John Currence, Chef, Restaurateur, Author and Philanthropist

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It’s probably not a coincidence that John Currence isn’t just one of the most accomplished chefs in the South, he’s also one of the most down to earth.

The New Orleans native spent years of his boyhood in Europe, a brief spell of young adulthood working as a tugboat deckhand in the Gulf of Mexico, and finally he found himself most at home in the renowned kitchen of Crook’s Corner while he attended school at UNC.

He went on to open his own restaurants, including City Grocery, Nacho Mama’s Kalo’s, Ajax Diner, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar.

He’s racked up impressive accolades along the way, like the Mississippi Restaurant Association’s Restaurateur of the Year and Chef of the Year and the Southern Foodways Alliance Guardian of Tradition Award. He’s won big contests like the Great American Seafood Cookoff and Charleston Food and Wine Festival’s Iron Chef Challenge. Most notably, perhaps, he received a James Beard Award for Best Chef South in 2009.

He remains committed to giving back. He’s served as chairman and president of the Mississippi Restaurant Association and president of the Yoknapatapha Arts Council, and he’s actively engaged with St. Jude Children’s Hospiral, Memphis Ballett, and Lafayette County Animal Shelter. He’s also on the Board of Directors for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

His awards, of course, aren’t what drives him to work, nor are they his preferred topic of conversation. This man, despite having so much on his plate in terms of business, charity, and family, lives for his community.

He talked with us this spring about how he arrived where he is and where he hopes he’s going.

Season: Set the scene, what marks this season for you?

Nature’s bounty is getting ready to explode, possibility becomes part of the equation again. So, I'm eternally waiting for that first bite of tomato sort of every mid to late June. Especially the southern peas coming back around are just my favorite thing. Fresh peas' comes to mind, my favorite thing to eat all the time, always. This is kind of like my Christmas Eve of the year, as a chef. The real juices of creativity really begin to explode, and sort of pump through your veins again.

Food: What’s something that nourishes you this time of year?

As the weather warms, there's nothing that I like more than just a salad or greens with just a really nicely sautéed piece of fish with lemon on top of it. It sort of moves into the super light. There's nothing better to me then walking into a little bitty Parisian bistro, and having quartered radishes, like super fresh radishes and salted butter on the table, I just eat radishes and butter.

Career: What were your doubts, sacrifices, inspirations or victories that marked the trail of your success?

Yeah, I think a life without failure or disappointment is sort of patently characterless, or beyond any semblances of reality. Without the bad, there is no good. I don't know anybody who, no matter how successful they are, that hasn't had to make extreme sacrifice, or had failure that they've had to deal with.

So, the restaurant business sort of first and foremost, particularly young in your career, takes a toll on relationships, If you’re deeply, truly deeply dedicated to it.

The thing that I tell young kids that say that they wanna get into our business is that, the first thing that they have to understand is that if you really get into the business, and you know that it's what you wanna do, that you basically have to understand that you're gonna surrender the friendships that you had in college, and high school, because your lifestyle changes. You're gonna work hardest when those people are playing the hardest. Most people work 9-5 Monday through Friday, but you're busting your ass every time that they're getting off work. Weekends and holidays become sort of a thing of the past.

So, that's one of the first realities that there is to really know getting into this industry. And if you can do that, if you can navigate those waters and sort of put your head down and really dedicate yourself to your craft and to the industry, you begin to understand how to navigate your way to a little more of a different life. Those things certainly ease up personally, you learn how to balance as you get farther down the road. You can kind of dictate how, and when, and where you work.

I've been extraordinary lucky in my career, in that I worked for extraordinary talented people growing up, early. They were people who were talented that I also enjoyed working with. Along my path there's certainly were folks that I learned from that I didn't enjoy as much. But, I still learned. I got into my first opening opportunity and again, I was very lucky I opened in the right place, at the right time. We were well received, the community needed what we were prepared to offer. It was a perfect combination.

My time in Oxford has been exceptional. It wasn't till about five years ago that we had our first failure to deal with. We opened a whole hog barbecue place that, because I felt like I'd sort of saturated the market with things that I was doing, and nobody was making whole hog anymore. The only people that are making whole hogs are families that have been doing it for generations. So we decided, in a very intentional manner, to make the restaurant a not-for-profit venture that we would take all the money that we made, and annually give a majority of what we made back to a different charity that's focused on children's health and well-being.

We just could not make it work. I made some staggeringly bad choices in management for the restaurant. It was still really making very good food, but we just could not get people to engage. I took it very personally—I mean it really stung. I felt like we were doing something overtly to help the community, and we were making good food. And I don't know if it was the location, or maybe if I just had overstayed my welcome, we just could not make it work.

That was really, really difficult to swallow. Because I take opening businesses very seriously. And in my mind when I open a business that's a promise to the community. We're creating jobs, we're creating an income stream to the tax base. So, when that didn't work, and we finally made the decision last July to shut the restaurant down, I was not gonna put people out of work, so we absorbed them into the other restaurants and kept everybody that worked at that one that wanted to continue working for us.

But, my disappointments there are, in the grand scheme, sort of minor.

Community: Describe a moment when community or sense of place and role lifted you up.

I'm lucky that my disappointments are very few. My joys, on the other hand, are many. I've been Godfather to a couple of my dishwashers’ kids. We've helped struggling immigrants see their way through the process to when they were naturalized. We've had the opportunity to help people through their financial woes, to where they're able to buy their first house, or buy their first car.

Then there's my family and the most astoundingly perfect wife on the entire planet. Not only is she a wonderful human being, but she is unfailingly supportive of everything I do—of the amount of time that I have to spend being away at times in order to get these projects off the ground. She's just genuinely both happy and grateful for this life that we have, which is remains sort of wildly uncomplicated. Then if that wasn't quite enough, I’ve been blessed with the most wonderful little girl. She just turned five, and she couldn't be any more of a joy.

So, you sort of combine this ongoing success in business, which has all come from surrounding myself with incredible people that are both talented and dedicated, employees and my business partners. I couldn't be more lucky.

I have this incredible group of guys that I get to work with, and learn from every day. I have one partner in Oxford, and then a pair of partners in Big Bad Breakfast I think that's really the last thing, just that every day of my life I feel like I have the opportunity to continue to learn more, and more about this business that I've been involved in for almost 35 years, and I'm still learning.

I've literally been doing this for 35 years, and I continue to wake up every day and there's new shit to learn, and it's wonderful, and it's humbling, and it's exhilarating. I think that's the very long way of saying that my life is like criminally too easy, it seems like. It's honestly, it's just dreamy, and I think it's, a lot of that has to do with what I aspire to.

I don't care about television. I don't care about celebrity or notoriety—not because I'm above any of it, I mean I know exactly the power that television brings along with it.

But, I'm more about celebrating the ingredients that we get to work with. My satisfaction comes from having immediate gratification of being able to be in the kitchen, and look out into the dining room as a plate gets set in front of someone; and immediately be able to gauge their response to it. I love being able to see the impact that we have on a community that we set up to soar in. Those are the things that I get satisfaction out of—the fact that at this point in my career, 70% of my time I can work from home with my wife and my daughter. For five years I've gotten a gift of being able to spend every moment that I wanted to with my daughter, which I don't know anybody else in my industry that can say that they had that luxury. So those are the things that I'm really grateful for.

 

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Impact: What’s your vision, small or large, for your impact on the people around you?

I find myself reflecting on what an inspiration it is in our industry to see how many people are engaged in their communities philanthropically.

In Mississippi, we say [national] problems are magnified in tenfold. Within our industry, we touch sort of the broadest flock of people out there. The people in our industry understand the significance of nurturing their communities, and taking care of people in need.

I just wish, more than anything else that the [idea] spread. If not that we all opened our pocketbooks to people, that we did a better job of using our platforms and industry to hold politicians accountable. Voting these people out of office that aren't holding up their end of the bargain, that they're just lining their pockets with lobbyist money, dictating what legislation looks like now.

It's all about individual gain. We've become such an unbelievably greedy society—how do we adjust back to this model of life like Europe?

Every time I travel in Europe I feel like I get kicked in the stomach—when I see how satisfied people are with just a bottle of wine at the end of the day with their families, and sitting around having dinner then talking to one another, and watching the sun set.

We've gotta quit killing ourselves for the almighty avarice and try to get back to what's important. I think that our industry gets that better than most. I just, I live every day to see their engagement, and that understanding of what's important.

Wisdom: What is one thing that no one told you that you wish you'd known sooner?

I just lost my mother a couple of months ago, unexpectedly. There's sort of cliché things like nothing can prepare you for losing a parent. It's cavalier in talking to adults who think I've got all the corners tagged down, you know, I've got this thing all figured out.

There really is no way to prepare for losing one of those people, and particularly a mother. The person who brought you into this world, you just don't really meditate on the significance of that role till that person’s gone.

There are all manner of little things. Nobody told me that when I hit 40 I wasn't gonna be able to do the fraction of the shit that I was able to do when I was 20. From a physical standpoint, things start to ache; they heal more slowly; your eyes start to go, and you find yourself taking a book and squinting, and moving it out farther away so you can focus on it.

But from a business standpoint, I'm one of these weird people that actually embraces change. I love change, I think it's absolutely vital to remaining relevant. Listening to the ideas of now, actively pursuing really smart early-20-somethings to try to understand better how we reach these guys, what's important to them, and the business model, and from the culinary standpoint.

It's funny how many of the older guys that I work with in their forties that are like always look at me when I talk about changing something. They're like, in that old mentality of if it ain't broke don't fix it. My theory is certainly more like, well, let's always try to figure out how to fix it, or make it better. We've gotta continue pushing forward so that you remain relevant, and you don't begin to fall into that category of crusty old relic.

You should make it out to one of John's restaurants as soon as you can. In the meantime, check out his cookbooks, Big Bad Breakfast and Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey.

Story by Jodi Cash
Photos courtesy of John Currence


 

Kristen Bach, Children's Store Owner and Photographer

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Welcome to Impressions, a new series for The Seed & Plate. Impressions gathers thoughts, stories and wishes from people who inspire us. Open-ended prompts unfold glimpses into moments of influence and treasured memories along an individual’s path. 

Kristen Bach opened Treehouse Kid & Craft in 2010, and with it created a magical haven for children of all ages. Her whimsical, playful vision informs the space she created, the atmosphere of her photographs and her penchant for finding beauty in everyday. 


Season: Set the scene, what marks this season for you?

At home, food always defines the season for our family. We try to grow or forage a lot of our own food or get it from the farmers market so eating what is seasonally and available is really where the inspiration for meal planning comes from. At the shop, holidays really define the season for us. In shop installations and preparation as well as at the craft table. We oftentimes look to upcoming holidays or the season to get inspiration for projects and class content. Seasons play a big role in how my days and months play out in all avenues of my life.

Food: Something that nourishes you this time of year or the view from your kitchen.

In our home, we have been making a lot of handmade pasta. My daughter is really into cooking and I love to enable the bug. Pasta is really fun to make with her and we can add a homemade sauce filled with seasonal veggies. It is a major comfort food around our house during the winter months and we are starting to lighten it up now that the days are getting warmer.

Career: Doubts, sacrifices, inspirations or victories that marked the trail of your success.

This is a big question. I always try to remain positive when looking at my business, no matter how stressful it may be. I started TREEHOUSE in 2010 (during the recession) after just having my daughter. I knew that by no means my days, weeks, months would be easy but I knew that it could only go up from there! Do I still have hard times? Yes, of course! But I am completely in love with this path that I chose and I feel that my community wholeheartedly benefits from TREEHOUSE. I feel grateful to offer jobs to my employees and creative offerings to children and families of Athens. The overall idea might be big for the size of Athens but we are constantly thinking of ways to make it work within our own community as well as on a national level. I think with hard times and failure inspires creative problem solving and change which is super positive and keeps our business fresh.

Community: A moment when community or sense of place and role lifted you up.

I can honestly say that just about every day there is something that happens in the shop that lifts me up. It might be someone who stops by the shop for the first time, a child who uses paint for the first time, or a child who you can see finds magic in our space. I also love witnessing acts of kindness, (who doesn't?). We have had families sponsor kids for summer camps, a school teacher who bought one of his students Christmas gifts because he knew that they would not be receiving any.....the list goes on. Those simple moments mean the world to me.....and also make me burst into tears every time! I know that not everyone can shop at a place like TREEHOUSE every day but what I really wanted to create was a space where my community feels comfortable to play, create, and visit.

Impact: A vision, small or large, for your impact on the people around you. 

I really just try to be present and listen to those around me. I treat TREEHOUSE as 'our' space, it is an open playing space for growth, ideas, and creativity amongst my employees. This mentality extends to my community. We are constantly collaborating with members of the community and celebrating the talents that exist in Athens and beyond. I do have a long-standing dream to someday start a non-profit to bring creative activities and supplies to less privileged areas in our community and throughout the world.

Wisdom: What’s the one thing no one told you that you wished you’d known sooner?

The first few years of owning a small business were really hard on so many levels and days were filled with so much uncertainty and questions. I had no idea if I made a mistake by opening a business. I think all small businesses struggle in the first couple or few years, I wish I knew that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Interview by Erin Wilson
Photo by Paige French

Mimi Maumas, Chef, Caterer and Restaurateur

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Welcome to Impressions, a new series for The Seed & Plate. Impressions gathers thoughts, stories and wishes from people who inspire us. Open-ended prompts unfold glimpses into moments of influence and treasured memories along an individual’s path. 

Mimi Maumus is a treasured member of the Athens, Georgia culinary community. She began her company, home.made, from her own home kitchen in 2006 and has since grown into an award-winning brick-and-mortar restaurant, bar and catering service. Her Southern staples like cheese straws and sweet tea caramels are the stuff our dreams are made of, so we talked with her about what fuels her own dreams. 


Season: Set the scene, what marks this season for you?

I grew up in New Orleans and never experienced the fall season as beautifully as I have since moving to Georgia. I love seeing the leaves change color and the cozy smell of burning wood when I walk outside in my neighborhood at night. I was so enchanted by the color changing leaves that I sent a yellow gingko leaf to my grandparents when I first moved to Georgia  — as if I had stumbled upon a space rock!
 

Food: Something that nourishes you this time of year or the view from your kitchen

I love North Georgia apples and pumpkins and suddenly want sage and rosemary in everything. Our menu shifts from grilled to braised meats with heartier sauces. I also can’t get enough of the firewood smell and find myself adding smoke to all kinds of menu items — we recently had a smoked applesauce and currently offer smoked sweet potato gratin.
 

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Career: Doubts, sacrifices, inspirations or victories that marked the trail of your success

Home.made grew, quite literally, out of my home. I had been working in the restaurant industry for over 10 years and realized that I would never be able to afford my own restaurant. I started out as a personal chef, while still working 50 hours each week at other restaurants. My customers started asking me if I could cater events for them and I just dove in. Home.made started in 2006 and then in 2008 moved into a kitchen that I shared with two friends who were also trying to build their own food businesses. It was a struggle for sure! We drove all over Georgia buying equipment that we could afford. (I am very grateful to my neighbor, Maureen, who let me borrow her truck nearly every weekend!) I couldn’t afford actual platters for events so I got creative with serving pieces. I would often stand alone in the “tiny kitchen,” look around, and feel very proud of the growth that I had seen over those first few years — although I’m sure it didn’t look like much to anyone else. Every step of the way, I reinvested in the business — buying kitchen equipment and tools, embroidered chef coats, business cards, and hired an actual accountant (who I would bring manila envelopes of crumpled receipts to).

I worked the 50 hours at my restaurant job and grew home.made in the hours before and after that. I would check emails in the early morning and respond late at night. Working 90 or so hours weekly was exhausting, but I have always loved little sayings to motivate myself.  I considered giving up on many occasions but was talked out of it by friends and family who knew that I had to stay the course — if I turned back I would never be able to start again. So I just kept going — one baby step after the next…

I set my sights on our Baxter Street location in 2011 but really didn’t think that I could do it. I couldn’t imagine getting a loan from a bank or juggling my job with such a huge endeavor. Miraculously, I was approved for a small loan and I was able to get the wheels turning. I moved my catering business to 1072 Baxter Street in 2012 and decided to leave my job to focus on home.made in early 2013.

I had been so afraid of leaving the security of my job but won Taste of Athens a few months later and felt like the universe was telling me that I was on the right path.

I have continued to follow the natural trajectory of home.made – we added lunch in the fall of 2013, developed a line of nationally available southern snacks in 2015 and, in 2016, expanded our dining room, built out a second kitchen and added dinner, beer and wine. We added liquor to our license just in time for Valentine’s Day this year.

There are still a lot of steps ahead for home.made — a better sign, a parking solution (if there is such a thing) and a separate bar space.

It has been an uphill climb but I am very thankful for every step of the way and for all of the people who have helped me get to where I am now.

 
 
Community: A moment when community or sense of place and role lifted you up

I helped cater the Harvest Moon Dinner (a fundraiser for the Athens Land Trust) when I worked at 5&10. I remember the buzz of the event – guests oohing and ahing over Hugh and the food, and my pride for being a part of it. I have always remembered that event — it was an earmark in my culinary journey for sure.

I was asked to be “the” chef at the Harvest Moon Dinner in 2015 and had a rush of emotion, fear and pride. I am a huge fan of the West Broad Farmer’s Market (shout out to Ms. Ethel!) and the Athens Land Trust and was incredibly honored to be asked to cook. I had a great time and have done it each year since then – and feel just as proud every time.

 
 
Impact: A vision, small or large, for your impact on the people around you

I have spent most of my life as an employee and am still able to relate to the dreamers and work horses on my staff. I try to offer a fair workplace that supports its people — giving people family time and “real life” time. When I worked in restaurants, I missed funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, weekend trips. And, while I am not resentful of my sacrifices, I do believe that they are not completely necessary. I try to always remember that the staff is made up of actual people with actual lives.

I also try to have a staff of people who enjoy their jobs. If we have a long term employee who seems unfulfilled, I try to support them in a direction toward their own life goals — even if that means that they will leave home.made.


Wisdom: What’s the one thing no one told you that you wished you’d known sooner?

Believe in yourself, but be honest with yourself too.

Photographs by Paige French

Rebecca Wood, Potter and Artist

Welcome to Impressions, a new series for The Seed & Plate. Impressions gathers thoughts, stories and wishes from people who inspire us. Open-ended prompts unfold glimpses into moments of influence and treasured memories along an individual’s path. 

Rebecca Wood came to Athens, Georgia in 1975 and unexpectedly grew one of the largest pottery studios in America. R Wood Studio Ceramics channels Rebecca's love for Southern beauty with colored pottery for the home in rustic shapes begging to set a dinner table filled with food and friends. 


Season: Signals of the season, set the scene

My favorite. The winds and the golds and reds and the backyard fires stir up my gypsy blood and my desire for adventure. When not adventuring, it's so much fun to get back to cold weather cooking.

 

Food: Something that nourishes you this time of year or the view from your kitchen

Soups, stews, and baked goods fill the air with memories and promise of goodness.

 

Career: Doubts, sacrifices, inspirations or victories that marked the trail of your success

I'm blessed to be able to follow my inner muse and have plenty of time for reflection. I do not think people in this busy world realize how important it is to allow for fallow, empty periods that allow our minds to relax and wander. Space that allows new conclusions and fosters the springing up of new ideas. Taking a walk in the fall woods is about the best way there is to relax and rejuvenate your mind and spirit. You might even have time to count your blessings...

 

Community: A moment when community or sense of place and role lifted you up

I always feel affirmed and lifted up when someone I don't even know tells me I have inspired them.

 

Impact: A vision, small or large, for your impact on the people around you

I always strive to support and encourage sweetness, creativity, and artistic vision wherever I can. These three things can lift us up so much.

 

Wisdom: The one thing no one told you that you wished you’d known sooner

I seem to learn everything in its time, one thing built on another. Wisdom comes from living and doing.

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