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John Currence on Personal Expression and Southern Cooking

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[Photo: Brandall Atkinson]

When City Grocery chef John Currence was arranging to meet with me at the Ace Hotel during the weekend of the Big Apple Barbecue, he wrote in an email, "I won't be hard to see. I'm the fat nerdy guy in green square glasses, bald and a seersucker jacket. I couldn't be more out of place with the hipsters." Throughout the course of the lengthy conversation that would follow — apart from demonstrating his refreshing mastery of self-deprecation — he dissected his personal style and discussed the urgent need to emphasize health, moderation, and quality in southern food.

I just recently got to talk to your friend Sean Brock, so this is another opportunity to chat about the South. How would you define your style of cooking within that canon?
It's a little difficult to describe. What I did when I was younger — and I thought I was massively clever when I was doing it — was open a restaurant that referenced so many things that nobody could put a label on it. And frankly, it was because I didn't have enough experience with one particular cuisine. I was masking my inexperience by being this clever and rebellious young guy.

I mean, I did my first James Beard meal ever, and it was with Frank Stitt. At one point he asked me what my philosophy was on cooking, and I just thought to myself, "Uhhh, was I supposed to get one of those?"

It took me a long time to come to an understanding of what it is I was doing. The final step in a chef's journey, I think, is really understanding that you are expressing something through your food. You're telling a story through your food. It's part of you. It's lovely and it's personal. The question is, when you get there what do you do with it?

For me, I'm still wildly all over the place. You have to submit yourself to your passion to create. A great example of this is Vishwesh Bhatt, who is the chef at Snackbar. He's Indian and cooks great Indian food. So I asked him one day, "Why don't you open an Indian restaurant?" And he totally shot it down. He didn't want to be the guy in the South with the town's only Indian restaurant. "French is my thing," is what he told me.

But then he wrote the menu, and I saw all of these Indian influences creeping in. He couldn't control what was in him. It was beautiful. Don't fight it. Let it go.

Can you speak more about where your style comes from?
It's ultimately an expression of my life's journey, what I want to give to people.

I cut my teeth with Bill Neal. He was one of the first ones brave enough to say, "This food is important and it has enough of a relevance to be celebrated." And all of a sudden, there it was at Crook's Corner. Craig Claiborne was one of the first people to fall in love with it, and that sort of set in place the legitimacy of this food that came from our backgrounds.

The next generation came along: Frank Stitt, Louis Osteen, and Ben and Karen Barker. They began to really celebrate it. Not to reinterpret it but to refine it. They looked at it more through the lens of fine food. They refined the ingredients and the technique for cooking them. Rather than just throwing green beans in a pot with ham hocks, they started looking for heirloom beans and cooking those beans with meats, but in a much more refined form: they'd maybe blanch the beans in a light pork stock and finish them in a fine country ham brunoise, for example.

Then there's the next generation of guys, and I sort of fall in between them because I'm older than Sean and older than Hugh — Linton Hopkins and I are the same age. But we're pretty much the third generation. Frank and Ben really paved the way in terms of legitimizing these foods, which now gives us the ability to come along and completely dissect those things and reinvent them.

And what might be the next generation after that?
Lee Richardson at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock, Kelly English at Iris in Memphis, the guys at Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Sue Zemanick, Erick Loos and Alon Shaya and Steve McHugh with John Besh, Steven Satterfield (who is arguably one of my generation). They're referencing us but taking it to the next level.

Going back to what you were discussing with the Snackbar anecdote: it doesn't all have to be strictly southern for you?
I don't believe in hemming myself into something. My life's journey is that I was raised in New Orleans in a family from the Carolinas. The food at City Grocery is very much about those two things. But I don't limit myself to them.

Does having the southern label matter to you?
It's a very important part of my life that steers what I do when I create, but at the same time, there are a lot of folks who are jumping on that bandwagon because we've been given a seat at the table. Sam Sifton went down to Husk and had his hair blown back. To me, that was sort of like Luther nailing his thesis to the door: the South has arrived, and what's going on is smart and not some huckleberry bullshit.

I don't want to go out there and profess myself as a southern chef. But if I am identified with that, then I am very, very happy about that. We feel like guardians of a tradition which in many ways has been lampooned for much of its history.

Can you talk some more about that?
Frankly, I don't care what people think about the South because it's my place and I know the people that are there and I know what we're capable of. If we're recognized, that's great.

We sort of fight this demon of the cartoonishness people apply to the South. I don't want to bash her, but you could say that Paula Deen is out there putting the worst face on southern food. [Does a Paula Deen imitation.] "This fried thing here is real big and we just load it up with sugar and butter! You think we're big in the South? Well you have no idea!"

So people think the food is loaded with fat and very unhealthy. But what I'm desperately trying to do is take the food I was brought up with and have the same end product while also being able to feel good about eating it. It doesn't have to be fried. It can be pickled, it can be stewed, and it can be transcendent. Pork chops don't have to be these mammoth fucking fourteen-pound pork chops.

This is particularly germane to me because my diet almost killed me. Two years ago I landed in the hospital with a case of pancreatitis, and it was a result of a genetic predisposition to high triglycerides. So when I came out of that demerol fog, it all kicked into gear my goal of giving my menus a more healthful focus. We have to recondition people's thought process on southern food.

But is some of that "it's fat, it's heavy" perception accurate?
I mean, it's not really that. More than anything, it's that moderation was erased from the dictionary a while ago. The food of the southern canon was built for an agrarian population. These foods were made to be the fuel for the guys that were working the fields ten hours a day in 110 degree weather. That's not the way we live anymore. We're sedentary now. So you can't eat the same sort of diet without ending up a total lardass.

But it's a vegetable-rich diet, actually. So taken in moderation, it's pretty well-balanced. That's not to say you have to go out and eat fried okra every day, but you can go and get a small portion of meatloaf, and then collard greens or green beans or white beans or sliced beans — any of the hundreds of vegetables available — and you're eating a decent diet.

We as chefs have a responsibility to try to help make that change, and trying to do it actually makes your food more thoughtful. I want to serve food that I feel good about putting on the plate. Not that I need to be the arbiter of what people should be eating, but I am trying to manage our portions.

What goes into making that happen?
I have the opportunity to source quality ingredients and support local farmers. And that's one way of changing the landscape.

I also spend a lot of time working with kids, trying to educate them. Because we have to. Parents, at this point, are lost. The food is killing us. We're like the Roman Empire in its era of decline and we have to change. The fact that there are kids who are hungry in this country is disgusting, especially if you look at the staggering percentage of food we throw away. I did the calculation in my head this morning: we're growing somewhere around 120-130 million acres of corn, producing around 150 bushels per acre. Which is 18 billion bushels of corn per year. The majority of that is Monsanto crap, but there's still no reason it should be like this. We're so obsessed with driving down the cost of food, and I don't know why, because you have these people going and buying the 59 cent hamburger at McDonald's and then they go and put a massive flat screen TV on their credit card. It's insane. The food should be more important.

And what do you do with kids?
I work with an enormously underprivileged school on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, and they have a high school cooking program. These are kids whose best dining experience ever was probably eating at the Cracker Barrel. They're all crazy about Taco Bell, so one day I brought in all the ingredients to make guacamole. That "green stuff." There was one girl who was particularly vocal about how yucky she thought it was after I peeled it. And I said to her, "I'm going show you something." I cut it up and made three bowls: one with plain avocado, the other with avocado and salt, and the last with salt and some lime. She tasted the first one and didn't really like the texture. Then she tasted the second one and liked it a bit more — it was different. Then she tasted the third one and went bananas. I turned around to get the mise en place ready, and when I came back around the girl had eaten the entire avocado. We couldn't make the guacamole.

In that moment I have to think that at some point that girl will be in a supermarket with her mother and make her buy some avocado. Maybe that's just how I put my big, fat, southern, white butt to bed at night. But for me, if we can do that with southern food, which is all that I've got, that's great.

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152 Courthouse Sq Oxford, MS 38655-3914