Renowned chef John Currence was born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, but has become a veritable institution in his adopted hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. John currently runs City Grocery—which he opened when he was 26—and three other restaurants: the “upscale downhome” Boure, French bistro-meets-Mississippi café Snackbar, and his homage to the most important meal of the day, Big Bad Breakfast. Big Bad Breakfast has expanded to five locations (including one in Florence), with a sixth on the way.
Over the last decade, the James Beard Award-Winning Currence has earned national recognition not only for his inventive and grounded restaurant group but also for his activism. He uses his platform as a chef to ask hard questions and demand action against injustice. Currence sees food as a vehicle for discussion and the communal table as a place where substantive conversations can be held. During these politically divisive times, John is willing to speak his mind when he sees a wrong that should be righted; he takes stands where others in the heart of the South may not. (Follow John on Twitter for lively debate.)
John has published two cookbooks, Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes From My Three Favorite Food Groups (and then some) and Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day. Today we announce John as the chef for our upcoming Friends of the Café Dinner. John will be collaborating with wine connoisseur extraordinaire Eric Solomon on the August dinner. (Look for more about Eric in the coming weeks on the Journal.)
This week, John took the time to answer some questions and, as always, he does not hold back. For this and dozens of other reasons, we are proud to call John a friend.
AC: You got a bit of a non-traditional start in the culinary world, not attending culinary school and working just about every job you could – from cooking on a Gulf Coast tugboat to bakeries and butcher shops. You earned your spot working under the legendary Bill Neal and Brennan family. Has that journey influenced your style of cooking?
JC: I believe that every point in my life influences my food, as I know they do every chef I know. The journey to “becoming a chef” is entirely misunderstood. It is about gathering all of those moments and distilling from them exactly what the story is you are trying to tell through your food.
AC: Alabama Chanin is active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, an organization that is also near to your heart. Why do you think it is so important to study foodways? What can looking at our communal past tell us about ourselves today?
JC: Our food, to a larger degree than most people recognize, illustrates our history and tells our story. No part of our country is richer in story or more misunderstood than the South and with the flattening of the world through the internet, overnight deliveries from anywhere on the planet, immediate communication, preserving those foodways and documenting their history and celebrating their significance has never been more critical. These are all things that could/would be easily washed away with the proliferation of corporate chain options and the evaporation of mom and pop venues rooted in those stories and history
AC: You were instrumental in helping to rebuild the New Orleans institution Willie Mae’s Scotch House after it was virtually destroyed by Katrina. This seems like a great example of how embracing shared foodways can create cultural change. What did you take away from that experience about people and about our shared histories?
JC: Working to drive the Willie Mae’s project to an end was simultaneously the proudest and most challenging/heartbreaking moment in my life. Had we not gotten involved, that little gem would have both failed to exist and would have fallen over into a heap of timber. We managed to save a restaurant that prior to the storm, NOBODY was aware existed, for the most part and people NEVER ventured into Treme to try, but by the end of our efforts, through the media attention given to the project, it immediately became one of the cult food destinations of NOLA. The friendships that were cemented in those hours inside that building, the understanding of the absolute need to save that little space and the opportunity to make a difference after an event like the flood of the city touched us all in the same way and, I like to think, gave everyone who came to help the pride of adding their names to that place.
AC: You are known for being outspoken politically and a bit of an activist. How do you reconcile that with your calling to bring people to the communal table? Does it make that mission easier or harder?
JC: We have NEVER been more polarized in our opinions/feelings/beliefs as we currently are and getting people to the table has never been more of a challenge. The greater issue now is that we are being led down a path where civility, decorum, truth, decency, dignity, and compassion/empathy are not just being pushed aside/buried, but they are being ridiculed as weaknesses or declared unpatriotic or entirely unimportant, at the very least. The volume of conversation has been turned up as loud as it will go, nobody is listening to what anyone else has to say and avarice rules the day. The current culture of fear-mongering by a certain segment of the population at the expense of the voiceless who carry the load of the nation’s daily workload obligation or those who exist on the fringe, is disturbingly misguided.
The flashes of the darkest moments of American history we are seeing today in the way that immigrants, members of the LGBT community, and intellectuals are alienated and demonized is astounding and terrifying. There has never been a time when we more desperately needed to breathe deeply and consider who we are and what we want to be. America, today, is quite simply, the worst version of itself it has ever been. By listening to each other we can begin to fix that. Sadly, we seem just has happy convening moments like Charlottesville in order to “preserve our heritage” or excusing tragedy like [the shooting that occurred at] Marjory Stoneman Douglas in an effort to “protect our second amendment rights” than we are to sit down and try to understand the roots of the issues that create those flashpoints. And what is worse is that we continue down this sinister rabbit hole, convinced that the struggle through all of this is what is defining us as “Great Again.” We are the worst joke on the current world stage and it will take all of us working together to right the current wrongs.
AC: When the immigration debate began in earnest, you posted a sign at your restaurant saying that everyone was welcome there. You also hosted a “Mexissippi Supper” to support the Mexican-American community—who are known to be essential to restaurant culture and operations. Can you explain why it is important to be openly active, in addition to working behind the scenes to effect change?
JC: Inaction is tantamount to complicity. I was raised to do the right thing, no matter the consequences so, given a platform and a microphone, I will always do just that. The people who work in our restaurants (and I speak for all of the chefs in my immediate circle of friends) are our family. THEY are the ones who give our clocks the ability to tick. To fail to speak up on their behalf, in my mind, is as significant a betrayal as one could deliver. On my own I am nothing. It takes a team of people to make any one of our restaurants work and I feel an obligation to defend my people, as I would my own daughter. When our people are well-taken care of, they are happy. When they are happy, we all prosper. When we prosper, we have the ability to nourish our communities and when we do so, we enrich the lives of the people living in them. This is the significance that is given the least amount of attention in what we do. All of that starts with taking care of our people which starts with simple gestures of respect, like taking the opportunity to speak on their behalf even though it may potentially have an adverse effect on business.
AC: Do you think that the concept of Southern food has been appropriated by people chasing trends? What is the most important thing about Southern food that most people eating at a new-school Southern restaurant would not know? And do you feel responsible to “keep it real”, so to speak, in your kitchens?
JC: As a society, we shamelessly jump trends and try to ride them through to prosperity. Southern food has certainly been a victim of that cultural appropriation, but because of the unending cultural and regional diversity of what Southern Food actually “is,” the purloined versions stand out as nothing less than cartoonish. I don’t think that we have ever thought of what we do as “keeping it real” as much as trying to maintain a dedication to the quality of ingredients and honesty of the narrative of our foods. Cooking in season and with the ingredients made available to us locally create a roadmap to that end. Examining the influences different populations have had on the landscape of our food with those ingredients is the journey we try to lead, but celebrating the beauty of our individual ingredients and showcasing the elemental beauty is the ultimate endgame.
AC: You’ve tackled subjects like poverty and hunger. There are reasons those problems are pervasive in the South, which you have spoken about. Is this a problem that can be tackled at a grassroots level? Is this a political conversation or a “communal table” conversation?
JC: The South has always been fraught with social and financial challenges. Dedication to addressing the issues on all levels here and elsewhere in the LONG TERM is the only way we will change things. We have allowed the well-being of our children, particularly those in greatest need, to become part of the political tug-of-war. Our children’s education, health, and well-being is not partisan fodder, but it has been hijacked and pitted in that light. We have to stand up and make this a non-negotiable if there is ever to be any hope of a brighter future.
AC: We’ve spoken with Hugh Acheson about helping children learn to make healthy choices in life and in the kitchen—which he does by creating curriculum that can be adopted in schools. Do you think starting these lessons early can really make a difference, or is the culture of immediacy too pervasive?
JC: Giving children hope, showing them that there are choices that fall into their hands and planting seeds early is the only way to counteract the extraction of hope.
AC: What is your earliest food-related memory?
JC: My great grandmother’s chocolate chip cookies.
AC: Do you remember the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
JC: Potato Chip-Crusted Fried Chicken and Pigs In A Blanket for my family when I was 8.
AC: What is your most reliable go-to ingredient that you always keep on-hand in the kitchen?
AC: What was your last truly great dining experience?
JC: A pot of the best seafood gumbo I ever made, on Sunday after last year’s SFA [Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium]. My mom and I worked over the pot all day long and agonized over EVERY detail. It was perfect and it was the last meal we ever ate together.
AC: In a culture where fast and easy solutions often prevail, what do you think is most important for home cooks to focus on? And what should they avoid buying when pre-packaged, if at all possible?
JC: Find the joy in cooking. Try to take in the fact that you are sharing an immensely personal moment when you prepare something and share that thing with someone you love. Consider “why” it is that you cooked that thing and what the story is behind why you cooked what you cooked. Just buy good ingredients. Make the time and share your love.
AC: At Alabama Chanin, you can often find music influencing the mood and the workflow in the studio. Do you play music in the kitchen and, if so, what is your favorite music to cook by?
JC: Music is arguably the biggest influence on my entire life. I am rarely without it. (I am listening to Exile On Mainstreet as I write). The list of what I love is too long, bizarre and complicated to say one thing or another is “favorite.” Different moods have different needs. I can go from The Stones to Soloman Burke, to the Clash, to Simon and Garfunkel, to John Paul White without the blink of an eye. These days I am back to spending a lot of time with early Springsteen (first three records plus Nebraska) but without provocation, I might switch to Minor Threat or Husker Du. Toots and the Maytals are a safe place, as is pre-pop Fleetwood Mac and any Elvis Costello…or Presley.