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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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