I’ve been going to the Waffle House since I was 15. I grew up in rural Virginia and we would all leave work and go to my house, which everyone called the Brock Hotel, to drink beer. We had this huge porch overlooking the police station and we had an old-school 1960s fridge with a Brock Trucking sticker on it and we’d keep it full of Busch Lite and PBR and crush beers after work before stumbling over to the Waffle House. The servers there knew we were hammered and underage and they still treated us like VIPs. That’s when I fell in love with the idea of hospitality.
The beauty of Waffle House starts with the staff. They find a way to soothe your soul with their jokes, their sense of humor, their tolerance. I always heard that the only way to change someone else’s behavior is to change your own, and they do that every night when groups like us show up, rowdy, causing trouble. Their kindness just breaks you down. We would go there five times a week.
That’s when I started to daydream: I was trying to decide if I wanted to play rock and roll or be a chef. I was working my way through the line of a local restaurant, a classic American restaurant—baked ziti, prime rib, salads—and I was eating at Waffle House so much that I learned how to navigate the menu and got to know everyone so well. I’d sit there at night and ramble on and on about cooking and they’d listen to me patiently. And because the kitchen is open and there’s nothing to hide at Waffle House, I’d watch the action. I was amazed how the line cooks were able to cook so effortlessly, without tickets, just hearing how the orders came in. I was always begging them to let me cook. They never let me—I doubt their insurance covered a drunk teenager falling into the fryer.
I decided to go to culinary school. I talked about the decision constantly with the staff; they kept pretending they were interested. But on my last night in Virginia, they took me around back, where there weren’t any security cameras and they gave me a full uniform with my name on it. They wrote me a poem—about my ordering habits, my drunken ramblings. I carried it in my wallet until it disintegrated.
When I came to Charleston, I found the Waffle House straight away—the same one I took [Bourdain] to. It was on the way from the downtown bars to where I was living, and I started going there nightly. I needed it to get through the next day. We didn’t eat properly when we were working, and we drank too much. It was survival. You go to school from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and then to work from 2 p.m.-12:30 a.m. and then drinking until 2 a.m, then I’d swing by Waffle House to refuel before crashing and starting again.
There’s magic in the air there. When you pull into that parking lot, the stress of the world leaves you. You know everything is going to be alright. It’s the way you feel when you go to a spa—pampered by someone giving you their full attention. You know the food is going to be exactly the same, no matter which branch you go to. I’ve been going to the Waffle House for over 20 years and the menu hasn’t changed. Chefs are all so hardwired for change, but there’s comfort in not changing. The Waffle House was always that for me. You never have to worry about the hours. Always open. It’s always there—a sanctuary.
My biggest takeaway from the Waffle House is how you feel when you leave—this whole-hearted fullness, this recharging of your soul. You feel like you been taken care of, nourished, connected with old-time friends. That’s what I chase at all of my restaurants, and I learned it at the Waffle House.
I finally got to cook at the Waffle House a few years ago. I was working the griddle and all of a sudden all these hash brown orders start coming in. I’ve never been so scared of anything in my life. All the Waffle House cooks were standing over me, saying “alright mister bigtime chef, let’s see your hash brown flip.” It looks so easy, but it’s terrifying. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to have hash, not hash brown, and the brown is the important part of the equation. I did okay, but the cooks were generous in their support: “Not bad. It takes practice. It takes practice. You’ll get it.”
Sean Brock’s Tasting Menu Experience
It’s late, you’re starving and likely drunk. You can’t gamble and lose on a bad order. This is precious time at those hours. I became obsessed with treating the Waffle House as a tasting menu-style restaurant, where I had a pre-set menu that they already knew when I walked in the door. Everything is set up in a way that’s focused on survival, filling your stomach up as fast as possible, then moving on to the finer things, slowing it down and really savoring it.
The whole meal is family style, so I’m ordering two of everything. They’re so kind and they’ll split it for you. They see me walk in and they immediately start preparing. This is how I order, and how you should too:
I always start with a green salad with Thousand Island. Why the hell would you do that? If it’s busy and there’s a line out the door, the griddle will be packed and it could take a while to get your food—longer than you want to wait. That salad hits the table in 35 seconds flat. You ask for an extra packet of Thousand Island and you dump two packets on that sucker and you’re good to go.
You gotta know the kitchen and how the orders work. The griddle stays packed, but the waffles come out quick so that’s where I go next. You take that waffle and that homogenized oil-margarine stuff, with the perfect temperature and texture—I wish all butter were served at this temperature—and smear it until it falls into every one of those little squares, those little flavor holders. I go full coverage—I leave no square un-margarined. Drench it in syrup “Super Troopers” style. It should be almost swimming. That gives you your energy—wakes you up for the tour de force to come.
Your nervous system is now regulated; you’re not anxious about starving to death. Now you can wait for the food to come off the griddle. If I’m sober enough, I’ll make a special sauce to dip it in. I ask for a side of Thousand Island and spike it with hot sauce and Worcestershire for extra umami. That’s super good. If not, ketchup, mayo, hot sauce, and Worcestershire. I use these for the fries and the patty melt. The sauce really pushes it over—that umami-packed mayonnaisey hillbilly concoction.
I like to order them scattered, covered, smothered and chunked. It’s so etched into my brain that I don’t even remember what that means. [Editor’s Note: It means scattered on the griddle, covered with cheese, smothered with sautéed onions, and chunked with pieces of hickory-smoked ham.] I’ve been ordering that since I was 18. You’re using a different part of your brain for survival. I could rattle it off without thinking and still not have any idea of what the words mean. You can add chili or gravy, but I stay away. There’s a purity to the order—just enough to accent it, but not enough to hide it. You want to taste that griddle crunch. A lot of technique goes into that crunch.
Then you move into the meat courses. The pork chops come triple stacked—it’s like Lynyrd Skynyrd with those triple guitars. They put this special seasoning that caramelizes nicely on the griddle. I’ll go Heinz 57 on this. Bourdain laughed at me on the show, but if you break down Heinz 57 or A1, there’s some serious saucework there. If I were to sneak one of those two sauces on a plate at McCrady’s [Brock’s fine-dining restaurant in Charleston] during a 16-course tasting menu in a hipstery swoosh, they’d think it’s the most brilliant thing ever.
I like to end the meat sequence with a nice T-bone. I go big on the A1. That was my father’s favorite thing to eat: T-bone with A1 sauce five times a week. It’s pure nostalgia for me. That A1 sets me free.
Chugging Dr. Pepper. You’re filling your stomach right off the bat. To me, Dr. Pepper is the A1 of the soft drink world. Those guys are all over the refills. I put down liters of the stuff.
I don’t think I’ve ever been there during daylight hours. But I hear it’s a good time to come!
But even at night I might do the breakfast approach, and I go all out. I usually have two or three different meats. Sunny-side up on the eggs. Full coverage with the hot sauce, until they turn red. Lots of toast slathered in margarine—once that yolk mixes with the hot sauce, you’ll need a vessel to sop it up with.
In general though, I don’t really do the eggs. Why not? I’ll ask my psychologist. I’m sure it has to do with childhood trauma.
Maybe I’ll start branching out. I need to expand my Waffle House horizons.