I get paid to do, then that’s pretty cool.

EL: You really are like an every man scholar of the world that you’re exploring, which is really cool because we usually associate those kinds of things with people who have PhDs, but like you have a PhD in Southern living and Southern cooking. You just didn’t have to go to school to get it.

SB: I was always fascinated with Indiana Jones, so maybe that’s…

EL: Right. You went to culinary school and then you decided you were going to work in Charleston. Is that what happened?

SB: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I went to culinary school in Charleston.

EL: Right. You went to culinary school. While you were at culinary school, you were working in restaurants.

SB: Mm-hmm.

EL: That was your first exposure to sort of serious cooks and serious cooking, but you didn’t really make the name that you’ve clearly gone on to do until you moved to Nashville, right?

SB: Well, I took over a kitchen in Nashville at a very young age. I think I was 24 or 25. This beautiful hotel in Nashville called The Hermitage Hotel. That’s actually where I was cooking when I met you. Then 2006 I knew I had to get back to continue exploring low country cooking because when I arrived in Charleston at the age of 17, my mind was blown. I had never been around the ocean, much less a city that was so built around cuisine and hospitality and had such a historical cuisine. I spent the next, oh, what was it, 12-13 years doing that.

EL: What’s scary when I was reading everything about you is you’re like me in that you don’t know that you’re not supposed to be able to make your living through your passions. Like nobody gave you that memo. That obsessing and that focus can also lead you down rabbit holes, right?

SB: Some unhealthy ones.

EL: Yeah. Talk about that. You started to get a lot of attention. You discovered it sort of came at a cost.

SB: Yeah. I threw myself in the deep end very early on. I remember being 22 and walking into The Jefferson Hotel kitchen, the five star, five diamond amazing hotel in Richmond, and being in charge of people who’d been there for 20 years who didn’t like me because I was the sous chef at that age. Immediately I had to start fighting to prove that I was worthy of that position. I bypassed the part where a lot of chefs travel through Europe and stodge and train under these incredible chefs. I kind of jumped right in like a moron.

EL: Wow. You jumped in two areas, right? It wasn’t just about exploring the roots of Southern cuisine. You were also it seems quite taken with molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine.

SB: Yes, oh my goodness. I mean-

EL: That’s a weird collision and juxtaposition.

SB: My brain still works that way and I still think that way. The new restaurant that I’m building will be centered around that as well. Downstairs there’ll be a separate restaurant that focuses on casual, simple comfort food, traditional, and then a restaurant upstairs that focuses on the possibilities or the future of that cooking. We’ll be using the same products.

EL: Right.

SB: One pig will walk in the door and certain parts will go upstairs and certain parts will go downstairs. A thing of broccoli will walk in the door and the florets will go downstairs and the stems go upstairs. That kind of keeps me… I don’t know. I just have both sides of the brain when it comes to that. I’ve always just been equally loved both.

EL: Yeah. When you started getting a lot of attention, it’s a little bit like behind the music. I spent many years in the jazz business, so I saw this a lot among jazz musicians. The acclaim can often get you into trouble. In other words, your feet leave the ground. Because you don’t have time, you’re just… I could tell you have an incredibly restless intellect, right? Was it behavior that you observed other people doing and said, “Oh, I can scream and yell and be angry in a kitchen too,” or was it just you weren’t ready for this acclaim?

SB: Oh, it was both. The professional kitchens that I did work in were really tough, really, really, really, really tough. Lots of screaming, lots of intense pressure and I love that. I just thought that’s what…

EL: That’s how you roll.

SB: To achieve this level of excellence, you have to behave this way and keep everybody on their toes. Well, let’s see where that got.

EL: In some ways, it was a way to channel your anger, so it was a way to… It led you to the anger, right?

SB: Oh my goodness, yeah. I mean, the pressures of having to create new things every day and create great dishes and experiences for hundreds of guests each day and to be a leader for your team and constantly be pushing them. I think the hardest part is having to always have the answer.

EL: Got it.

SB: I felt I had to always have the answer. That meant that I had to read more. That meant that I had to research more. That meant that I had to think more because I didn’t want to be the leader that didn’t have the answer.

EL: Wow. All the pressure was building up and it eventually manifested itself physically, right?

SB: Yes. I woke up one day and my vision was double, and that was terrifying. I remember standing up and getting out of bed and had double vision, but then I couldn’t get it to focus back. I didn’t possess the ability to focus my vision back and that really, really scared me to death. That turned into a year and a half of visits to Vanderbilt trying to figure out what was going on.

EL: While you were still working? Well, Did it reach a point where you couldn’t work anymore?

SB: I couldn’t use a knife.

EL: Wow.

SB: I couldn’t drive myself to work, and I was constantly having surgeries on my eyes trying to fix these things.

EL: Yeah. You had some really scary, gory stuff.

SB: Yeah. That was a really, really difficult period.

EL: Putting lots of things in your eyes.

SB: Oh my goodness, yeah. I mean, just…

EL: You have six operations on your eyes?

SB: Six operations and you have to be awake and communicating the whole time they’re cutting and snipping and sewing and burning. Yeah, yeah. I don’t know. It was a moment where I realized… Well, my first reaction was, what am I going to do now? Because my worth came from my workaholism and physically being able to do that job. I was terrified. What am I going to do now? You just completely freak out and become scared to death. It was the first time that I realized that I wasn’t a super human.

EL: Yeah, that you weren’t immortal. There’s that moment that we all have, right? Because we all think we’re going to… Especially when you’re young, that you’re going to live forever. I’m reminded every day that this is no longer true.

SB: Yes.

EL: How was that remedied? The physical part of it.

SB: I still have the autoimmune disease that causes the double vision.

EL: Which is called?

SB: Myasthenia gravis. It’s crazy because every time I overdo it and I work too much or I worry too much or I get upset or my nervous system has just had enough, my vision goes double.

EL: Wow.

SB: Instantly.

EL: It’s directly exacerbated by stress.

SB: And fatigue.

EL: And fatigue.

SB: In an instant. There’s no…

EL: Your life was built around stress and fatigue.

SB: Yeah. It’s really amazing to think that that was the way the universe had to tell me to slow down and to take better care of yourself.

EL: You emerged from that and you talked about the visit to the Mayo Clinic and where they gave you a definitive diagnosis, give you meds. You say that your reaction initially was to be Superman.

SB: Oh, right back into the kitchen again.

EL: Right? Not only back in the kitchen, but like you’re at the height of your creative power.

SB: Trying to make up for lost time. That’s what I’d convince myself that I had to get back in there and reprove myself even to myself. That’s when we decided to rebirth McCrady’s and make it a really intimate tasting menu-only restaurant. That was, I mean, some of the worst days of my life just being that sick and having that double vision. It had gotten to the point where it wasn’t just my vision anymore. It began affecting all of my muscles.

EL: Which the disease can do, right? Which they told you flat out.

SB: If you don’t take care of yourself, it will move from your eyes to the rest of your body. I would be using a knife and then I would go to lay it down, but I couldn’t undo my hand.

EL: Wow.

SB: The message wouldn’t go through. I would just undo my hand, put the knife down, and go home scared to death. But see, that begins this cycle of fear and shame and all these things.

EL: It preys upon itself.

SB: Yes. It just goes round and around and around. If you have an amazing vintage bourbon collection at your disposal, then that’s the only thing that that helped me really just find peace.

EL: Wow. Then you talk about in the Mind of a Chef episode about you and in many other interviews that it literally got to a point where your friends arrived at your door one morning, right?

SB: Yeah. I was the most miserable I’d ever been in my entire life. I determined that there was nothing I could do, that I didn’t know what to do. It felt like no one could help me. The doctors were like, you just got to take better care of yourself and take these meds and hope for the best. When those things are happening and you’re at a low point, man, you give up. That’s exactly what I did. I just kind of… They call it a vegetal freeze. I’d been in the survival part of my brain for so long that I got stuck there. I couldn’t read a book. I couldn’t send an email. I had no emotions other than anger. It was really sad.

EL: They came to your door and it sounds like you are not one of these people who resisted?

SB: No way.

EL: You were just the opposite, like take me wherever you need to take me.

SB: Let’s go. I mean, you see the TV show Intervention and you wonder like, wow, I wonder what that feels like. Then you find yourself sitting at the table in the middle of an intervention like, oh, that’s what that feels like. It felt great. I was so thankful. I was so happy. It was like the help is here. I can finally get some relief. I don’t have to worry about going to work every day and keeping up with my responsibilities. I can finally go take care of myself.

EL: Yeah, interesting. In all likelihood, you probably wouldn’t have arrived there otherwise.

SB: Oh, absolutely, not because I was so frozen. My brain wasn’t working. I didn’t have the tools or the ability to seek the help that I needed.

EL: You went into rehab. I wouldn’t say you’ve slowed down, but you probably have a different perspective. How has it changed you?

SB: Well, clarity is an amazing thing. It was something that I had never truly experienced. I had spent my life in the run and gun formation just going and going and going. Once I experienced clarity, then I didn’t want to let go of it. Now all of the decisions that come across the table, they are analyzed based on how it affects that clarity and that happiness and my health and my stress.

EL: But it’s not just clarity. I assume with you, just as it is with me and everybody, you also had to confront your vulnerabilities.

SB: Oh my goodness.

EL: Right? Because that’s a lot of what it’s about.

SB: Yeah. I didn’t even know how to spell vulnerability. I didn’t even know what it meant. I didn’t know the true definition of it because it’s such a thing that a leader can’t have. A leader can’t show weakness or vulnerability. I thought it was weakness. Oh, it’s strength. It’s the opposite of weakness.

EL: It’s counterintuitive to think that.

SB: The moment that I came back from from rehab and told my story, shared my story, showed vulnerability, the way my team acted towards me was so different.

EL: It was like a 180.

SB: It was night and day. It went from people being terrified when I walked into the room to high fives and chest bumps. I remember the first time someone said, “Oh, we missed you.” I was like, what? No one’s ever said.

EL: No one’s ever said that to me before. That’s awesome. Yeah, we miss you. It’s like, wait, you miss me? You sure you’re talking about Sean Brock? All right. Listen, we haven’t even gotten to the cookbook and your new restaurants yet, but we are going to get into all those topics on the next episode of Special Sauce.

EL: Now it’s time to head over to the Serious Eats test kitchen where our pastry wizard Stella Parks, author of BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts, will lead us through the creation of a killer confection. By the way, no need to take notes. Her detailed recipe is at SeriousEats.com along with a video.

SP: pumpkin cake. All the flavor and custardy richness of a pumpkin pie in cake form, plus cream cheese buttercream, which is something that pie demonstrably does not have. For the pumpkin cake, I’m kind of channeling the flavor profile of a pumpkin pie. To do that, I’ve got an array of let’s call them holiday spices, and I also have a giant bowl filled with toasted sugar. You don’t have to use toasted sugar, but it’s a really delicious and easy way to kind of bring some like light caramel notes into this cake. Got some butter that’s been soften to about 65 degrees on the cool side of room temperature. It’s not a squishy mess. It’s important for cake so it has enough structure. Here comes the secret ingredient.

Potato flour has a really magical ability to help some cakes rise higher than normal. For $3, the fluffiest cake in the universe can be yours. I’m going to start on low just to get everything combined initially. Once the butter has fully moistened the sugar and it looks kind of pasty and dense, we’re going to crank up the speed to about medium. Here we go. This is like 10 minutes, 10 minutes of beating the crap out of some butter. I’m going to check my email. This isn’t creamy for a little bit. It’s time to add the egg yolks. Just a little bit at a time. There goes one guy.

Make sure each edition gets incorporated completely before the next one is added, but we don’t want to go crazy with it because you can’t over mix it at this stage and that can make a cake batter that bakes up with a lot of tunnels and holes in the chrome of the cake. Last one. The most exciting part of this recipe is slowly sifting dry ingredients into a bowl. I’m using Swans Down Cake Flour, which is a soft bleached cake flour style. Do make an effort to find a bleach style. It’s not as scary as that word sounds. People are not pouring bleach into your flour. That’s not how it works. The vanilla extract is going in. Now, I’m going to alternate the wet and dry ingredients and this is essentially preserving the emulsion that has been created in the bowl.

When the flour seems like it’s mostly incorporated, scrape in about a third of the wet ingredients. This is pumpkin puree and milk. Another third, the last bit of pumpkin milky goodness. Scrape it down. Going to finish off by hand because I don’t want to over mix it, which the mixer can do. You shouldn’t ever make a cake batter and pour it straight into the pans. It definitely needs to be folded several times. Then once it looks nice and homogenous and you don’t notice any more streaks, then we can transfer it to a cake pan. I’m going to just pour half the batter. In this case, it’s about 30 ounces into each cake pan. I’m going to pop these into a 350 oven and bake until they’re puffed and firm to the touch. I’ve just pulled these delicious pumpkin cakes out of the oven.

We’re going to let them cool until completely room temperature. I prefer to let my pumpkin cakes cool in the pan. One of my favorite things about cake is that when you make it for yourself, it’s all yours. Pro tip. Instead of cutting slices to serve to people, they could steal those slices. The easiest way to make sure you have plenty of cake is to take a bite straight from the middle. This is so much better than pie.

EL: Again, details of Stella Parks’ recipe are at SeriousEats.com. More from our test kitchen next time. That’s it for today. Next week on Special Sauce, Kenji will be back to answer with his usual scientific precision your culinary question of the week. Do send in your question to Special Sauce at SeriousEats.com. All this and a special guest on next week’s Special Sauce. So long serious eaters. See you next time.

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