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John Currence on the 'Disneyfication' of Southern Food and the Importance of Telling a Story

John Currence and Sean Brock
John Currence and Sean Brock

Exactly one year after his first interview with Eater, the chef John Currence took time during the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party to talk about what's on his mind these days. Much like the last time, Currence discussed what he sees as his responsibility to serve customers healthy food, the complex and constantly evolving nature of Southern cuisine, and the importance of telling a story with your cooking. On this occasion, though, he focused on what he calls the "Disneyfication" of Southern food, as well as Thomas Keller's recent comments in the New York Times on locavorism and sustainability, as ways to examine those issues.

I wanted to start by using that recent interview you did with Food Republic as a way of talking about your emphasis on healthful food — you seem to be championing vegetables and seafood more and more.
That journalist is a great guy, and I was ploughed when I was talking to him. I think he loved that line about the charcuterie plate, but I think he misinterpreted exactly what I meant by it.

What did you mean by it, then?
I couldn't be happier with the fascination the country has had with Southern food in the past couple of years, because people have been finally giving it academic consideration and giving it a place at the table. People have finally realized the history and culture of that food, and I'm lucky to be doing what I'm doing.

At the same time, like so many other things, a fascination with something in America can often lead to a Disney-fication of it. Everybody is going to want to get on the boat, which means they'll find the greatest common denominator and then focus on that.

And the common denominator here was really fatty, lardy food?
Everybody went bananas for bacon. It was an easy thing. If you were cooking and didn't have any sort of real ability at all but wanted to illustrate something through the Southern lens, you'd throw bacon at it, no matter what. The only problem for me with that is that hearing about it so much ruined it. We don't put it in everything!

With Sean [Brock] as a really great influence and coming to understand what our food is about, it's been really easy for me to mouth off about that and say, "Let's focus on what's really important. Let's consider the area of the country that historically was the bread basket for vegetable production for the entire country." One of the greatest natural sources of seafood production is the Gulf of Mexico. We should focus on those things.

Southern food as a whole is a constantly changing thing. People sort of look at it as this static, Paula-Deen-kind-of "fry this" cuisine. It's not that. Look at the Vietnamese influence, the Latins moving in. Our food is a hodgepodge of different influences. We're accustomed to welcoming other cultures and making their food part of this canon.

Do you think the phenomenon you're describing is caused by chefs who perpetuate it or a public that expects it?
I think it's that the general public is only interested in examining things so deeply. So it's very easy for chefs to find that greatest common denominator and exploit it. That's how that happens, I think.

When did you start thinking about the vegetables, the seafood, and not jumping on the bacon bandwagon? Would you characterize it as having a sense of responsibility?
Oddly, completely counter to what [Thomas] Keller had to say in the New York Times the other day, I do think chefs have a responsibility. I think that was bullshit. I don't care that he's shipping a heart of palm across the world. That's fine. But if you look simply at the growing percentage of meals being consumed out of the home now, people are not starting to cook more. We're not going to see a turning of the tide in folks doing more food at home.

As a result, we have a responsibility to give folks the opportunity to eat well. The reason I'm in business with Nick Pihakis at Big Bad Breakfast, for instance, is that we're not going to run into trouble talking about the provenance of our ingredients. We'll figure out a way to make it affordable. We're not doing Daniel for breakfast, but we are putting heritage breed proteins and heirloom vegetables on the plate. We do have a responsibility to give people the opportunity to eat that way.

We're fighting a battle against the McDonald's, the Burger King, Chili's, Aramark — it's the garbage food of the world.

But you only reach a fraction of the people they do. Mighty tall challenge.
It's a huge challenge. It's no skin off of my back., though I don't really compete against those guys or see myself as competing against those guys. Rather than looking at financials and squeezing every drop of blood out of a human you can, I feel like we should maybe take a lower profit margin to feel good about what people are eating. We're doing it for the right reasons. I do what I do now for the right reasons. Food is my life, and I want to explore, analyze, enjoy, and live by it. The shit out there is killing us. It's garbage.

Danny Meyer's a genius, I think. He's breaking the mold with Shake Shack and is competing with those guys, at least on a small scale. People will pay for it. Look at Whole Foods.

They're not exactly closing locations. Did you consider these things at all when you were younger?
No. Not at all. As a younger chef, your first instinct is survival. My initial goal was to put extremely well executed dishes out there — things that would appeal to people. We flew fish in from Hawaii and Scotland. There's nothing wrong with that at all.

What I ultimately realized, though, is that my food was supposed to tell the story of my life. I embraced that. I'm cooking within a certain vernacular which is my life and what that experience speaks to. To that matter, Hawaiian moonfish doesn't have anything to do with that. I didn't stop cooking that fish because I didn't like it or was worried about the carbon that was going in the air. To me, it just didn't have a point in my daily life. Once in a while I'll go somewhere like Italy and want to do whole branzino. That's fine. Our food is about sharing our lives with people. There is nothing greater for a chef than illustrating a story on the plate.

Food is community. It's our greatest source of community. There is so much joy in it.

Was the food you were making also heavier?
You know, we just went back and revisited our original menu from when we opened twenty years ago. I remember in the weeks leading up to it that I was apologizing to the cooks for the simplistic crap they'd have to put out. We were recreating all of these original dishes, like a roasted chicken and crab cakes. We just tried to do the best possible versions we could. We hammered on these recipes.

It was a wonderful time warp. It was food with integrity in terms of technique and product. The only thing that was really heavier was that of nine main dishes, five of them have beurre monté. Overall, though, it was really nice.

Any last words?
You know, I never got around to talking about the Fatback Collective and what the implications of this group, who originally assembled to Cook Memphis in May, might mean to the landscape. Further to my one man battle to make a difference in what people eat, Fatback is a group whose message is just that. Not only can we make a difference, but we can also illustrate through the partnerships in Fatback. We can change the fiscal playing field for the foods people should consume. You throw Wholesome Wave in on top of that, who are launching a Southern chapter, and all of the sudden, the needle is moving in the other direction. It is not an overnight thing, but little by little we can make a difference.

· All John Currence Coverage on Eater [-E-]
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