October 2010

John Currence

[Chef]

This issue features a microinterview with John Currence, conducted by Jack Pendarvis. Currence, an award-winning chef, first cooked professionally as a deckhand on a tugboat. He worked his way up in the restaurant business, starting out as a dishwasher at Bill Neal’s seminal Southern restaurant, Crook’s Corner, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and, later, cooked in various kitchens for the Brennans, the famous family of restaurateurs. He wound up in Oxford, Mississippi, where one of the first friends he made was the writer Larry Brown. Their meeting was the beginning of Currence’s long association with the town’s writing community. At his restaurant Big Bad Breakfast, almost all the dishes are named for books by local authors. For Faulkner, there’s the Pylon, a hangover cure of jalapeños, chopped hot dogs, chili, pickles, oyster crackers, and other things too numerous and insane to mention, on top of a waffle. David Chang loves it. At last count, Currence owns four restaurants in Oxford, including his flagship, City Grocery, where his work has won him (among other honors) a 2009 James Beard Award as Best Chef: South.

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THE BELIEVER: When I am eating shrimp in Bayou La Batre, they have a certain clean taste that I don’t experience when I eat shrimp elsewhere. Is that because the shrimp are coming straight from the Gulf, fresh, or is it my imagination, or is there something different about Gulf Coast shrimp? When I was reading up on the BP oil spill, I noticed that 80 percent of shrimp in the U.S. comes from foreign sources… and that was before the spill.

JOHN CURRENCE: Let me try to explain what you’re experiencing by using another example. The New Orleans po’boy is, or can be, a thing of true beauty that is entirely unachievable anywhere else, and it largely has to do with the bread. There is absolutely nothing else in this world that I have been able to locate that approximates Leidenheimer’s French bread, and without the proper bread, the po’boy simply doesn’t float. That being said, even if you rush the fresh-baked bread to a distant location and assemble a sandwich of the perfectly executed ingredients, it still suffers not being consumed in the familiar sensory surroundings of New Orleans, whether it’s the sounds of the French Quarter, the smell of the river, or the sight of passing traffic on St. Charles Avenue that triggers the neuro-responders in you. Nothing fires the same if you are not having the experience in that place. This is why “eating” and “dining” are so incredibly different from each other. One is a primal activity, the other the confluence of a thousand different experiences, culminating in a single unique moment.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Jack Pendarvis has written three books.


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