Special Sauce: Sean Brock on the Distinction Between Happiness and Success [2/2]

On this week’s far-ranging Special Sauce we cover a lot of territory- and I mean a lot- of territory. We’ve got Sean Brock on the highs and lows of an extended stay in rehab, and the joys of parenthood; Kenji on being a Juicy Lucy skeptic; and Stella on making an olive cake so delicious and so easy it can be in your mouth in less time than it takes to watch an episode of Billions.

Before we get to Sean Brock’s ongoing battle with recovery, Serious Eater Mike Suade wants to know if Kenji will join him in Minneapolis for a Juicy Lucy (two hamburger patties stuffed with cheese), which is most assuredly not Kenji’s favorite style of burger. “I’ve probably said in the past that Juicy Lucys just don’t sound like a great idea.”

Sean Brock talks honestly and painfully about the non-linear path of recovery he embarked on when he checked into The Meadows rehab facility. He also reflects on the unadulterated joy of parenthood. Finally, he discusses the pleasures of letting go of his compulsion to control everything in his life, which has allowed him to redefine success. “I had a different definition of happiness. I thought success was happiness.”

Finally Brave Tart rhapsodizes about her shockingly easy to make olive oil cake. “This is a fantastic last-minute recipe,” she says. “It comes together in about five minutes flat, bakes for 33 minutes, give or take, cools in 10. So let’s do the math. You can have this cake in your face in an hour.”

This episode of Special Sauce will both make you hungry and make you believer in the power of redemption.


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 Lopez-Alt, Serious Eats chief culinary consultant, gives the definitive answer to the question of the week that at serious eater like you has sent us.

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt: I’ve probably said in the past that Juicy Lucys just don’t sound like a great idea. But I’ve never had one in Minneapolis.

EL: After Ask Kenji, a conversation with our guest. This week we’re back with Sean Brock.

Sean Brock: Everyone, including my team, wants to know what these restaurants are going to be like, what the food is going to be, and I don’t know.

EL: And you’re okay with that.

SB: I’m okay with that. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to force anything. I don’t want to cause unneeded stress. I like it when things naturally come together.

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

Stella Parks: Sometimes olive oil cakes can be a little bit coarse or cornbread like in nature. This one is a little softer, a little more delicate than that. This is a fantastic last minute recipe. It comes together in about five minutes flat, bakes for 33 minutes, give or take, cools in 10. So let’s do the math. You can have this cake in your face in an hour.

EL: First up, author of The Food Lab, Kenji Lopez-Alt. And Kenji, Mike Suade wants to know. Will you ever come to visit Minneapolis-Saint Paul to eat the original Juicy Lucy with Mike? He doesn’t just want you to come to Minneapolis. He actually wants to meet you for a Juicy Lucy.

JKLA: Okay. I have never been to Minneapolis. I would love to. No, that was a lie. I have been to Minneapolis.

EL: Wait. Yeah. I can’t remember. I don’t think we’ve ever been to Minneapolis together. And we should talk, for people who don’t know what a Juicy Lucy is. A Juicy Lucy is a hamburger that has an oozing cheese center.

JKLA: Yeah. You basically take two hamburger patties, you stick some cheese in the middle, and then you seal the patties around the edge and you cook them. I have never been to Minneapolis, no, definitely have not. I’ve come close.

EL: You’ve come close. That does not count.

JKLA: I know, I know, I know. But there was a time when we were doing a taco story. And I was driving around the whole region there tasting tacos.

EL: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. For Every Day With Rachael Ray.

JKLA: But I know I did not make it up to Wisconsin or Minnesota, so I’ve never been to either Wisconsin or Minnesota. Anyhow, a Juicy Lucy, yeah. I mean, the question is: Would I come up there and eat with you? Yeah. I’d love to come out and eat a Juicy Lucy with you. I’ve heard there are two competing bars. Right? It’s like the Philly cheese steak thing. What is it, Matt’s? Matt’s is that one of them?

EL: Yes. There are. I’ve had a bunch of Juicy Lucys there.

JKLA: Yeah.

EL: Yep. And Mike, we’ll both meet you. All right? Kenji’s very busy. I’m pretty busy. But we’ll get there sometime.

JKLA: Oh, yeah, yeah. We’ll get there sometime. No, I was going to say I suspect that maybe Mike is just a nice guy and he wants to have a burger with us. I suspect that maybe he has a little bit of an ulterior motive in questioning me about this because I think I’ve probably said in the past that Juicy Lucys just don’t sound like a great idea. They don’t sound to me like they’d ever be better than a cheeseburger because you kind of by definition have to overcook the meat a little bit to get that cheese melted. So to me, that’s always been the question about them. Why? But I’ve never had one in Minneapolis, so maybe that is why he’s waiting for me there. And yes, I would definitely love to try one from the source.

EL: Do you make various kind of burgers at Wursthall or just one?

JKLA: Well, we make one. And then you have an option to top it with a ton of pickles that we make, a bunch of different pickles and hot pickles, et cetera. But, yeah, we make one basic smashed burger and that’s it.

EL: I didn’t eat that. We ate a lot of stuff when I was out there, Kenji. But I don’t think we had the smashed burger.

JKLA: Come back and we’ll make you a smashed burger next time.

EL: Yeah. We’ll do it.

JKLA: Mike is invited too.

EL: Mike’s invited too. Mike, come to San Mateo with me. All right, man. We’ll talk soon.

JKLA: All right.

EL: Thanks Kenji.

JKLA: All right. Bye-bye.

EL: This week we’re back with Sean Brock in the house. Sean is the author of South, which is the followup to his award-winning cookbook, Heritage. He’s also the chef and co-owner of two soon to be opened restaurants in Nashville, Audrey and Red Bird. So you’ve achieved this new found equilibrium, I would say built around the idea that you can actually be happy, which you probably never, ever really thought about before.

SB: I had a different definition of happiness. I thought success was happiness.

EL: That can get you into trouble.

SB: Yeah, especially when you’re rewarded for it.

EL: Right.

SB: And get praised for it. Why would you think differently?

EL: You did achieve a level of fame that has to deal with, especially at the relatively young age you achieved it.

SB: Well, I think that attention triggered fear, fear in letting people down, fear of not being that person. Now it triggers thankfulness and gratitude. And it’s like the most warm, wonderful feeling you could ever imagine. And I mean, that’s just amazing that it can go from one extreme to the next. And we are such resilient-

EL: Souls.

SB: Human beings and souls, yes.

EL: Yeah. That’s interesting. And coming from the coal mining country of Southern Virginia, Appalachia, where mindfulness was not top of mind, where therapy was-

SB: Oh, goodness, no.

EL: Seen as it was nonexistent.

SB: Oh, there were no psychologists or psychiatrists in my town.

EL: Yeah. So do you find it hard to let them into your life? Or again, was it a profound sense of relief when you finally got around to it?

SB: I mean, I refused it my entire life until I didn’t have a choice. And I was at the Meadows. And all of a sudden, I was in counseling in treatment and therapy for 10 hours a day.

EL: Wow.

SB: Intense.

EL: I’ve had a lot of therapy, but not even I’ve been in 10 hour a day therapy.

SB: It was amazing. It was so intense. I think you do the equivalent of a few years of therapy in 45 days.

EL: Yeah. Wow. That’s intense.

SB: It was amazing. I became so interested in it because I started to actually feel different. I started to think differently. I felt better, and so I wanted more of that. And I started … I was such a dork when I was there. I mean, I read 30 books on psychology when I was there. And I was the person who was reading while walking.

EL: Wow.

SB: I was that kid in the hallway.

EL: But in a way, that’s perfectly in keeping with how you lived your life because you are a searcher. You’re an endlessly curious person.

SB: Investigator, yes. Well, that’s not always a great thing. I remember towards the end of the 45 days, the counselor was like, “We’re really glad that you’re so interested in this and that you’ve gone so deep into this research. But let’s not forget that your lack of moderation is what got you in here, so let’s slow down.” It’s like, “Oh, that’s a good point.”

EL: That’s very funny. So when you got out, did you know that one of the things you had to do was sort of disengage from your previous life in terms of the Husks that you were opening and were already open? And was that one of the first things you came to grips with?

SB: No. I was so excited to jump in, back into my regular life. And we went straight into opening Husk Greenville, and then straight into opening Husk Savannah. And it was such an amazing time for me because I was a different person. I was cooking differently. I was thinking differently. I was teaching differently. I was leading differently. And I loved every single minute of it. But again, it was pure unadulterated workaholism again. It didn’t seem like workaholism because I felt great. But there was a moment where I found myself back in the hospital four or five days. My appendix ruptured. And that reminded me once again, it’s just the universe telling me, you got to slow down.

EL: Wow.

SB: In that hospital bed, I decided that I was going to just leave everything and start fresh.

EL: Wow. And so that’s when you decided to move to Nashville and just really start fresh with these two new restaurants that we’re going to talk about, and the book, and just sort of starting a new life. You’re a new dad. Right?

SB: Yeah.

EL: How cool is that? It’s probably the coolest thing in the world.

SB: It is by far the most amazing thing. And I heard that over and over and over again. But there’s no way to truly understand when people say that, the truth behind it, until you actually hold that baby.

EL: Yeah. For sure. I had the same experience with … Our son’s 32. And I was like, “Yeah. I’m happy being a dad.” But the moment he arrived in this world, I was besotted. I’m sort of still hopelessly besotted 32 years later.

SB: Wow.

EL: A friend of mine once said, an older guy once said … God, maybe I’m an old guy now. But that it’s the most meaningful thing you can do in your life is to be a parent.

SB: Absolutely. Absolutely. And taking a year off from the kitchen was really great because I was able to understand what truly matters to me and how to define my worth, and take a break and get some rest. But also, it gave me lots and lots of free time to rethink this book and to have it go kind of the way my brain works now.

EL: Yeah. Interesting. So let’s talk about South as a book. This was your second book. You clearly have a different mindset. And maybe, as you say, the book is a reflection of the changes. What were you trying to do that you didn’t do in Heritage?

SB: So I wanted this book to be a journal of what I’ve learned after Heritage. And Heritage was, I put everything in there. Pretty much everything I knew, I dumped into that book until I ran out of things to put in there.

EL: Is this a version of they give you 25 years to do your first album and then six months to do your second?

SB: That’s it. Yes. And of course, I had the freshman fear of the freshman album flunking just like in the rock and roll world. But I just wanted to because I’d learned so much since Heritage, and I’d grown so much, and I’d discovered so much. And I think most importantly, I realized what I didn’t know, how much more there was out there. And so I wanted the book to reflect that, to convey my curiosity and exploring the possibilities of Southern cooking, but to inspire other people to just stay curious and continue to explore, and realize that there’s so much more to learn.

EL: Yeah. And in this case, you regarded the curiosity, and you’re following your obsessions, you were trying to make it a positive thing that reflected your new reality.

SB: Yeah. And a lot of that is just slowing down. And these recipes are, they’re less complex. There are fewer composed dishes within the book, where Heritage was mostly composed dishes. And so we took all those components that would end up in a composed dish and reorganized them in a way that will allow this book to act as a field guide for people who want to cook in the same way. What I mean by that is it’s designed so that you can go shopping and find the best ingredients, and then come back and thumb through the book and find interesting ways to prepare that, or inspire you to try new things and give you the foundation to start being creative because it’s exactly how I cook. I use what I call the PIE theory, products, ideas, execution. And I’ve been living and dying by that for 15 years. And so you start with the products, and then you start to become creative and wonder and be curious, and say, “What if I did this?” And this book gives you the tools to start that process.

EL: Yeah. So it sounds like the book is much more a sort of whole Sean Brock expression of how you think.

SB: As I am today, which is so neat to think about. What’s the next book going to be like? And to be able to put them all side by side and watch the evolution of someone who’s obsessed with one thing, it’s really cool. I’m so thankful to be able to do that.

EL: It’s a fun book. Do you write your own books?

SB: So here, this is my-

EL: Because I was looking at the cover, I was trying to figure it out.

SB: So this is my secret that I discovered on this book. In Heritage, and any time I ever wrote anything, I was so worried about being a good writer that I kind of lost my voice.

EL: Interesting.

SB: It was more, I like to try and be better at everything I do. And I think what makes a great book or a great recipe, it’s like you’re having a conversation with that person.

EL: Sure.

SB: You’re just sitting down and hanging out and just talking.

EL: It’s about voice and stories.

SB: Yes. And so I teamed up with Lucas Weir for the writing, and then Marion Sullivan for the recipe testing and the recipe writing. And so what I would do, and Lucas … I’ve known Marion for many, many, many years as well. She’s just an incredible friend. But Lucas worked with me for many, many, many years in the kitchen. And he decided that he didn’t want to live that life anymore, and get back to what he went to school for.

EL: Which is writing.

SB: Which is writing. So what I would do is we would choose a subject, and then I would just press record on my transcription app, and I would talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk and talk, and then I would push transcribe, and it would come to him completely transcribed.

EL: And he would make it into a book.

SB: And he would do that. And then of course, it goes into the editor at Artisan, who just keeps polishing and polishing and making it better, and killing the darlings, as they say. And it was a really neat way. I don’t think I’ll ever write or do a book any other way.

EL: Yeah. Voice is so important. It’s like people said when I started Serious Eats. It’s like listening to you talk about food. I just regard it as an endless conversation because I could talk about food forever.

SB: Yeah. And that’s what I wanted to do with the podcast that I’m starting when the restaurant gets built. We’re building a podcast studio. And I just want to be able to document and record conversations that I get to have with the old timers and the seed savers and the grandmas and the farmers and the people on the shrimp boat, just hearing their story and learning their wisdom. And take those conversations and piece them together into a documentary style podcast. I hope that’s something I’ll be able to do for the rest of my life.

EL: That’d be great. But I do have to ape what the doctor told you in Arizona. You’ve got to slow down.

SB: Yes.

EL: It’s funny. I see so much of myself in what you do because I’m the way. I want to do this. I want to do this. I want to do this. And I’m much older, so I’m really … I don’t have infinite amount of time. But in a way, it’s like you don’t ever want to lose that.

SB: Well, I think what I’m discovering is you have to build a much bigger team, and that costs a lot more money. And you just have to make that financial sacrifice. I have to have a true understanding of what I’m actually capable of pulling off or executing.

EL: While still maintaining your humanity.

SB: And I need a lot of help for that. I need a big team.

EL: Is that hard given that you watched your dad die very young after he’d lost his business? I mean, that must’ve informed a lot of your behavior.

SB: Oh, of course. My time at The Meadows was amazing because you take a blank piece of paper and you put a zero. And you draw a line, and you put 18. Then you make a timeline of every single thing you can remember. You carry that around with you for five days. And you have your childhood in front of you. And then that’s what you do for the next 40 days, is you go through each thing.

EL: Wow.

SB: And then the counselors, therapist says, “This is why you thought you had to be this way.” This is why you told yourself you had to always be the provider.

EL: Yeah. Fascinating.

SB: Fascinating.

EL: So give us three recipes from the book that you think people should start by cooking.

SB: For me, there are some core recipes in there that I still make all the time, and will always make that way. And I would say start with making the simple cornbread recipe. And then there are several behind that, that you can start to, as you work through those recipes, you’ll start to see the diversity of each region of the South through that canvas of this cornbread canvas. I think that’s a really good way to start understanding kind of what the book’s about. And then there’s a recipe that reflect what we were talking about, it was talking about how the book was written. And it’s a recipe on how I cook greens. And I wanted to try an experiment.

So I had Lucas over, and I bought a bunch of greens, while at the market. And I was like, “I’m going to just talk. I’m going to talk through every single thing that pops into my head, every decision that I’m making, everything that I’m learning while I’m cooking these greens.” And that ended up being this really, really neat essay. It’s like a narrative kind of essay, which that’s the way old cookbooks were written.

EL: The Edna Lewis book is the perfect example.

SB: Absolutely. Absolutely. We need more cookbooks like that.

EL: I’m forgetting on the title. What is the title of the Edna Lewis book, the one that’s-

SB: Is it Country Cooking?

EL: Yes. Country Cooking. It’s amazing.

SB: Absolutely amazing.

EL: Talk about a sense of place and a voice.

SB: A fellow Virginian.

EL: Yeah. I’m afraid you and I can’t begin to touch those levels of amazingness.

SB: No.

EL: Edna Lewis was this great African American chef, cook, human being.

SB: Scholar.

EL: Scholar, farmer. Anyway, everyone should know about Edna Lewis. So the third one, I’m not going to let you off the hook.

SB: Sure, no, no. I’m ready. So I think the third recipe you should make from the book is the simple version of shrimp and grits because it is inspired by another iconic Southerner, Bill Neal of Crooks Corner in North Carolina.

EL: Which a lot of people don’t know, who a lot of people don’t know about at this point.

SB: He did so much, and we stand on his shoulders. And he provided such a great platform for us to jump off of. And he, I think if you Google him and you’ll start to read, he was one of the first chefs in the South that took shrimp and grits and put it on a tablecloth, a white tablecloth restaurant, and showed the world that it is special. And this is not just the food that’s eaten on shrimp boats, or just in homes. This can be just as elegant as anything you would have in France. And that recipe in the book is the way he made it. And it’s probably my favorite recipe to eat in the book. I cook that shrimp and grits exactly that way as much as possible.

EL: Wow. And Robert Stelling from The Hominy Grill got famous for a version of that, and he cooked with Bill Neal. Right?

SB: Yes. You know who else did, John Currence.

EL: Got it.

SB: John Fleer as well.

EL: Really? John Fleer from Blackberry Farm now has got a bunch of restaurants in Nashville. And John Currence has the breakfast thing.

SB: Big Bad Breakfast.

EL: Yeah, Big Bad Breakfast.

SB: City Grocery.

EL: City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi.

SB: We should do a family tree.

EL: I know. We should do a Southern chef family tree. That would be fun. So how do you feel right now? I mean, you’ve got this book. You’ve got two restaurants happening. I can tell you have a zillion ideas for other things. Does it feel solid? Or do you always have to remind yourself to slow down still?

SB: Every day. Every day, all day I have to check myself and ask myself if it’s the workaholism creeping back in. And if it is, then I know that I have something else that I’m running from, something else that I haven’t processed or taken care of. And so I start to do what in recovery we call … We make a fear inventory. And you make that list, and you start checking things off the best that you can. I think where I’m at in life right now as a cook, I want to forget everything I know. I want to start over.

EL: Really?

SB: I want to approach food the way I approached it when I was 16, no clue how to do anything. I don’t want to cook anything the way I’ve ever cooked it. So if I get a butternut squash, I’m going to push myself to cook it new ways. I can’t cook it the way I’ve always cooked it. I can’t cook it the way I’ve even cooked it once before. Continually push myself to try new things. I’m really looking forward to that.

EL: That’s great. Whenever you do learn more about yourself, it’s always scary. And if you’re not scared, it’s time to be scared of not being scared.

SB: Exactly. Yeah. When I stopped … When I lost the fear of being scared, or when I stopped being scared of fear is when I realized the true importance of courage, not only courage within yourself, but encouraging others. Man, that is just, I cannot stress the importance of that enough. I mean, if we can just encourage people to do their best each and every day, wow, that’s all, that’s it.

EL: I learned that with Serious Eats, that paying it forward, the most unexpected pleasure is watching everyone who’s worked at Serious Eats take flight.

SB: Yes.

EL: It’s the greatest thing in the world. People ask me, “Are you jealous of Kenji López-Alt’s success?” It’s like, “No. He’s like my son who got bar mitzvah.” And no one told me it was going to be like that because I was a little bit like you. I was just a guy who did a lot of stuff. You wanted me to write a book, I can write a book. You want me to host a television show, I can do that. But there’s nothing like that pleasure of paying it forward and watching other people take flight.

SB: I think if I can encourage myself to focus on defining worth as it’s as simple as contributing to something you love.

EL: Yeah.

SB: That’s it.

EL: Yeah, for sure. So I want to get to the buffet. But I do have to ask you about two other things. So you’ve got two restaurants that you’re building in East Nashville. Audrey, named after your grandmother.

SB: Yes.

EL: And Red Bird. And Red Bird, I assume is going to be this tasting menu. Or is it the other way around?

SB: The other way around.

EL: Interesting.

SB: Yeah. And everyone, including my team, wants to know what these restaurants are going to be like and what the food is going to be, and I don’t know.

EL: And you’re okay with that.

SB: I’m okay with that. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to force anything. I don’t want to cause unneeded stress. I like it when things naturally come together.

EL: Yeah. That’s cool. And in mind of a chef, is someone growing Audrey’s beans?

SB: That’s so great you asked that. I was at a seed meetup a couple of weeks ago. And John Coykendall delivered a zip lock back full of-

EL: A farmer that you’ve worked with.

SB: Yes, a seed saver farmer, Blackberry Farm, one of my heroes, who just put out a really cool book on seed saving. And he delivered this zip lock back full of my grandmother’s wild goose beans, which was amazing because I lost a lot of my seed collection to someone unplugging the freezer and not plugging it back in for a couple of months.

EL: Really?

SB: But I was able to take my son to Blackberry Farm recently while those beans were growing.

EL: Yeah.

SB: Wow. What? That’s crazy.

EL: That’s kind of awesome. So now it’s time for the Special Sauce all you can answer buffet. And there’s no right or wrong answers. So who’s at your last supper? No family allowed. Can be artists.

SB: How many people?

EL: Five people.

SB: Jerry Garcia.

EL: Okay.

SB: Barack Obama.

EL: All right.

SB: Edna Lewis.

EL: All right. This is an awesome table. You have to save a seat for me, man. Keep going.

SB: Einstein.

EL: Einstein. We’re really going deep here, Sean. I don’t know. You got one more.

SB: Alfred Adler.

EL: Alfred Adler, whoa. Now that’s out of left field. Tell us about Alfred Adler.

SB: He was a wacky psychologist back in the Carl Jung and Freud days.

EL: So that was one of the books you read in your nonstop reading time in rehab.

SB: Yes.

EL: All right. So what are you eating?

SB: That’s such an awesome question.

EL: What are you eating?

SB: At my last supper. Well, if the obvious answer is the food of my grandmother’s table, but to make it more interesting, I would want the largest mound of fatty tuna and perfectly cooked rice possible. And I would just mix it all up and eat it until I died.

EL: That’s sauce. I don’t even know what to say about that. And this is a good question for you. So what are you listening to?

SB: There’s a new Sturgill Simpson album that is mind blowing.

EL: Really?

SB: Sturgill Simpson is from the area where I grew up, similar story with sobriety. And each album that comes out is so different. And this one is so wild, I don’t even know how to describe it.

EL: Yeah. You can’t really call him simply a country.

SB: He started that way, and he is just continually … He hasn’t been scared to constantly evolve and start over.

EL: Yeah. Well, you know the great musicians and artists do that. Right? I mean, think of how many times Picasso reinvented himself, or Miles Davis, for that matter.

SB: Exactly.

EL: So three books that have influenced your life.

SB: Number one, The Courage to Be Disliked, a book based around Alderian Theory. That book really, really, really changed my life. Number two, The French Laundry. I was maybe 19 when I got that book, and I’d never seen anything like that before, and my mind was blown. And the third one, which I’m reading for the second time, that has completely changed the way I make any decision is called The Art of Thinking Clearly.

EL: I’ve never heard of that.

SB: I think it’s new. But it teaches about rational decision making. And it gives examples of how we’re wired to think and what our first reaction is, and how wrong it always is.

EL: So is there a person that you think has most directly influenced your life? Is there someone you say, “I wouldn’t be SB without this person”?

SB: Yeah. There are a couple. I’ve always had an enormous amount of inspiration from John T. Edge.

EL: My friend, my old friend, and a fellow Special Sauce guest.

SB: And Glenn Roberts, their just drive for protecting traditions.

EL: So tell people who they are.

SB: Glenn Roberts has a company called Anson Mills, and he’s dedicated his life to restoring and reviving The Southern Pantry. And John T. Edge is a writer, amongst many other things, but is the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which spends an enormous amount of time and energy documenting, being curious about exploring and celebrating Southern culture through food.

EL: I’ve known John T. a long time. You’ve probably known him longer. But one of the things that’s most interesting about him is that he has confronted, maybe some people think not enough, the issues of race and class when it comes to Southern food and Southern culture. Is that something that you think about?

SB: Yes. I think it’s now that I have the tools to process difficult things, I want to talk about it more because that’s how we heal. That’s how we empathize. That’s how we connect. I want to listen and I want to talk about it. And food allows us to do that.

EL: And people should go out and get a copy of John T’s extraordinary history of Southern food culture called The Potlikker Papers, which is an amazing book, I think.

SB: Yeah, so amazing.

EL: So what do you cook when there’s nothing in the house to eat?

SB: Which is always. I’m able to scrape up these insane meals when there’s nothing in the house to eat. And I will always find a way to create something interesting out of a bowl of rice. Start with the rice, really good rice. Put it in the rice cooker, not worry about it, and know that it’s going to be perfect. And then figure out lots of garnishes for that rice in a very kind of Japanese way. Doesn’t have to be Japanese flavors or ingredients. It’s just having rice as the center of attention, and then having lots of different garnishes around it.

EL: Kind of hearkens back to your grandmother’s table.

SB: I’m just realizing that, yes. It’s exactly how it was. You take this humble thing and you surround it by lots of other interesting flavors and create a wonderful thing.

EL: So it’s just been declared Sean Brock Day all over the world. So what’s happening on that day?

SB: I hope that there’s a lot of meditating. And I hope there’s a lot of cornbread. And I hope that everybody calls their grandmother.

EL: So Sean Brock Day is meditation, cornbread, and grandparents.

SB: Yes. That’s pretty darn good.

EL: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your special sauce with us, Sean Brock. It’s been so much fun catching up. You can pick up a copy of Sean’s terrific new book South: Essential Recipes and New Exploration.

SB: Yeah. Thank you.

EL: 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.

Stella Parks: Hey everybody. We’re at seriouseats.com today to talk about olive oil cake. This is a ridiculously simple cake. I know that sometimes I might be a little guilty of making complicated recipes that require food processors, or stand mixers, and I’m sorry. I know not everyone has them. This cake is for everyone out there. No mixers are required, electric or otherwise, just your own hands and a whisk. We’re going to put everything in a bowl and mix it together with our own hands, no mixers, no electricity. It’s like it’s the olden days.

Here comes the sugar. I want to focus on the flavor of the olive oil. It really, really shines through in this recipe, so white sugar gives us that nice neutral canvas that we’re looking for. A little bit of baking soda, a little bit of baking powder. Yes, I’m using both. And a little bit of salt. The key here, there’s not much of a key, but it’s enough of a key, is to whisk these ingredients together really well into the sugar to make sure the leavening is completely homogenized. Your best bet is to just whisk it for a minute. It’s not a hard recipe. We don’t want to screw it up at an easy step.

Now I’m going to zest a little bit of lemon. A micro plane is my favorite way to zest. Just strong swipe and then twist the lemon. You don’t want to keep going over the same spot over and over again because then you’re going to get the pith, which is bitter. Now we’re going to add the wet ingredients, which include delicious olive oil. The character of the olive oil is what makes or breaks this recipe, so use something great. The next ingredient in our olive oil cake is a little bit of buttermilk because I’m from Kentucky and I love buttermilk.

So in this recipe or any recipe that actually calls for buttermilk, use buttermilk. Look how thick and delicious it is. In goes one egg. Here it comes. I wanted a big splash and I got a big splash. This is optional. If you don’t have it, you don’t need to put this recipe on hold until you acquire it. But I like it a lot. It’s a little bit of orange flower water. And this is an aromatic ingredient. It works a little bit like vanilla extract. The orange flower water kind of gives the grassy floral notes of olive oil a boost. It gives the citrusy quality of the lemon zest a boost. It just kind of helps elevate those aromas a little bit for us. It’s easy to find, or you can just go online and pick it up.

Mix it up until it looks smooth and well emulsified. And that’s it, it’s pretty stupidly easy. Last step, we’re going to add the flour. So one of the main points of sifting is to minimize lumps. That means when you whisk the batter together, you don’t have to whisk it as much. It incorporates a lot more quickly because the lumps have been eliminated in the sifter. And that helps keeps the batter delicate and avoid over mixing. It also aerates the flour, which makes it lighter, and it physically makes for a lighter batter compared to flour that may have been compressed. I like to bake all my cakes in a really deep three inch pan. This is an eight by three inch pan. The added height kind of protects the top of the cake from over browning, and the light reflective style kind of minimizes crust formation, which keeps the cake more delicate.

I prefer using spray. If you wanted to wipe it down with a little bit of olive oil, that’s totally optional. I like how even spray goes on. That’s my personal preference. Do what you like. Now in goes a parchment round. And now we can add our batter. Done. Okay. It’s time to get our cake out of the oven. It’s baked. It’s great. The way I usually test a cake is to touch it. I want it to feel a little firm and bouncy, but not solid. So to de-pan our olive oil cake, we’re going to run the back of an offset spatula around the edge of the cake. And this is just to make sure it’s not stuck any place along the side. It should release cleanly because we sprayed it. I just do it with my hands. Hand on the pan, flip it over, pat it on the counter, and then it comes off in one clean piece. And then you can peel off the parchment. Ta-da.

And then invert it onto a cake stand, platter, whatever you have. I’m going to dust it with a little bit of powdered sugar. No matter what happens, it’s just the same. Stella puts a bite of cake into her mouth, and I’m like, “Oh, it’s so good.” And you guys don’t know it, but it really is so good. Sometimes olive oil cakes can be a little bit coarse or cornbread like in nature. This one is a little softer, a little more delicate than that. This is a fantastic last minute recipe. It comes together in about five minutes flat, bakes for 33 minutes, give or take, cools in 10. So let’s do the math. You can have this cake in your face in an hour. An hour from now, I hope many of you are sending me tweets, Insta tags, emails, newsletters. Anyhow, the point is wherever you are, an hour from now, you could be eating this cake too.

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 specialsauce@seriouseats.com. All this and a special guest on next week’s Special Sauce. So long, serious eaters. See you next time.