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Q&A: John Currence

John Currence (photo by Brandall Atkinson)

In addition to being a PGA TOUR event, the Viking Classic is also a culinary extravaganza. Wrapping up the fun in this year’s Viking Culinary Tent will be chef John Currence, owner of City Grocery restaurant in Oxford. Currence was named Best Chef in 2009 by the James Beard Foundation and was recently a contestant on “Top Chef Masters” on the Bravo network. City Grocery Restaurant Group also includes Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar.

Q — What will you be cooking at the Viking Classic?
A —
The menu will reflect the season. I’ll be bringing a ton of produce from (Oxford) down. I’m planning on doing some sort of West Indies crabmeat salad. Ceviche shrimp from Lauren Farms with fresh summer succotash. Dessert may be compressed local watermelon.

Q — Why did you set up shop in Mississippi and not in your home town of New Orleans?
A —
The opportunity really presented itself to me. I was 25 at the time and was sort of at a dead end in New Orleans. I came to Oxford to visit an old friend, and we started drinking beer. Then hubris set in, and we had a way that we could change the course of all restaurants. We started looking at spaces around town. It was the time Oxford was deciding whether it was going to do urban sprawl or revitalize the Square. I teamed up with Square Books. I was lucky I was able to get into the space that is now City Grocery for next to nothing. I was in the right place at the right time. I didn’t intend to stay here for 20 years or the rest of my life. We’ve opened eight different concepts in those 20 years.

Q — Why has Mississippi been a great place for you to do business over the past 20 years?
A —
The thing that I really like — I spend a lot of time talking to folks — I’ve got a lot of friends who are not in Mississippi. I like the fact that we’re sort of behind the curve. There’s been sort of a willingness to allow us as businessmen sort of a greater leeway on how we conduct business as far as regulation goes. That’s given us the ability to build an infrastructure, to incubate a business plan. There’s not a tremendous amount of red tape to deal with. And more often than not, logic prevails when you do run into a stumbling block. I see guys that are trying to do business in New Orleans and are absolutely ripping their hair out in dealing with different layers of bureaucracy. I think Mississippi has been a great place to do business. In the last 20 years I’ve grown up as a businessman with the state. We’re at a level where we’re seeing a greater amount of regulation in building codes and what not. But you can still set up shop for a lot of more reasonable cost that you can anywhere else.

Q — Examples of advantages?
A —
The Health Department is definitely coming along as far as regulation goes. It’s not the insanity that it is in a lot of places that I’ve seen. The tax environment remains relatively simple. It’s not a super-complicated landscape to negotiate. Local regulations and taxation is sort of kept to a minimum. It’s really a countrified laissez faire. If you mean to set up business, you do it. You pay your taxes. There’s not a lot of superfluous regulatory nonsense to deal with. Building inspector, fire marshal, health inspector, license — except for the ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control). If we could ever get the state out of the alcohol business, it would be a dream come true. The state does sort of continually improve slowly the quality of service through the ABC, but we’re still stymied in availability of product because the vendors don’t want to deal with the bureaucracy from the state. The boutique producers, specifically, when they produce 500 cases of a certain kind of bourbon every year think, “Why do I need to deal with red tape of Mississippi and wait for months when I can put (product) on the Internet and sell it overnight?”

Q — How is the availability of locally grown produce and meat in Oxford?
A —
(I was one of) the original organizers of the farmer’s market here (and have since rolled off the board). In reality it’s a matter of telegraphing to the community that there’s an interest. We didn’t have a local dairy up here 10 years ago; no boutique growers to speak of. Family farms were selling wholesale to grocery stores — tomatoes for less than $1 a pound. They can sell to the consumer at a farmer’s market for $2.50 a pound. They understand the opportunity. We now have pigs, cattle, milk, cheese, local honey. It’s all come out of the fact that folks are willing to pay for these relationships and pay for the prominence of these ingredients that they can feel good about eating. (Some people) want to knock it down and say, “Oh well, getting locally raised produce is so much more expensive.” But folks don’t seem to be so worried about it when they’re going out and putting large flat-screen TVs on their credit cards. The facts are foods that we’re eating are killing us. They are directly responsible for the obesity epidemic that the entire country is experiencing.

Everything is within our power. It’s a matter of just saying no to crap. Doing the right thing is an inconvenience. It means we have to start cooking at home or eating the right things when we go out. It means going to markets and paying for vegetables that are more expensive than what you get at the grocery store.

Q — You are committed to serving fresh products in your restaurants?
A —
I just feel like we have a responsibility as chefs and owners to try to help right the course of the journey that we’re taking as a population. A tremendous number of the meals that are eaten now by the general public are eaten outside the home.

Q — Is that why you’ve been successful?
A —
I’ve got a social conscience. There are a lot of guys out there who say, “He’s an idiot. I’m in this to make money.” At all the restaurants we are mindful of excellence constantly, and we’re dedicated to it. We want to feel good about the things that we’re serving. I don’t have a partner to answer to. It’s not about the bottom line. Money is not what drives me to do what to do. I’m in my business to do what I do for a personal satisfaction. It comes from delivering an experience that I’m proud of. I want satisfaction on all levels — from customer to employee to my piece of mind. Dining is about an experience. It’s not just about a food or wine …. We try to continue improving on those experiences all the time every day.

It’s obvious from the number of folks that fill the chairs every day that what we’re doing is making folks happy. As far as representing the state of Mississippi, it’s incredibly flattering to know that we’re on the front of people’s lips when they think of Mississippi. But I don’t think about it in those terms.

Q — Are you excited about cooking at the Viking Classic?
A —
I’m always excited to do anything with Viking that I’m asked to do because I think that Fred Carl is a class-act gentleman. I admire his dedication to his product and to his hometown more than I can ever say. I’m always proud to be aligned with Viking. I do a good bit of work with them. You should probably leave this out. It’s overly promotional.

Thursday, July 14

>> Chef Emeril Lagasse, Food Network
>> Chef Luis Bruno, Mississippi Museum of Art

Friday, July 15
>> Chef Rick Tramonto, New Orleans’ Restaurant R’evolution
>> Chef John Folse, New Orleans’ Restaurant R’evolution

Saturday, July 16
>> P. Allen Smith, Little Rock Gardening Expert
>> Wine and cheese tasting, Ruth’s Chris Steak House /The Renaissance

Sunday, July 17
>> Rock n’roll chef Nathan Lippy, Tampa, Florida
>>> Chef John Currence, Oxford’s City Grocery Restaurant Group


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About Amy McCullough

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