Sean Brock talks about the transformative power of restaurants on their communities.

“Look at that floor,” Sean Brock marvels, pointing down at a jumbled assemblage of cracked and faded mosaic tiles from his booth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Diner, as he settles in for lunch.

A Manhattan interior designer would glance through his or her ornately rimmed spectacles at this tableau and spot a need for urgent renovation, but Brock gets it — it’s an old Brooklyn diner serving upscale food to the creative class in a revived neighborhood; of course you’d leave some of the rustic fixtures from when this place was an actual diner in a previous era.

This recognition is precisely why I’ve plucked Brock from his promotional duties for Mind Of A Chef Season 2 during a recent stay in New York — an appearance with his old buddy Charlie Rose on morning television, a party at the uber-hip Ace Hotel with MOAC co-star April Bloomfield and narrator/executive producer Anthony Bourdain — to talk about how restaurants can have a transformative power over a neighborhood.

Brock’s episodes on MOAC explore cooking, his work to preserve seeds and grains that were once a key to Southern culture, the connections between his beloved Lowcountry cooking and West Africa. There’s no time in the series to get into another way a chef thinks, about where his food is being served, its environment. And how a building’s and then a restaurant’s and then a neighborhood’s evolution can result from a flicker in the brain of a chef as he stands in front of even the most forlorn-looking building in a no-energy neighborhood. Given the right circumstances, what can materialize is a vibrant community with the restaurant at its hub.

That’s the scenario that played out when Brock opened his second restaurant, Husk, on a stretch of Charleston’s Queen Street. The street had once served as a mundane pathway for his walk from his car to his job as executive chef at McCrady’s, where Brock first made his name as a chef in the late 2000′s. Until he spotted a building.

Brock, in his trademark “Virginia is for lover’s” baseball cap and black-rimmed spectacles, turns sideways in the booth at Diner and launches into a lengthy, mesmerizing anecdote about how a building that became part of Husk transformed him, then began to transform the neighborhood. A building he’d first noticed on that walk, a brick building that looked like it might fall over the next time a brisk wind swept in from the ocean.

“One day I walked up and ran my finger through the grout and pulled a brick out,” Brock says, laughing at the memory.

Then, he continues, he was cutting fish in the kitchen at McCrady’s when owner David Howard walked up to him and said, “Hey let’s take a walk, I’m gonna show you something.”

“He was bringing me to show me what became Husk — the big white house, and the brick building just happened to come with it. I hadn’t paid much attention to the white house. It was very, very run down. In fact, there were homeless people living in it. [Howard] said to me, ‘I brought you here to show you this. What do you think about turning it into a restaurant? What restaurant do you see? People are walking in the door and sitting down to eat. What are they eating?’”

Brock says he recalls replying, “That’s a restaurant where you sit down and eat the best damn cornbread you ever had in your life. That’s where you sit down and you eat a bowl of Hoppin’ John that will teach you a lesson about the Atlantic slave trade and that period of American history.” He pauses, laughs his infectious laugh. “[Howard] thought I was crazy — it wasn’t what he was thinking!”

But it led to a brainstorming session, one that would affect how Brock approached Southern food, what a restaurant should serve, what role it should play in its community. “We decided we wanted to do Southern food,” he says. “And then I started to figure out what that meant, what it meant to be a chef in the South. As a legacy, something you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing. What does that mean and how do you move it forward in the right direction while protecting it? How do you restore it while evolving it? That’s when I started trying to understand how cuisines were formed, and that’s when we decided, after doing research on all the iconic Southern restaurants, that we needed to do something that was different. It wasn’t about creativity and we wouldn’t have pasta on the menu or pizza or burritos. A temple.”

Eventually, Howard and Brock would renovate these rundown buildings, restoring them to a sort of pristine colonial glory. “He turned it into a postcard,” Brock says of his partner’s aesthetic vision.

With its fresh paint job and a menu that was like Southern home cooking if your home cook happened to be possessed by rare talent and raw inspiration, Husk quickly became the hottest restaurant in the country. Bon Appétit magazine named it the best new restaurant of 2011, with Andrew Knowlton writing, “Brock isn’t reinventing Southern food or attempting to create some citified version of it. He’s trying to re-create the food his grandma knew — albeit with the skill and resources of a modern chef. As a result, he (and Husk) has become a torchbearer for an honest style of home cooking that many of us never truly tasted until now.”

What happened next? A fledgling shop on nearby King Street owned by Billy Reid, now one of Brock’s close friends, had an influx of stylish customers — the designer would later tell him that he’d been on the verge of closing the boutique down and moving to a more established neighborhood. The other restaurants around Husk used its success as inspiration to improve, and benefited from the increased foot traffic and — no doubt — from patrons getting turned away from a fully booked Husk. “We’re bringing 400 to 500 people to that street every day,” Brock says. “So the street became alive. The carriage tours spend more time there talking about Husk. It’s positive for everybody.”

Husk’s emergence not only imbued a corner of Charleston with spirit and purpose, it allowed Brock and his team to think about bringing the message elsewhere. He immediately looked to another city he’d cooked in during his rise to prominence, Nashville. He’d worked in the city from 2003 to 2006 at the Hermitage Hotel, and here was a chance to build on the inspiration that struck him while looking at that crumbling building back on Queen St. “It makes so much sense to put [Husks] all over the South, because they can all tell one big story, but each restaurant can tell a very specific story about a region or town or city.”

But Nashville, his first and only choice for Husk’s second act, lacked an important element: a place with the sort of vibe that he could tweak to his purposes, in a neighborhood where Husk could be the leader.

“We would go to Nashville and just drive, drive, drive around,” he says of the initial search. “You can’t just put Husk in a high-rise, in new construction. It has to have a smell and a feel and a specific type of molding and a specific noise when you walk on the old floors. We were having a lot of trouble finding that in Nashville. It just doesn’t exist there. The Civil War wiped a lot of that out. Honestly, we almost gave up. We almost gave up on Nashville because we couldn’t find the right place, the right neighborhood.”

Then Howard found a place, a place Brock actually knew, an old restaurant that hadn’t been able to transform the moribund neighborhood and had shuttered. They swooped in last year, and quickly began transforming the building at 37 Rutledge Street into the next iteration of Husk, Husk Nashville.

“You can stand on the front porch at Husk and count homeless people,” Brock says, remembering the construction process that led up to the restaurant’s opening in May of this year.

“Homeless people were living underneath Husk, even as we were building it. We had so many things stolen. People were coming in dressed as construction workers to blend in and just grabbed sh*t. People’s computers. It’d be the middle of the day and people would break into cars. Now I feel completely safe there. In fact, I live right behind the restaurant. I’m super-excited to see Rutledge Hills develop into a cool little neighborhood with vibrant energy. I think it’s going to happen.”

It’s not hard to imagine Husk Nashville having an even greater impact than Brock’s place has on Charleston. The Tennessee city has one of the fastest-emerging creative scenes in the country, attracting famous residents like Jack White, and The Black Keys — who’ve all been in to dine at Husk — and major events like the new Music City Eats food, wine and music festival, which debuts September 21-22. Brock is ebullient about how his restaurant fits in, as he describes incorporating local style and design. “What’s cool is that you walk into a restaurant and the servers are wearing jeans from Imogene + Willie. They’ve got on Emil Erwin’s belts, Billy Reid shirts. They have a notepad from Hatch Show Print. The tables are made from a guy down the road.

“Having [this mutual support] gives everybody not only the courage they need and the finances to keep moving forward, but it creates a very specific vibe. You walk into [restaurants like] City House or Rolf & Daughters and there’s a specific feel that you only get in Nashville, just like what’s going down in Portland, in Austin, these little hip cities. Once that starts happening in a community, then it gives people with big dreams the confidence to put everything on the line and start a small business. That’s just so powerful it’s insane.”

Once the food arrives at Diner, Brock tucks into his rabbit as classic jazz plays in the background and we discuss how restaurants have the power to attract people to the strangest places — a dangerous neighborhood, a far-flung locale. I point out that that’s why the Michelin guide started in Europe, to point hungry travelers to the best food they could hope to find while on the road. “Ex-act-ly,” Brock says. “A lot of those Michelin restaurants are so much fun because they’re a voyage, a journey. It’s an experience to have to drive somewhere out of the way. It’s more of an evening. It’s not just hopping in a cab and getting dropped off somewhere.”

Then Brock brings it back around to Husk Nashville and the role it’s playing in transforming its environment. With Americans showing an increasing willingness to travel for a memorable food experience, “it’ll open up a lot of doors for other communities and neighborhoods that were deserts. Where Husk is in Nashville, we’re the only business, except at the foot of the hill there’s a fantastic coffee shop called Crema, and I look forward to more businesses popping up over the next 10 years.”

In other words, Husk Nashville could be the latest success story in this developing tale of urban renewal starting around highly rated restaurants. It’s happened in Charleston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Miami — why not Nashville?

“The power of food,” Brock says, his eyes opening wide. “It’s amazing!”