Chef Sean Brock Puts Down the Bourbon and Begins a New Quest


There is another curveball thrown in Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Ms. 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.

Mr. 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, Va. whose daughter, Melany Robinson, is Mr. Brock’s publicist and was one of the architects of his intervention. Ms. Noe, an executive director for Ms. Robinson’s public relations company, confided frequently in Dr. Bundy.

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Patty Bundy, a marriage and family therapist, at her home on Smith Mountain Lake, Va. She helped facilitate chef Sean Brock’s new recipe for living.

Credit
Stephanie Klein-Davis for The New York Times

“The article made it clear he was springing leaks all over the place,” Dr. Bundy said. “There’s nothing that goes well as the ship’s going down.”

Fights at home became so frequent that neither he nor Ms. 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 Ms. Robinson. She and Ms. Noe decided it was finally time to act, and with Dr. Bundy’s help, they planned their intervention.

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Mr. Brock outside of Husk in Nashville.

Credit
Kyle Dean Reinford for The New York Times

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 Mr. Brock’s business partner but also, after 11 years together, a father figure. He helped clear Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Ms. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. Howard plan to open Husks in Greenville, S.C., and Savannah, Ga. A major television project is in the works.

Mr. Brock is an official ambassador for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation and is planning a series of fund-raising 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.”

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