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One on One: John Currence

By Steven Hedlund
October 01, 2008

Sporting a bandana on his head and a pig tattoo on his left forearm, chef John Currence sauntered into the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in his hometown of New Orleans in early August expecting little from his first ever culinary competition. Two days later, he swaggered away as King of American Seafood.

Currence won the fifth annual Great American Seafood Cook-Off during the Louisiana Foodservice Expo, impressing a panel of seven judges with his Mississippi Redfish Courtboullion with Seafood Dirty Rice. It was his second major culinary accomplishment this year. In March, he was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award as the South's best chef, his third nod from the foundation in four years.

Though he hails from the Big Easy, Currence, 43, has lived in the college town of Oxford, Miss., since 1992, when he opened City Grocery with Palmer Adams, Gautreau's former general manager. City Grocery's eclectic menu features Southern- and Creole-influenced fare with no shortage of seafood, which Currence covets for its purity and versatility. He is also founder and owner of Bouré and Big Bad Breakfast, both in Oxford.

As the University of Mississippi's 17,000-plus students returned to campus in late August, I chatted with Currence about his adoration of seafood, his culinary accomplishments, Hurricane Katrina and his help with the restoration of Willie Mae's Scotch House, a 50-year-old fried chicken joint in New Orleans' Treme neighborhood.

HEDLUND: What was your first job in foodservice?

Currence: In high school, I was working offshore on tugboats one summer. I was summarily informed by the captain the first day on the boat that I was not only a deckhand but also the cook. I was quick to tell him I knew nothing about cooking, and he said, "Look, as long as you don't screw up the rice or coffee, you're in good shape." Then he handed me a copy of "Joy of Cooking" and said, "You'll figure it out." I enjoyed it, but it still wasn't something I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

How did you learn to work 
with seafood?

In college, I ended up getting a job at Cook's Corner in Chapel Hill [N.C.]. That was my first real restaurant experience. I was fascinated by it; I fell in love with it. As a result, I became voracious. I wanted to learn everything as quickly as I could. So I took a second job at an Italian restaurant baking bread and making pasta. Then I took a job at a Jewish-owned fish [smokehouse]. I was getting up at 4 in the morning and butchering salmon and bluefish, brining it and smoking it.

Who's your biggest culinary influence?

I returned home to New Orleans to help a friend, Larkin Selman, open Gautreau's. Larkin was a huge influence on me, just because he was an incredibly passionate, insanely talented young chef. There was no limit for him; he was constantly pushing himself.


How did you end up in Oxford?

After about six months at Bacco's, between frustration and hubris, I thought I was ready to do something on my own. I knew New Orleans wasn't the answer for me because I just didn't know enough to open a restaurant there. So I escaped the pressure I was under with the Brennans at Bacco's and went to Oxford just to get away and decompress. I came to visit a friend from high school and immediately fell in love with the place. Then I realized there was [a void on the restaurant scene] and a younger professional demographic looking for something. I thought I could, without overreaching my ability, satisfy what folks were looking for. If I played my cards right, I could grow up with the place.


What's seafood's role 
on the City Grocery menu?

Seafood plays a significant role. I like seafood for its purity. The healthful implications of fish I tend to rely on for appeal to the menu. Seafood in its natural state doesn't require a whole lot, so we do a lot of light sautéing and grilling and some steaming.


How does it feel to be a three-time James Beard Award nominee?

It's a huge honor, particularly because of how the voting blocs work. They're naturally weighted toward the major metropolitan areas because that's where everyone is. So to be this far off the beaten path and to be nominated is a flattering honor. I don't anticipate us ever winning because we're just so far out there in the culinary universe. But, at the same time, it doesn't matter. Just to be considered is an honor alone.


Where does winning the Great American Seafood Cook-Off rank among your accomplishments?

It's up there. Going into it, I had no idea at all how big this thing is. It sounded on the surface, to a guy who has never done a cooking competition, a little hokey. But I didn't give it the degree of consideration that, if I had to do it all over again, I should have. [Sous Chef Heath Johnson and I] were like a couple of rednecks. There were teams of chefs unfolding cases of specialized, custom cooking equipment that looked like [it came from] the Batcave. We had to stop by Walgreens to pick up cookie sheets because we left our sheet pans at home.


How did you become involved with Willie Mae's Scotch House?

After Katrina, I started accepting invitations to do cooking [fundraisers]. I vividly remember waking up in a hotel room one morning feeling like I'm not doing the kind of good I should be doing, raising $10,000 at a time. It just happened at the same moment that Willie Mae bubbled up on the radar, so I decided to take on that project. I felt like I could make a difference. We had people from all over the world participating in the volunteer effort. But, at the same time, we had $250,000 to raise. Trying to sell a little fried chicken joint in Treme as a $250,000 worthwhile [cause] wasn't easy. We had some very generous donations. Then there was dealing with the bureaucracy in New Orleans. It was a real challenge. I figured I put 40,000 miles on my car going back and forth to New Orleans.


Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com


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