Chef Sean Brock says walking away from acclaimed restaurant "was an incredible gift"

Chef Sean Brock on addiction, food industry

Over the past 25 years, chef Sean Brock has risen to the top of the culinary world, operating eight restaurants in five cities, including the acclaimed Husk in Charleston, South Carolina, at his peak. But this year, at the age of 41, he walked away from it all.

Brock spoke with "CBS This Morning" co-host Anthony Mason about why he took a break from the restaurant industry and how he hopes to prioritize the mental and physical wellness of the staff at a new restaurant in Nashville.

"I was under the illusion that I was, you know, unbreakable," Brock said.

Brock has won two James Beard Awards, released two best-selling cookbooks and is featured on the Netflix series "Chef's Table." Husk, which was named "Best New Restaurant" by Bon Appetit in 2011, now has four locations across the South.

"It's so fast paced, and it's so stressful that … you lose access to the part of your brain where all the rational decision making occurs. And so you just keep making mistakes over and over," Brock said. "It's easy to get trapped in that tornado."

Asked if he was trapped, he said, "I was in the center of that tornado. I was conducting it."

Brock admitted to being a workaholic and obsessive about everything he does. His body was shutting down, and in 2016, he was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune disease that can be aggravated by stress.

"My immune system started attacking itself," he said. "I woke up one day with double vision. And you can't use a sharp knife with double vision, and you can't juggle flaming hot pans … And that was the first time in my life where I kind of had my hands tied."

He was frustrated, angry and drinking. His family and friends were alarmed, especially his mom, Renee.

"His dad, you know, was a workaholic, and he dropped over from a heart attack at 39. So I held my breath until he reached 40. I literally held my breath," Renee said. 

Brock turned 39 years old in rehab. "There was a period of time that I didn't know him. He was just — he wasn't Sean," his mom said.

Turning to her son, she added, "You'll agree, you were a different person, totally different person, weren't you?" 

"Completely," Brock said. His drinking pushed his close friends to intervene and Brock went to rehab.

"Even when you know you have to change, sometimes it can be very hard to change," Mason said.

"I think that's why the universe didn't give me a choice," Brock said. 

Asked if he likes himself better now, he said, "Absolutely. I've never been happier or healthier, or … a better cook than I am now."

"How does it change your cooking?" Mason asked.

"Being healthy and being happy has allowed me a clarity that I didn't know existed, honestly," Brock explained. 

He said when he decided to walk away from Husk this year, it was "something that a lot of people were very confused about."

"To build something up and to put so much time into it and for it to be so successful and so important, and just to be able to walk away from that was an incredible gift that I gave myself," he said.

Brock hasn't worked in a kitchen in a year. Instead, he got married and had a son, Leo.

The new father said the first time he made food for his son was "pretty humbling, pretty embarrassing." He had gone to the Nashville farmer's market, where he visits regularly, to "pick out, like, 15 to 20 different varieties of squash or sweet potatoes, then line up all the spoons for him to taste each one."

"He gagged," Brock said, laughing.

At the farmer's market, Brock brought Mason over to the pea vendor.

"He's the king of peas with his pea machine," Brock said. "Taste that … that vibrancy, that's the way that food has always tasted in the South … It's the food that I grew up with … Over the years, unfortunately a lot of this flavor got bred out."

The peas inspired the chicken and dumplings recipe in his new cookbook, "South," published this fall. It's a celebration of the unheralded Appalachian cuisine Brock said runs through his veins, absorbed growing up in Virginia coal country. 

"You ever had leather britches?" Brock asked Mason. "Maybe you might know them by shucky beans," his mom added.

This food will be the star at his upcoming restaurant project in Nashville, where Brock will also try to transform the restaurant business the way he's done his own life.

"I think it's time in this industry," he said. "It used to be, your decision making was based around what you're capable of doing. Like, how far can you push it? … Now it's more, what can we achieve while staying happy and healthy?" 

The mental and physical wellness of the team will be paramount. "You're trying to change the culture effectively?" Mason asked.

"Well, in the industry, we bend over backwards all day every day to take care of the guests. And in the meantime, we're breaking ourselves," Brock said.

"You've described this as kind of the second act of your life," Mason said.

"It really is," Brock said. "This is the restaurant that I'll serve my last meal in. This is the restaurant where I'll clock out for the final time."

His two-restaurant project, named after his grandmother Audrey, will open next spring. It will have a shorter menu to alleviate stress on staff and a special lighting system. There will also be a soundproof sanctuary room for staff to decompress, meditate or seek other de-stressing therapies.