JOHN CURRENCE • CHEF & RESTAURATEUR
CITY GROCERY RESTAURANT GROUP
Where does one start when writing about the legendary Chef John Currence? I met him over three years ago at the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival and we hung out together at the Kentucky Derby and in his hometown, Oxford during an Aggie vs. Ole Miss game weekend which included the most epic tailgate festivities in the Grove to ever take place. I won’t bring up the particulars of that weekend, he wound up sporting an Aggie jersey, because then I would have to explain how, the following year, Bryan came to owe him a bottle of Pappy and a night working on the line at Snack Bar. Poor Vish, John’s crazy talented corporate chef, as I feel Bryan might become his responsibility that night.
Bryan met John back in 2011 when he was invited to cook for the Southern Foodways Alliance. Bryan cooked out of his kitchen and ever since that fateful day, they’ve been trash talking each other’s college football teams and fishing together… which reminds me that Bryan owes John a trip for that too. This is quickly becoming a tally of who’s football team won each fall.
Regardless of how long Bryan has known John, or the time I’ve spent getting to know him, he can be a relatively intimidating person not just because of his experience in the industry but also the massive list of accolades he’s managed to garner: Six incredibly successful restaurants in Oxford Mississippi, a James Beard Foundation Award and recipient of the Southern Foodways Alliance Guardian of Traditions Award. Not to mention his contributions as an editor for Garden and Gun magazine as well as some serious community involvement including St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Oxford-Lafayette County Animal Shelter. He is also on the board of directors for the SFA as a culinary director since 1996. I could keep going, but I fear my site may crash if I continued… With that in mind, I give you the stories from our recent chat.
OUI CHEF Q&A
Jenn: John, you’ve been in the industry for a while, how did you end up there? Family? Or did you just wake up one day and decide that’s what you wanted?
No, nobody in my family was in restaurants. We are an old school family and we spent a significant amount of time centered around food. In New Orleans, everything revolves around food. You go to lunch and while at lunch you decide what you’re going to do for dinner. So, I ended up in cooking sort of by mistake. Living off campus in college, I naturally gravitated towards cooking. The summer after I graduated from High School, I got a job on one of my dad’s tugboats. This was back when the oil business was becoming total garbage so they were slashing crews everywhere. The morning after graduation, I got on a tugboat and the captain said, ‘congratulations son, you’re the cook.”
I was like, I don’t know shit about cooking and he handed me a copy of the Joy of Cooking and said, “that’s all you need right there, you’re cooking for a bunch of cajuns. Don’t screw up the coffee. Don’t screw up the rice. When the groceries come, look in the bag and if you see chicken in there, look up chicken in that book and find something that makes sense to you and cook chicken. Don’t screw up the rice.”
So there I went.
When I went off to school, I would cook for my roommates while I was at Hampden-Sydney . Then, I moved to Chapel hill to attend UNC. My parents were not happy about that. So, all of the sudden, I was on my own and had to make my own way. I had some friends who worked at Crooks Corner and they said, “come work with us, they need a busboy.”
I was hired as a busboy and on my second night of work, I got canned for insulting a customer.
Jenn: Hold on, what did you do!?!
You’ve gotta remember this is like, 1987 and Van Halen had just broken up…
*Bryan dying over the Van Halen remark*
anyway, they reformed with Sammy Hagar. There was this frat boy and his girlfriend in the restaurant and he was ragging on her saying “Dude, I can’t believe I got front row tickets to Van Halen tomorrow and I can’t believe you’re not excited about it!!” He just kept after her but she was just filing away at her nails and totally didn’t care. As I was walking up to the table he was still going, “Dude, seriously, how can you not be fucking excited!? We’re going to see VAN HALEN!!!”
So I said, “Maybe because your a fucking idiot. That’s not Van Halen. That’s Van Hagar. There’s no Van Halen without David Lee Roth.”
He went and complained to the manager, one of my best friends and who is actually our graphic designer now. The manager, brought me over to the table, in front of the couple, does this finger wagging thing while saying, “We can’t have you talking to our customers like that, John. We have to let you go.”
I was like, Ok whatever. But, as I was leaving, he turned and said, “We need a dishwasher… just come back tomorrow.”
Jenn: That is the best story.
That’s how I got started at Crooks. It was about three years old at the time and Bill Neal was the chef there at the time, then Bill Smith took over. I was just learning knife skills but was excited to be in the kitchen, so I started curating kitchen jobs. I worked as a bread baker at an Italian restaurant. Later, early in the morning, I worked at a little Jewish smoke house; butchering blue fish and salmon then brining and smoking the fish. That’s how I learned to butcher fish. I volunteered time at the food lion cut shop because there was no way they’d pay someone to ruin their meat. I started slowly working up to cutting chicken and strips and that sort of thing. I even had a job as a short order cook in a busy cafe.
All the while I was doing all this, a friend of mine from New Orleans had just graduated from the CIA and was working in New York. He started working for Waxman straight out of school. He worked shortly for Jeremiah Tower. Then he moved to London to open the Jams for Waxman and then returned to the states to open the Gotham Bar and Grill for Portale. At that time I was also playing music…
Jenn: Wait, wait. wait… what kind of music??? Oh, you know… awful. Jangly guitar… NC pop non-sense.
Bryan: *dying laughing again* North Carolina pop?
Jenn: I feel like I need to see a video of this!!
Oh, no it was really awful. I put on one of our records the other day and was like, “Fuck! What is this?” Whenever we would overnight in New York, if I had been left to my own devices, I would have been in trouble. I would find drugs. I would find booze. I would just act like a derelict. If I could, however, get in a kitchen and make a few bucks to put in my pocket, I was much better off.
Around 1989, my friend called and said he was going back to New Orleans. We grew up in the same neighborhood and he wanted to go back and buy Gautreau’s. He asked if I would be interested in being his sous chef. I was like, “deal!!” It was my excuse to go back home and my thought, at the time, was maybe I’ll go to law school or business school or whatever it is you’re supposed to do. At least I have a job… making all of $23,000. I thought I was in the money!
Bryan: You still didn’t think it was a career though?
I didn’t. Not until we opened Gautreau’s and I was like, “This!!! This is what I’m doing for the rest of my life.”
My parents didn’t understand it at all. There’s was, still is, a struggle with certain nobility in service professions in New Orleans. Really, in a lot of places. I remember when we lived in the UK and my dad took me to Gay Hussar, a Hungarian restaurant, that he went to every time he was in town. As the cab pulled up my dad said, “Look, what you need to understand about this place, is that there are gentlemen here that have been working and serving in this restaurant for 30 or 40 years. They deserve your absolute respect.”
Bryan: How old were you then?
10 or 11. I assume this is why my dad was as successful as he was. He understood the importance and significance of the roles that people have played in his life and you give those people all of your respect.
That doesn’t exist here in the states.
No, the nobility in service does not exist here. We’ve been given this wonderful opportunity doing what we do to make a living that we never would have done otherwise. To achieve a level of notoriety, even, that we would never have otherwise. Still, we are a bunch of derelicts, let’s be honest about it. Three years after opening Gautreau’s, I moved to oxford and opened up City Grocery.
Jenn: OK, why Oxford? It’s beautiful and I do love the town and the people. What made you land there?
Bryan: Yeah, why there?
I went to visit a friend who was trying to finish his 10th year of undergrad. He was a server at Gautreau’s when we opened. At the time, I had left Gautreau’s and was working for Brennan’s. We had just opened Bacco and the opening was brutal. The chef in charge, had no business being the executive chef and was a total wreck. I was the executive sous. Seven days a week. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every fucking day, for six months. No breaks.
Ralph Brennan came in one day and finally said, “I don’t care what’s happening, you need to get out of here. You’re losing your mind. Take the weekend off.”
Oxford was as far away as I could get for a weekend on a tank of gas and still have a little beer money left over. So I went to see my friend. We got to drinking and talking about our grand ideas. We talked about doing something in New Orleans even. The smartest thing to ever come out of his head was, “Why would you ever want to go back and get involved in that mess in New Orleans… there’s nothing going on here. It’s dirt cheap. Do that.”
I went home and came back three weeks later and we were looking at the space adjacent to where City Grocery is now. While I was doing some sketches and layouts and ideas at that location, this guy came through the door and said, “Hey, are you the guys from New Orleans that are trying to open up a new restaurant?”
I said, “yeah.”
He said, “Don’t do that… my partner and I are about to kill each other next door. We’d do anything to get out of business together.”
*Bryan and I laughing because it’s all too real*
“We got this little place called Syd n Harry’s, why don’t you come take a look at it?”
We walked in the door of what is now, City Grocery, and I knew what we’re going to do. We put the deal together, I think we borrowed $32,000 from the bank for the down payment. They totally financed the whole deal for us. We bought the business for like $65,000. Made our down payment and paid them monthly for three years to buy the business.
We bought a little inventory and some paint. Slapped the paint on the walls. Opened the bar and ran it for two weeks without a restaurant just so we could generate a little cash flow. Then, we bought some food inventory and opened. That was it.
We’ll be 25 next year. That will be crazy.
Bryan: A quarter of a century…
The stats on that are astronomical. It didn’t truly make sense to me until we hit 20, then I was like, “wow… 20 years… that’s a long fucking time.”
It is a long time and we will both be there to celebrate it with you John! I’ll be back later this week with more fun stuff… the next Oui Chef, will be with Chef Edward Lee… I have some amazing photos of him playing tennis in my living room after our Salty Supper nº1 fundraiser for our nonprofit, Southern Salt… now, whether or not I share them is a different story. Either way, you won’t want to miss his amazing story about how he got his first break. In fact… I might have to post it tomorrow because it’s burning a hole in my pocket.