John Currence, The Chef Who Happily Banned Pork Specials
Looking back, to push forward, Southern cuisine
“If another motherfucker puts a charcuterie plate in front of me I will punch him in the face,” John Currence tells me while sitting at the John Dory Oyster Bar in Manhattan. He’s in town for the James Beard Awards, an annual spring trip that the Mississippi chef and restaurateur has been making for years — he won Best Chef South in 2009. He’s been on a Batalian restaurant crawl that included stops at Stumptown, Eataly, Gramercy Tavern and a Midtown keg party before meeting writer and fellow Oxonian John T. Edge at the Breslin for glasses of brown. Spirits are elevating rapidly when I peel him away from the gastro safari.
Southern cuisine is hot right now in the United States. Hell, it’s sizzling. Biscuit boxes, ramekins of pimento cheese, po boys and iteration after iteration of fried chicken are landing on restaurant tables far north of the Mason-Dixon — from Los Angeles to Madison, Wisconsin to my block in Brooklyn. Longtime Southern culinary ambassadors like chefs John Besh and Donald Link now share headlines with younger upstarts Tandy Wilson, Kevin Gillespie, Edward Lee and Sean Brock. By all accounts, last weekend’s Atlanta Food and Wine Festival — featuring many of the above — was an incredible success.
But Currence, crouching over a glass of local pilsner, doesn’t want to talk about any of this. Especially, Southern pork. Oh yeah, you may have noticed from that bacon tasting menu at brunch or the bacon mocha gelato being served at your local parlor that bacon is bigger than ever. But here’s the thing about Currence. He’s been running his flagship, City Grocery, since 1992, with six additional restaurants (including Big Bad Breakfast and Ajax Diner) opening along the way. Bacon, in the John Currence worldview, is boring. That is why a year ago he banned pork specials from his menus, having summoned his chefs de cuisine to lay down the law in an animated all-staff meeting. (It’s important to note that pork is not completely banned at the restaurants, it’s just not a focus.) So what is his focus? Hint: Vegetarians will be happy to read on.
I see you every year at the Beard Awards and you know everybody. How did that happen for a guy operating restaurants in small-town Oxford, Mississippi?
I knew from the very beginning, being isolated in Oxford, that the only way that I could grow was by traveling and seeing what else is going on out there. And in spite of the fact I ended up in the kitchen because I lacked certain social graces, I do get along well with guys in the kitchen. I do not claim to be a chef that has mastered their craft. I’m a guy that has always excelled because I was able to cobble things together.
So what is your cooking background?
I didn’t have a lot of in-depth classical training. I didn’t go to school. I mentored under some guys that were very passionate, but their strengths were in the regional identity of the South. My learning was really very hand-to-mouth. It’s arguably ham-fisted in a way.
Are you talking about your cuisine, or you as a chef?
Me as a chef. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m a flavor guy. I won’t bowl you over with subtlety, but I will fucking punch you in the mouth with flavor and surprise you in a place you won’t expect to be surprised.
Give me a dish that you’re going to knock people out with.
Frankly, it’s now really about exploring vegetables and seafood. With the fascination that has exploded for the South in the past few years, there’s a deep interest in pork. People are bacon crazy. Let’s put bacon in ice cream! Bacon soap! Bacon. Bacon. Bacon. And about a year ago I got all of my chefs de cuisine together and said we’re done with this shit. I’m exhausted. If another motherfucker puts a charcuterie plate in front of me I will punch him in the face. Fifty years ago, the South was where the greatest variety of vegetables came from in the country. Let’s look at vegetables and the variety of seafood available in the Gulf of Mexico. I want to focus on something more challenging and illustrate to people that food of the South is greater than what you can do with pork.
This ultimatum you gave, what was your chefs’ response?
I’m not one of these guys that is a Patton in the kitchen.
But you’re a passionate guy. And you’re convincing…
We had this conversation and, frankly, it was a T in the road for them. For years, we had done it one way and then all of a sudden I come to them and say I’m changing everything completely. At first they were like, Where did this come from? They are all intelligent enough that they understand it deeply. But it meant changing. I had this revelation, and all of a sudden they’ve got to change course behind me. All of us went to Charleston to cook a dinner at Husk, and it was intentionally a surprise to everyone that the meal was an all-vegetable dinner. It was a weird experience.
I’m 47 years old and Sean [Brock] — there aren’t words for how much I respect his intelligence and dedication. Husk is a seminal restaurant. But, to be invited there, at 47, to cook. It’s the first time in a long time I was totally dumbstruck, and kinda terrified. Like what do I do at Husk? Its existence is important and, if I’m going to cook there, I wanted to do something that lives up to what that restaurant means. We ended up doing five or six vegetable courses and it was wonderful. When it was over I saw Sean and burst in tears. It was the proudest I’ve been in 30 years in this business. My guys who were there, they understood it and it was a profound moment for us.
Let’s talk about social media. You run @bigbadchef. When did you get that? You must have done that early.
It was early. It was created by the guys at Garden and Gun when I was writing for them a lot. At first I really thought that you couldn’t come up with anything more narcissistic than 140 characters to vomit about what’s happening to you. But now, I’m totally fascinated with it. Apparently, if you limit me to 140 characters, I’m sort of entertaining.
What’s your role with Garden and Gun now? Contributing Editor?
I think that’s the way I read on the masthead. I haven’t written anything in years. I’m working on getting my book finished.
What’s the update on that?
It’s not just not done, it’s entirely not defined at this point. I’m catastrophically paralyzed with self-loathing. Not only am I paralyzed, I’m surrounded by people with mentors and friends that have written profound tomes when it comes to food. I’m terrified I’m going to put something together that is total malarkey. Oxford has developed as a food place since we’ve been there and we have a responsibility to tell that story. To justify why there is a reason we’ve been there for 20 years and thrived and survived.
When people ask the big question What is Mississippi cuisine, what do you say to them?
First of all that question has never been asked. Nobody has asked me what Mississippi food is. Nobody ever.
But at the same time, it’s exciting. We can define what it is. There are so many pockets — the food of the South is defined by immigrant population. The combination of those foods, and the fruit and vegetables grown there, and the proteins raised. In Mississippi, there is so much history in cotton, but there isn’t a whole lot of discussion about food. In Crystal Springs, which is about 30 minutes south of Jackson, it was the truck capital of the South up until 50 years ago. They were shipping vegetables through the country. It was a huge launch point for vegetable farming. So what I’m trying to do is now dig into what were the heirloom varieties of vegetables that were indigenous to the area. My greatest desire is to rediscover the flavors I remember as a kid that my grandmother cooked, the sausage my grandfather made. I’m terrified I’m the last generation of guys that have those memories before GMO and GE veg.
Give me a specific memory.
My granddad’s breakfast sausage. I remember the flavor so much so that when we opened Big Bad Breakfast, we had to do everything from scratch. Let’s work on the recipe for the breakfast sausage and we’ll serve every day. We worked and worked and then we finally hit the recipe. When I tasted it for the first time, it literally brought me to tears. I was like, it carried me to that place when I was six years old and I’d pour awful karo syrup over my sausage. That’s the sausage I tasted. That’s important, recreating these things and taking us back to a place when food was natural. This is the most important thing out there. We have a responsibility as chefs to help folks understand that our food is killing us. Our food is literally killing us. If we don’t educate people and bring them back to a place where they will spend money on a food and eat right, our health care costs will cripple us and diabetes will overwhelm us. Obesity will continue to be a problem.
Which is a big problem in Mississippi.
New York City has its fair share of Southern restaurants, as do many Northern cities. It’s popular now. Can you do City Grocery outside Mississippi?
Redoing City Grocery would be like saying we need to re-brand Gramercy Tavern. But Big Bad Breakfast, we’re just getting ready to launch our next location.
Can you tell me where?
Birmingham, Alabama. We’re hopefully about six months away. I think with Big Bad Breakfast it’s easy to talk about it because we’re all told our entire lives that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But who the fuck treats it like we treat dinner at Daniel? Nobody does. You talk about it being the most important meal, but when it comes down to it they’re shoveling shit from a Sysco truck.
Nobody is happy at breakfast time either. People are hungover or eating on the run or skipping it all together.
And oddly that was the thing that kept me from doing it. I didn’t know what derelict criminals I’d get to staff the kitchen and run the place. And finally, I was like, fuck it, let’s do it. I want to give breakfast the same consideration we give lunch or dinner. And it’s been wonderful. I won’t lie to you and say we’re doing the Jean Georges of breakfast, but we’re looking at breakfast of that framework. I hope that with this partnership that we’ll continue to open. It’s a breakfast product that we can feel good about eating and participate in offering something that it is a better alternative than the chain breakfast places out there that are frankly serving people garbage.
Like Cracker Barrel?
It’s garbage. They’re taking shit off a truck in the back door and re-warming it. I remember the last time I was in Cracker Barrel and sitting there surrounded by five octogenarians on oxygen and overweight. It was singularly the most depressing moment in my entire life. We don’t need to be like this. This is not graceful aging. This is like an old folks home for breakfast.
City Grocery celebrates its 20 year anniversary this week with two alumni dinners (May 18 and 19). To book, and you should, call 662-232-8080.