STILL LIFE WITH CORNBREAD
By Courtney Balestier
Governor, chef Brad McDonald’s Brooklyn restaurant, sat at 15 Main Street in Dumbo. In its brief run, it was a celebrated experiment in New American fine dining, McDonald’s self-described ego project, a young-chef playhouse where he could serve beer-battered blowfish tails and make “salt” from cheese rinds to the glee of critics like Pete Wells of the New York Times, who gave Governor two stars. Then Hurricane Sandy flooded the restaurant with five feet of water. Shortly after, McDonald’s apartment building caught fire; his wife, Molly, and their two young children were rescued from their balcony by firefighters. Shortly after that, the entire family caught the same stomach virus, and by then the whole affair was starting to feel like the Seven Plagues. (“Okay, well shit,” McDonald says of that time now, laughing. “It is time to go.”) They left New York, retreating to Molly’s family home in Kansas to “just sit together and be quiet for a little while.” Two years later, he’s cooking cast-iron cornbread and catfish gumbo in London. For now, let’s chalk that up to coincidence.
McDonald is from Yazoo City, Mississippi (“home of Willie Morris and Haley Barbour”), but he hadn’t planned on opening a Southern restaurant, and he certainly hadn’t planned on opening one in a city where the genre tends toward novelty crab shacks and BBQ joints. The Lockhart, where he’s been executive chef since last December, was a struggling Southwestern concept when its restaurant group approached McDonald, who was consulting for a local restaurateur. Now, his iteration is a darling for a whole city’s critics, who are almost universally smitten with its nouveau Southern predilections. The Lockhart—in Marylebone, a neighborhood popular with American ex-pats—looks like a Kinfolk spread styled by Anthropologie, a youthful, airy brand of rustic with knotty-wood tables, pressed-tin ceilings, and mismatched china. In food-as-foreign-language terms, the menu is conversational in some places (muffalettas) and fluent in others (dirty rice-stuffed quail in madeira glaze), It’s natural, which is perhaps why Molly had been suggesting for years that he do it. “I knew it would be a true representation of the food dearest to his heart,” she says. “Especially in New York, Brad brushed off the idea because Southern food was so à la mode he didn’t want to be seen as just riding the wave.”
McDonald was raised in a food-loving family on a commodity farm where his dad still grows beans and corn for Monsanto. (“Look, maybe not what Wendell Berry would describe as a great farm,” he says.) They ate most of the year off venison they’d hunted and frozen and vegetables they’d cultivated in their personal plot, plus “shit Chinese food,” McDonald’s, and Wendy’s. He studied English literature at Ole Miss, and his first kitchen job was at John Curence’s Mississippi lion, City Grocery. (He’d go on to cook at two of the best restaurants in the world, Noma and Per Se.) Yet, maybe because his mother is from Pennsylvania, McDonald says part of him always felt only half-Southern, physically and spiritually. “I don’t know how if that affected me, but I grew up in the South, I lived in Mississippi until I was twenty-one, went to school in Mississippi, my best friends are in Mississippi, my family is in Mississippi, and in many ways I can’t escape it,” he says from the Lockhart dining room.
“I don’t know yet if I’ve fully come to terms with being a Southerner. I have fascinations with my own culture. I’ve become really interested in the Civil War in the past couple years. I’m fascinated about why we think the way we think.” There are aspects of his native culture that make him “want to turn and run—racism, elitism, conservatism,” and there are many that he cherishes enough to want to recreate them for his own kids: to let them play in the woods and say “yes ma’am” and know Faulkner and Birney Imes. “I think accepting myself as a Southerner has had a lot to do with having children and wanting them to experience that as well, to experience the richness of it and at the same time be aware of everything else that’s going on.”
By the time he got to England, family in tow, he found he missed Southern cooking: “And then, for the first time, it felt okay to explore. In London, cleaning up Southern food from the way it’s viewed here is inherently unique and innovative. There’s a gap that needs bridging regarding how our cuisine is viewed from this part of the world. Bridging that gap is a responsibility of mine as a native Southerner.” (Molly, who manages the front-of-house during the day, says diners tend to come in either looking for authentic Southern cooking or having “no clue what they’re about to eat.”).
McDonald began by exploiting English cuisine’s common grounds: big, fatty flavors; a reverence for pork; waste-not nose-to-tail traditions. He designed the menu around recognizable dishes, like fried chicken and gumbo, that are executed with enlightened finesse but stop short of being pedagogical. “If this becomes the best fried-chicken joint in London, so be it,” he says. “We’ll do shrimp and grits and cornbread and fried chicken, and that’s fine. Because I’m doing it in a way that I like.” The ingredients are precisely sourced: Anson Mills grits, Carolina Gold rice. McDonald makes his own country ham, uses garlicky British ramson in place of ramps, and takes advantage of game season, the late-summer stretch when butchers offer grouse, pheasant, venison, “all these things that you grew up hunting but never were allowed to cook in a professional environment.” He delights in the high-level preparation of dishes that he knows customers might walk in assuming are pedestrian, if they assume anything at all.
“You can have an English person come in and say, ‘Oh, a wedge salad with buttermilk dressing,’ and they’ll gloss over it, because it doesn’t necessarily hit home with them. But I had a lady in tears over our buttermilk wedge salad and how much it reminds her of home.” The Lockhart’s shrimp and grits—a luscious heap of cheesy grits, bacon, shrimp and green onion—is another piece of nostalgia, based on McDonald’s time working under Currence. “It is my first and really only enjoyable shrimp and grits experience. [City Grocery] was my first real restaurant experience. And this dish is iconic across Mississippi, if not further, because it’s heavily influenced by Bill Neal’s version at Crook’s Corner in North Carolina.” (Crook’s, an early line on Currence’s resume, stakes claim to being the birthplace of shrimp and grits.) “This dish has a story, and it’s one that should continue to get told as it’s passed down to each new generation of chefs.”
For now, McDonald, accidental Southern ambassador, is solidifying his roots at the Lockhart. He’s stepping up the dessert menu, planning to fill a sideboard in the dining room with a dinner-at-Grandma’s spread of coconut cake and pecan, chess, and buttermilk pies. He and Molly incorporated a pop-up, 1235 Donuts, that they had been running out of their East London apartment. He’s also looking to bring over a head chef from the States; he likes the idea of the Lockhart as a revolving residency for American chefs to leave their stamps then pursue their own projects. “And then you have these layers of culture,” he says, “and that actually ends up being very Southern.”
So, Molly spending all those years begging him to cook Southern—did that mean that he hadn’t been into it? “I’m still not fully into it,” he says, laughing. There are a lot of things he wants to do. “I’ve been interested in Mexican food the last couple years. I’m still into modern American cuisine at a high level of fine dining. But the idea of having a place like this that is always around, absolutely—or even if it just ends up ten years from now that I’m able to pass down a family cookbook of Southern recipes, that every time anybody would eat fried chicken, they’d start based on Grandpa Brad’s recipe.” He laughs again, and it sounds like that probably would be enough.