How Does Sean Brock Make His Gluten-Free Biscuits So Damn Delicious?

We asked the Joyland chef about the process behind his flaky creations.

Sean Brock gluten-free biscuits
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

When Sean Brock opened Joyland’s dining room this spring, there were plenty of ways to find joy. The retro aesthetic of bright, primary colors that channels our childhood, for one. Burgers made with beef from a sustainable Tennessee farm, for another. The most surprising element of joy, though? The gluten-free biscuits.

The Nashville restaurant, which opened at the onset of the pandemic and offered takeout for its first year, is an homage to old school fast food joints. It’s a fast-casual concept with a menu of highly executed classics like hamburgers, fried chicken, and plenty of biscuits including biscuit sandwiches stuffed with pimento cheese and fried chicken. While gluten-free offerings might seem like an afterthought at some restaurants, at Joyland it was paramount that the treats without gluten be just as crave-worthy.

Part of the reason why was personal. Brock’s relationship with gluten changed when he was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease myasthenia gravis (MG) in 2016. He completely omitted it from his diet for a year but has since found ways to occasionally eat it—not easy when you’ve spent your whole life studying, preparing, and eating southern classics.

“I wouldn’t say I’m strictly gluten-free,” Brock says. “I save my gluten for pizza.” He discovered that he wasn’t alone. There were members of the Joyland team who also ate a gluten-free diet, or were related to people who do. So they devoted a good chunk of their energy and time into the research and development of gluten-free items. 

Gluten restriction or not, Brock can’t imagine life without a buttermilk biscuit. So priority number one was finding a perfect substitute for the real deal. This task proved to be difficult. “We’re such perfectionists, and you get used to things the way you like them and recreating that same experience without gluten inspires us to push even harder,” he says. 

Brock and his team brought in easel-sized Post-it notes to their kitchen and filled two walls with formulas. It took months of tweaking and playing around with five different flours and starches. “So if you do the math, the combination of flours and starches, it’s never ending,” he laughs. 

Joyland gluten-free biscuit
Courtesy of Sean Brock

It was also important to Brock to remain true to his ethos of using heirloom grains. They’re more delicious, he says, and, if you’re trying to replicate the depth and complexity of southern heirloom wheat, you need quality ingredients to match. Among the flours that they ended up using are benne seed, oats, and Carolina gold rice.

Of course, everyone in the South has their own idea of what makes the “perfect” biscuit, which was the first thing Brock learned how to make when he was young. “I remember when I was a kid, my grandpa liked chewier ones and my grandmother liked fluffy, delicate ones,” he remembers. “So we had both every night.”

Though Brock doesn’t get too hung up on a biscuit’s layers, he knew it needed to taste great, hold up as a sandwich, and survive a takeout box. What mattered most, then, was that the biscuit’s exterior has a crunch and that the interior practically melts in your mouth.

In addition, Joyland has gluten-free hamburger buns and chicken wings. Customers who haven’t had burgers in years have expressed their gratitude. The chicken wings weren’t even meant to be gluten-free, but after about 100 different recipes and blind taste tests, Brock and his team determined that using a gluten-free beer batter created the crispiest, juiciest wings.

Though Brock never expected to add the “gluten-free” label in front of biscuits, now those hundreds of tested recipes have paid off. People are able to find happiness in a staple comfort food where wheat reigns supreme. 

“We’ve developed this incredible following and the feedback we get inspires us to push even further,” he says. “There’s just so much gratitude from people who thought they’d never be able to have a good biscuit again.” 

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Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based journalist writing about food, travel, and a variety of other topics. Her work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wine Enthusiast, and CNN Travel.