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.
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.
Story by Jodi Cash
Photos courtesy of John Currence