On Rice, with Chef John Currence,


John Currence got his culinary start in the galley kitchen of a tugboat, honed his chops with Bill Neal of Crook’s Corner and in some of the best kitchens in New Orleans. Fast forward to 2013. John is the benevolent ruler of an empire of restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi. At last count, there are five in his kingdom, among them, Big Bad Breakfast, where the Chef’s Life crew recently dug in and fought over who ordered the best dish (all were sublime). Chef, restaurateur, collector of spoons, son of New Orleans and North Carolina, a walking encyclopedia of food knowledge. Philosopher. Expert bullshitter. (For those of tender eyes, this is a PG-13 interview.)

Talk to him about food, and prepare to open a Pandora’s Box. I started this interview asking about rice. He ventured into far deeper territory, weaving together his past and his present, France, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, the diverse food traditions of the South, the evolution of a chef, Paula Deen, writing and cooking and everything under the sun into a rich gumbo of a story that is as Southern as it is American, and as filling as a bowl of red beans and rice.  Find John Currence on Twitter @BigBadChef or check out his book, Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey.   

What role does rice play in Southern cuisine? 
From a historical standpoint, I don’t know if I have my arms around the significance. It plays a massive role in Creole cooking. You don’t eat a bowl of gumbo without a couple spoonfuls of rice sitting in the bottom… boudin… red beans and rice. My first cooking job was on a tugboat in a little town in South Louisiana called Furchon. I didn’t know anything about cooking and the boat captain told me “look, so long as you know how to make a pot of rice and a pot of coffee in the morning, everything will be ok. You’re cooking for a bunch of Cajuns. They eat rice with everything. As long as the rice is right and not overcooked, you’ll be ok.” He gave me a copy of the Joy of Cooking and sent me on my way. The significance of the grain itself lies in the fact that the body can digest it easily, it expands within you so that you get the sense of fullness without just feeling awful. Rice provides good fill. There is a lushness to rice. On its own, it has a wonderful earthly flavor. And it’s easy to cultivate and harvest en masse… says a guy who never had to farm rice. It’s inexpensive, it’s high yielding, and it’s one of the great southern crops. There’s rice all over South Louisiana, all over Mississippi, Arkansas. 

What local, native grains do you use? 
I don’t know anything in the way of a Mississippi rice that we try to get our hands on. There is a lot of big farming, GMO, bullshit nonsense that’s being harvested. There isn’t a large-scale interest in organics and so I have a very difficult time sourcing ingredients in Mississippi that are artisan in their overarching narrative. Simmons catfish is one of the few. I’m sure folks would roll their eyes when you talk about a quality catfish, but they raise catfish that I would eat alongside of, or instead of, just about any seafood out there. Now, when I get into Louisiana you can list through the grains, you know, Stansel’s popcorn rice in Gueydon, LA is amazing. You take the top off the pot and it literally smells like fresh-popped popcorn, and it is delicious. They raise acres and acres and acres of it and they still can’t keep up with the demand. It’s a short grain, small diameter rice and has got an aromatic quality that is unparalleled. 

How do you use Carolina Gold rice from South Carolina?
I’ll use Carolina Gold rice for anything. It’s got such flavor without any help to it. It’s got a real rich buttery aroma and a very earthy flavor to it. Alone, it is just this beautiful, lush, and delicious ingredient. At times, rice grains would get broken in harvesting, and the guys who delivered quality product did not send broken grains. They sifted through their grains to ship whole grain, and the busted grains and ends would end up as rice grits. Glen Roberts from Anson Mills  does actually sift through his rice, separates whole grain from the grits, but he sells the grits as well and I adore them. Because you can cook them down to where all the starch releases and you get this porridgy consistency but with all of that flavor. 

Do you have any strong food memories related to rice growing up? 
Mondays in New Orleans. On Mondays, the city-wide lunch special was red beans and rice. We're talking about the 60s and 70s here because I’m ancient - the restaurants that existed were mom-n-pop. There were no chains and in New Orleans, there was –  as if by some decree of the city – a weekly lunch special at almost all the restaurants: red beans and rice on Mondays, smothered chicken on Tuesdays, spaghetti on Wednesdays, fried fish on Fridays. We had fish on Fridays because there are more Catholics in New Orleans per capita than anywhere in the country, even in Boston. Red beans and rice though – at almost 50 years old, I’m still working on my red beans and rice recipe. It’s constantly evolving. I was telling someone the other night the story about Leah Chase, one of the absolute seminal female figures in American cooking and one of my dearest friends in the entire world. I went to see her in the aftermath of Katrina. While visiting with her, I said, “I finally hit on what I’ve been missing in my red beans and rice forever.” And she asked, “What you are putting in your beans?” I said, “ I finish them with just a little bit of brown sugar.” And she looked at me and said “ain’t that some kind of uptown white boy, putting sugar in his beans? Ain’t no self-respecting cook in the world going to put sugar in his beans!” And I was so deflated. “Are you kidding me? I’ve worked on this forever, and I finally found my thing, and now I’m just being called a white boy?” 

I was talking to Sam Jones not too long ago and I asked him whether there is a new appreciation and awareness of Southern food. I am curious to know what you think about Southern food and where it is today. 
We are emerging from this period where we’ve been under the microscope. There’s been a national ongoing fascination with Southern food for a while, I’d say for the last six, seven years, which is wonderful from one standpoint, but disappointing from another. Because we as a country tend to get fascinated with one thing and then sort of Disney-fy it, which a lot of times really ends up ruining it. People tend to glom on to, and champion, people who represent the cartoonish nature of what we do. I have talked about Paula Deen and her role in this. While I am certain that Ms. Deen is a lovely and generous and kind person, as far as the understanding of Southern food goes, I say that it’s unfortunate that she projects the image that she does; that Southern food is gluttonous, that it’s about how much butter you can put in. What you’re speaking to Sam about, Bill Neal and Frank Sitt started 35 years ago. They legitimized these foods that were from our grandparents Sunday supper table. You start cooking as a young guy, you feel like you’ve got to make a statement. You want to invent the next caesar salad, do something profound and refined. Ultimately I had to realize that while you are trying to flex your muscles, the chefs that are really successful embrace an inner part of themselves and tell that story through their food. Oddly, I feel like everybody I know and love and respect ultimately collapses in on themselves as they open second, third, fourth restaurants. It has something to do with a confidence and a self-awareness that as you get older, you begin to understand how important minimalism is and that simple is always better. And the guys that are coming up now, Andy Michael from Italian Kitchen and Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman from Hog and Hominy, guys are coming in now and seeing that this food is legitimate, referencing their own food and passion from the very beginning. They are entering the game at the level that took me ten years to get to.  

Not to pick on Ms. Deen, but we have finally been granted a seat at the table about the conversation about food in this country, and with the exception of one or two asshats out there writing that want to hate on the South, almost everybody is giving it some deep consideration. The South could not be more unique. There is nowhere else in the country that has a more varied, more documented, and insanely broad cuisine – from Texas to Florida, north to Virginia, over through to Kentucky. There is no Northern cookbook section, no Midwest section in the bookstores. This doesn’t exist anywhere else. The South was the agrarian capital of the country, the breadbasket for vegetable growing for 100 years. We had dozens of immigrant populations locate to the South. So the food of the South is an amalgamation of all these and there are pockets of stuff everywhere. You get to Appalachia where you had the Scotch and Irish, and you have their traditions that reference the foods of those countries. You get to Charleston and you’ve got another. You got to New Orleans and a whole insane cuisine grew out of the crossroad of all of that. You’ve got the history of Africa, the Caribbean, the Spice Route, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Croatian. It’s all right there in New Orleans. When you begin to pull it apart and understand it, our food as a whole is our history and it’s a really beautiful and satisfying thing. Particularly today, when people don’t respect what they are putting into their bodies or where their food comes from. Part of the satisfaction in eating is understanding what those connections are. Maybe it’s hyper-intellectualization, I don’t know. 

I don’t think it’s hyper-intellectualization. It feels that way because of what you just said, that we are such unconscious eaters in this country. I’m Korean and we have a rich food history and culture, but I grew up North in Ohio. So while I’m not from the South, Southern food is the first cuisine that I’ve really connected to other than my own or other sorts of ethnic cuisines. I don’t think I’m alone in this. What do you think it is about Southern food that evokes that sense of connection?  
You had so many different people converge on the South, all these different influences and everyone was clamoring 150 years ago to recreate these dishes that they were connected to in a foreign land with ingredients available here and that’s how these foods began to grow. There was a connectively to the food. This whole sort of "farm-to-table" thing is about relationships. It’s about the relationship with the purveyors. It’s about the relationship with the product, the ingredients themselves. It’s odd to say “a relationship to a tomato,” but it’s true. Because you put that seed in the ground, and germinated and transplanted it and fertilized it, and saw it ultimately come to fruition so that you could harvest it. There is a connection to that tomato and it means something to you. It is one of the greater things that I think is lost because eating has become just a fuel stop.  Even this morning, I went down the street to get a biscuit. I was hungry so I ran to Big Bad Breakfast and even though it was a grab-and-go, I had to stop the car for a second. I thought, “I’m not going to spoil this by shoveling this in. It’s part of a greater experience.” Cooking is about sharing. When you cook something, it’s a personal experience. This is just my favorite biscuit in the world because it’s my recipe that is connected to my past. The breakfast sausage we worked on is a result of me wanting to recreate the breakfast sausage my grandfather made in his general store. The first time I tasted it at the restaurant, I literally broke down in tears because it took me back to this place with my grandparents that I had become so removed from. I was transported there in one bite.  You will stop everything else you are doing to cook something for someone. You are giving someone part of your time. Some part of yourself. It’s a gift and it’s a story. 

Take Vish, my chef at Snackbar who’s from Northern India. We’ve been together since we opened City Grocery in 1992. We’ve had countless conversations about how we should open a little Indian restaurant. He does these insanely amazing Indian dishes. He would always say, “I never want to be the Indian guy in a small, Southern town with the 17-seat Indian restaurant. It’s a cliché.” Vish absolutely loves French cuisine and technique, and that was what we were doing. Traditional brasserie fare, with a little bit of English pub food. For 18 months we worked on menus together and then he went off on his own. I remember coming in for dinner one night – he’ll always send two or three things for you before you could even look at the menu –  and he sent over collard green saag and curried okra. And it hit me all of a sudden, I got all teary: Vish has arrived! He cannot help but express what is deeply inside of him. He’s doing it through Southern channels with Southern ingredients. Okra plays a huge role in Indian food and here it is as one of the most prolific ingredients from the Southern garden. It’s very moving. The guys who can be self-confident and open themselves up are the best at what we are doing. 

Tell me about your memories growing up in North Carolina.  
 My mom was born in Lenoir, NC, just north of Hickory and her dad owned a general store. It was an awesome, awesome store that sat on the side of the road and it was gigantic. He had carpet on one side and a meat counter on the other where they would slice ham and bacon. He’d slice a thick piece of baloney and griddle baloney for you. Then there was a big old soda pop machine with all kinds of regional North Carolina sodas, a candy counter, groceries, newspapers, and two gas pumps, and their house was just next door. And down behind the hill was a gigantic garden that they tended. I hated going to see them when I was a kid cause all I did was work. In my dreams, it was all lollypops and Coca-Cola, and getting fawned over by grandparents. In reality, no way. “Get your ass to work.” These are things I connect to. In the summertime, I am reminded of how bad the tomato leaves would make my arms and legs itch, but those leaves released their oil and this scent! To this day, I love the smell of tomato leaves.

City Grocery 
152 Courthouse Square 
Oxford, MS 38655