John Currence’s first cooking job was on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico. He was working as a deckhand and took over the cooking duties. Trying to produce good meals in those conditions, he once told me was great culinary training, preparing him for almost any kitchen difficulty.
He also did the rite of passage kitchen apprenticeships, working at Bill Neal’s Crook’s Corner in North Carolina while attending the University of North Carolina. Plus, he gained experience cutting fish at a smokehouse, baking bread in another restaurant and working as a butcher in a grocery store. He then climbed above those greasy lower rungs of the chef career ladder and opened Gautreau’s in New Orleans as sous chef. A few years later, he helped open the legendary Bacco, which is now sadly gone. It was in the French Quarter, near Jackson Square and not far from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo.
In 1992, Currence moved to fabled Oxford, Mississippi, home to William Faulkner and Ole Miss (in that order of importance) and opened City Grocery. The restaurant is an innovative, revelatory, Southern stereotype-busting and now landmark nearing its 30th anniversary.
Currence is Southern through and through, and, really, specifically a product of the Mississippi Delta, natively and spiritually. He was born in New Orleans and although he traveled a lot with his parents, including several years in Europe, he has basically made it about five-and-a-half hours away from his childhood home. Oxford is where he found fame, first with the Grocery (as it’s known locally) and then with several other restaurants, including the town’s breakfast anchor, Big Bad Breakfast, and the extraordinary Snackbar. In 2009, he won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef South. “I am pretty sure they gave me that medal to get me off the list of nominees, so they could get on with their real work,” he offers, humbly. “Every year I was nominated, I was the least talented of the people I was nominated along with!”
In answer to how the difference between the South and North influences food, he says: “I think the South is built on much more cultural, social and familial tradition than the North. Lots of that involves food, which we have a rich history of. Dozens of different immigrant populations wove a magnificent tapestry that makes up the South and each brought along its own foodways.”
He says he rarely gets to cook in his kitchens now, because he’s so busy running his restaurant empire, including turning his Big Bad Breakfast into a chain across the South, opening another 11 to 12 locations in the next 18 months. “I’m like the redneck Danny Meyer,” he says.
These are his five favorite meals.
Oysters, Tabasco & Miller High Life with Chef Tory McPhail
On a balmy spring afternoon in 2006, I found myself with an unexpected two-hour period free of responsibility. I was in Apalachicola, Florida, to cook at a very large event with several chefs from around the South. We had been asked to come to a meet and greet for the guests at an oyster processing facility on the banks of the Apalachicola Bay called 13 Mile. As we mingled with the guests, it became very clear to my buddy, Tory McPhail (then chef at Commander’s Palace) and I that the one man that had been enlisted to shuck oysters for the 200 guests at the event was far outpaced by the appetite of the crowd. So, we jumped in to help. We shucked furiously for the better part of two hours before the guests were whisked away to the next stop on their tour and we found ourselves alone on a dock with the remainder of their bar and oysters. Tory and I sat in the fading sun, on the edge of that dock with a pile of oysters, freshly pulled from the bottom of the bay that morning, two oyster knives, one bottle of Tabasco and a bucket of ice-cold Miller High Life, and for the next hour-and-a-half, our responsibilities melted away as we shucked the most perfectly creamy, slightly briny oysters that have ever crossed my lips, sipped on that crispy, chilled lager and told stories and learned things about each other we had never known. It was a perfect moment and perfect meal.
Wedding Lunch at City Grocery
My wife and I were married on a glorious Saturday afternoon in early June of 2007, in Oxford, Mississippi. I was in my early 40s and had stumbled immaturely and unsuccessfully down the connubial path in my 20s. At 42, I wanted to get it right and the concept of a wedding ceremony took on a much different hue that it had earlier in life. We gathered only our immediate families and those who would stand witness to our vows and had a beautiful little service at a church just a block off of the Oxford Square. As soon as the ceremony was over, the 20 or so guests walked up the street to my first restaurant, City Grocery. In we went, all dressed to the nines, to a dining room filled with college baseball fans, in town for the NCAA tournament, and sat down to one of the most delightful meals I have ever had. I could not tell you a single thing I had to eat, but for one brief shining moment, I broke bread with precisely every person in my life closest to me and whom I love most dearly. The throng of sports-lovers around us joined in the celebration as table after table around bought, opened, shook and sprayed bottle after bottle of Champagne in our honor. It was glorious.
Tasting Heirloom Tomatoes with Chef Tandy Wilson in Nashville
In the summer of 2008, I participated in a meal with one of the most talented and least assuming chefs I know, Tandy Wilson, in Nashville, Tennessee. In the afternoon before the meal, I realized I had been shorted in my tomato order for the restaurant and told Tandy such, so he threw me in his car for a quick ride several blocks over to the Nashville Farmer’s Market. We tumbled out of the car into the sweltering and extremely humid parking lot and made for the shade of the market structure. The market was in full swing and as we made our way through the vendors, each and every one of them were boasting gorgeous heirloom tomatoes. Each farmer we approached, it seemed, was armed with a pocket knife and offered crude slices of their summer’s bounty, sprinkling them with a hint of salt, grinning and craning to see our response. Each was better, sweeter and more transcendent than the last. By the time we had run the gauntlet, from one end to the other, we had sampled not less than 30 varieties of tomato and had not bought a single one. It is one of the greatest meals I have ever had.
Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium
In the fall of 2017, on the Sunday afternoon at the end of the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, like we have done for 20 years, the chefs who have cooked and those who have attended the symposium gathered at my house for a Sunday of relaxing, drinking beer and watching football. Folks breeze through, have a drink, grab a visit and run off to the airport or start their drive home. A few linger for the evening, but it is one of my favorite days of the year because I get real time with people I admire and love. On this particular Sunday, I had been having a craving for the seafood gumbo I grew up with in New Orleans. Seafood gumbo takes a deft hand and I had never managed to dial in a recipe I was perfectly happy with. So on that afternoon, I worked over the cutting board and stove, with my mother by my side, nudging me here and there and making the subtlest of suggestions. We chopped and whisked and stirred for what seemed like hours before I finally arrived at the recipe I had always sought. We sat and stood around my kitchen island, some of my favorite chefs on the planet, all in complete silence, slurping away at this minor miracle my mom and I cooked up. It was the last meal she and I would cook and/or eat together and I am grateful for its perfection and her approving smile.
A Once-in-a-Lifetime Birthday Dinner in Montepulciano
For my 50th birthday, a group of friends took a house in Montepulciano for ten days, or the greatest vacation I have ever taken. On the first night there, we climbed the streets in the cold and darkness to the pinnacle of the town to get to a spot called Osteria Acquacheta. Given a decade, Hollywood couldn’t come close to recreating the beauty and quaintness of this little space that 12 of us invaded and completely sullied. Their specialty is wood oven-roasted local porterhouse, cut raw to your spec at the table (weight and price scrawled on the butcher paper on the table before cooking). Wine flows with abandon and pasta and salad just arrives magically. I laughed until my sides hurt and I wanted the moment to last forever. It was simple perfection and the steak was one of the best I have ever dreamed of, crusty with salt, covered with butter, tallow, garlic and rosemary…
My Five Favorite Meals features the most cherished dining experiences of bartenders, chefs, distillers and celebrities.
Interview has been condensed and edited.