Some kids graduate high school and fester in their parents’ basement until college begins, but John Currence preferred to spend his summer on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico. The moment the rookie deckhand arrived, he was informed by the captain that as the “lowest man on the totem pole” his job would be cooking for the crew. Too bad he didn’t know his way around a galley. “It was a sink-or-swim situation. I needed to make food for these guys three times a day,” recalls the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Oxford, Mississippi’s City Grocery Restaurant Group. “They gave me a copy of The Joy of Cooking, and I ended up having a ball.”
Although food was important to the New Orleans native’s family, it wasn’t until his eye-opening nautical experience that becoming a chef began to take shape. Years later, while studying at the University of North Carolina, friends convinced him to apply to a restaurant in Chapel Hill. He didn’t realize it was the legendary Crook’s Corner. Soon, he was a “punk kid working alongside the great Bill Neal.”
There’s nothing worse than when you’re stuck in the Detroit airport for seven hours when you just want to be on the line, sweaty and cursing.
It was here, in the restaurant that firmly entrenched shrimp and grits in America’s culinary pantheon, that Currence decided cooking was his future. Eager to learn more, the young workaholic accumulated side gigs: baking bread in an Italian restaurant, tackling salmon and bluefish at a smokehouse, butchering meat at a Food Lion supermarket. Buoyed by his ramped up skill set, he then returned to New Orleans as opening sous chef at Gautreau’s. He never looked back.
Yet he did look forward. Visiting a friend in Oxford, home of the University of Mississippi, was a game-changer for the chef. “I was in a desperate job situation. I helped open a restaurant in a hotel and was working breakfast, lunch, and dinner, seven days a week. I fell in like with Oxford, and three weeks later, when I went back. I fell in love with it,” he explains.
In 1992, the city was devoid of quality restaurants, leaving a growing number of young professionals frustrated. Currence came to the rescue with City Grocery, flaunting “simple food folks could identify with, food that had great ingredients and was executed well, like garlic and herb roasted chicken. We served crab cakes, but we knew they needed to be the best damn crab cakes.” City Grocery later spawned concepts like Bouré, Snackbar, and Big Bad Breakfast, forging a vibrant culinary scene in a city that Currence says is “tragically misunderstood about its racial politics.”
A longtime champion of Southern cuisine, Currence is an active member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and his recent book Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey: Recipes from My Three Favorite Food Groups and Then Some (Andrews McMeel Publishing) is an ode to the region’s changing food landscape. But he’d much rather be in the kitchen than on a 48-city book tour. “There’s nothing worse,” he says, “than when you’re stuck in the Detroit airport for seven hours when you just want to be on the line, sweaty and cursing.”
From a New Orleans icon’s holiday gumbo to nocturnal BBQ to coveted diner pie, here are 10 of the dishes that have helped ignite this good ol’ Southern boy’s pride and creativity.
Leah Chase’s Gumbo z’Herbes at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant (New Orleans, LA)
A spoonful of the green gumbo at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant in New Orleans was the realization for me that food is about story, history, and existential experience captured in a moment. It was about 15 years ago, at one of Leah Chase’s annual Holy Thursday lunches, where a who’s who of the New Orleans food world shows up. I spend so much time telling my staff that the dining experience isn’t just about the food or the service or the wine; it’s about all these things combined, and whether you had a shitty day or how well you’re getting along with your spouse. When one single element becomes too imbalanced it throws everything else off. That room at Dooky Chase’s is without exception the most joyful experience. It’s impossible to not get caught up in that joy, and you’re doing it over gumbo and fried chicken. It’s one of the places I love to be more than anywhere else in the world because it’s about soul. (Photo: southernfoodways.org)
Ashley Christensen’s Pimento Cheese at Poole’s Diner (Raleigh, NC)
When I first met Ashley, it was as if we had known each other our entire lives; we were gonna be together forever. But it wasn’t until years later that I got to eat at Poole’s Diner in Raleigh. I had eaten her food at events before and knew it was going to be outstanding, but I had no idea just how outstanding. A giant quenelle of pimento cheese came to the table with crackers. It was the first bite I took, and it was an amazing moment. If she can do this with pimento cheese, I thought, I have no fucking idea what’s coming next. (Photo: Southern Foodways)
Mike Lata’s Chicken Liver Pâté at FIG (Charleston, SC)
It’s unholy how good Mike’s chicken liver pâté at FIG is. Basically, he makes a mayonnaise out of the chicken livers with oil, emulsifies it, and cooks it just right. From a technique standpoint, Mike is maybe the most deft-handed guy I know. His precision with the classics is remarkable. He’s also so generous of spirit that he constantly shares his recipe with people and lets them watch him make it. It’s never the same when we try. (Photo: FIG/Facebook)
Ed Mitchell’s Whole Hog BBQ
The first time I meet Ed is when he is down from Wilson, NC, at a Southern Foodways Alliance event. He is cooking whole hog unlike anyone I had ever seen before, at a ridiculous speed over charcoal in high heat. He tells me he can do it in four hours. There’s no way this can work out, I think. Then, it comes off the fire and he hands me a cracklin’ and a piece of meat and it’s one of the most amazing bites I’ve ever had. I don’t have a chance to sit down and eat that night, but he tells me he will leave me some BBQ. My girlfriend and I come back from drinking across the street and the rental guys have already dismantled everything and left, but in the middle of the field, in the pouring rain, there’s a white Styrofoam clamshell sitting there. Sure enough, it is the BBQ. We sit there in the mud and eat it like it is the last time we are ever going to have food. (Photo: Ed Mitchell/Facebook)
Haggis in Scotland
I lived in Edinburgh for three years when I was a kid. My mother acquired a print for our house that was a framed, stylized recipe for haggis. I remember reading it and thinking it was the most profoundly disgusting thing I could ever imagine. The lungs, the heart, the kidney—it became a fascination for me. We had a rule around our house: You were not allowed to just pooh-pooh a food; you had to try it and form your opinion on experience, not pre-conception. We were on a road trip and went to a pub in St. Andrews or Aberdeen, maybe. My dad ordered haggis and I recoiled. I had to taste it, though, and when I did, with just a tiny bit of mustard, it was one of the most insane things I ever had. It’s something I recreate from time to time. I’ve always loved boudin, and it’s odd to me how similar they are. (Photo: Daily Mail)
Oysters in Apalachicola Bay (Florida)
I’ve been eating raw oysters since I was a kid, and I have spent my entire life short of flipping people off about their Kumamoto and Chesapeake Bay oysters. If you want oysters, I’d tell them, get your ass down to southeastern Louisiana. Then I went to Apalachicola Bay on the Florida panhandle. Tory McPhail from Commander’s Palace and I were working an event and got drafted into shucking oysters. They were coming fresh out of the water, so we thought we might as well test them. We sat down on the dock with a couple of oyster knives and Tabasco and started slurping. We looked at each other and said, ‘Holy shit.’ Without equivocation they were the best oysters I’ve ever had in my life. (Photo: Deep South Magazine)
Chicago Dog at Wrigley Field
I know that it’s very easy for folks to say, “A hot dog at Wrigley Field? How cliché.” Maybe that is the case, but hot dogs are one of those things I’ve said would be a death row meal. This one was profound because it was the first time I had the traditional Chicago pepper relish. As I bit into this grilled, plump dog, sitting in the sun watching the Cubs, with a beer that could not have been colder unless it was frozen, it was a perfect moment. (Photo: Foodspotting)
Smoked Hamachi and Chardonnay at Gordon (Chicago, IL)
I went out to Chicago for the restaurant show and for some reason had to eat by myself, so I went to Gordon, back when Don Yamauchi was chef. My most tragic flaw is my inability to remember dishes; I remember the people more than the specifics of what I had to eat. But the owner, Gordon Sinclair, was there and he wanted to pair everything for me. The first thing that came out was smoked Hamachi and a glass of Saddleback Cellars Chardonnay. When I saw them I was like, ‘Eh.’ But just one bite of that fish sent me places I never imagined. I experienced weird emotions and immediately ran outside with my giant brick of a cell phone and called our wine broker. I said I didn’t care what it took, but I wanted that wine in my restaurant as fast as humanly possible. I grew up drinking wine but never had a deep appreciation for it until that moment. My friendship with Saddleback’s winemaker, Nils Venge, was forged from a single bite of food. (Photo: Detroit Free Press)
Dad’s White Beans
I was always fascinated as a youngster to see my dad in the kitchen. From a traditional, hierarchical, and familial standpoint, it’s an odd placement because he was a businessman who went out with a suit, tie, and briefcase every day. There was always something odd about seeing him make his white beans, precisely chopping the green peppers, onions, and celery, and delicately and deliberately pulling the meat from the ham hock. When it was all done, we just had this insanely good pot of something that was so simple. It was like the three-ingredient cocktail of food, focusing on individual and discernible flavors. One of my favorite things is that the pot would sit on the stove; it never saw a refrigerator. The beans would congeal and in the morning he’d get up and spread them on white bread with hot sauce—and maybe an egg if you were lucky—for breakfast. (Photo: Cook Think)
Chocolate Chess Pie at Walker’s Diner (Farmville, VA)
Walker’s Diner, in Farmville, VA, has a six- or seven-seat counter and looks like a tiny mobile home. I went to college nearby at Hampden-Sydney, a utopian place where you didn’t lock your bikes and left your calculators out on tables. You could start an account at Walker’s and Mr. Walker would tally up your bill and send it to your parents. What’s more incredible is that you could eat all the fried chicken and green beans you wanted and you still couldn’t eat five dollars’ worth of food. Mrs. Walker made a chocolate chess pie that was so delicious, you would literally ‘suffer’ through the savory food just to get to a piece. My two roommates and I would go every day for lunch and harass her into getting the recipe, but she always changed the subject. One day we camped outside like a gang of hoodlums and accosted her for it. “Would you all shut up about the pie?” she said. “The ladies down at the church make them.” We found those ladies, and they probably thought we were about to mug them, but we got the recipe. I wrote it on the wall of the farmhouse we lived in in the country and kept all the ingredients in stock. We were three 19-year-old guys who didn’t cook anything, but we had frozen pie shells. We’d come home drunk from frat parties and make a pie at 3am, eating it straight out of the oven like hot lava. (Photo: Walker’s Diner)