Where to Eat in the South – Chef John Currence Tells Us
James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence runs a mini culinary empire in Oxford, Mississippi that includes City Grocery, Bouré, Snackbar and Big Bad Breakfast, which he’s expanded to a half-dozen locations throughout the South. The New Orleans-born chef has a new speakeasy and coffee shop in the works as well as another cookbook, yet he still finds time to travel for inspiration. Here, he shares his thoughts on the evolution of Southern food, the next generation of chefs in the South, why breakfast is the most overlooked meal of the day and where you should be eating now.
How have you seen the restaurant scene and the approach to Southern food change over the past decade?
Ten years ago chefs still felt they had to legitimize Southern food. Everyone was obsessed with cooking a hog. Well, anyone can cook a pig. This younger generation is approaching food with an academic interest. Honesty is becoming a greater part of food in the South as chef’s embrace their family’s immigrant roots and explore how that plays into the landscape. Frankly, it took guys like Aaron Franklin, Sam Jones and Rodney Scott to show people that if you cook the food you remember—your family’s food—that is what touches people most deeply. Today, being an excellent cook means coming to a deep understanding of the story you are trying to tell through your food.
Tim Hontzas (more on him below) worked for me and he aspired to be a fine dining chef. I remember talking to him about his family’s Greek history and thinking he should do something with that. He’s now opened a meat-n-three where he cooks his family’s food with ingredients that are indigenous to the South. Restaurants like his exemplify the current state of Southern food. It’s exciting.
Is fine dining still relevant in the South?
I don’t think people are over fine dining but they are over the arduous 16-course tasting menu. But places like Kindred, a white linen, full-service restaurant in Davidson, NC (see below) does not feel stuffy. Folks aren’t impressed with an $8 million dining room or crazy technology like a wine list on an iPad. They’re impressed by quality ingredients and a meal that tells a narrative.
What artisans are you most excited about right now?
We went through an artisanal explosion 10 years ago and the ones who survived are spectacular and truly doing something unique. A day doesn’t pass in the South that a chef doesn’t praise Glenn Roberts, founder of Anson Mills. Allan Benton came from nothing and his fascination with his ham made him a star in the food world. Right now I’m seeing a big trend in craft distilling. Wonder Bird Spirits in Oxford is so dedicated to making an outstanding craft product, with beautiful package and a great narrative. Gin is their core product and they only use botanicals within a one to two-mile radius. And there are a number of people making boutique kitchen knives. I just ordered some from Clay Beckwith, who is the son of a well-known Mississippi sculptor.
Your Big Bad Breakfast concept has taken off throughout the South. What’s the secret?
I always dreamed of having a breakfast place. Growing up, breakfast was such an important part of the day. I remember before my dad and I would go duck hunting he’d have cooked a pot of white beans all night long and he’d put them on white bread with Worcestershire sauce and fold it in half topped with bits of broken ham and stuff it in my mouth. My grandparents had a general store and during the week my grandma would make griddle sausage and biscuits and serve it to the guys who came by to read their newspapers by the wood stove. We’re told breakfast is the most important meal yet it’s been dished off to commercial restaurants like Waffle House, Cracker Barrel and IHOP. I applied the same principles and philosophies of my other places to Big Bad Breakfast. It’s a chef-driven menu. I recently had my friend, chef Mike Solomonov, from Zahav in Philadelphia visit. We sat down before the LSU game and ate braised lamb neck on grits and pancakes. He kept asking, why is this pancake so good?
What are your essential food experiences right now in every state in the South?
Johnny’s Restaurant, Homewood
James Beard Award nominee Tim Hontzas jokingly calls his restaurant a Greek and Three, a nod to that fact that he draws on his Greek heritage to reinvent classic Southern meat-n-three dishes here.
Onyx Coffee Lab, Bentonville
Bentonville is a bizarre town where you feel there are more Walmart employees than locals. This cool, design-driven coffee shop is set in the middle of downtown and does coffee right.
The Hive at 21C Museum Hotel, Bentonville
Tucked away in this little town is chef Matthew McClure, who in my opinion, is one of the best chefs in the South.
Joe Patti’s Seafood, Pensacola
Every time I go down to the Panhandle I have to stop here. It’s nothing but seafood and accoutrements. It’s like the Walmart of seafood. I could have easily spent $1,000 my first visit and spent the rest of the afternoon cooking.
Chai Pani Decatur, Decatur
James Beard Award nominee Meherwan Irani took a risk opening his Indian street food-style restaurant but it’s been insanely successful.
Ticonderago Club, Atlanta
This is where to go for one of the most exciting cocktail scenes in town.
Tastee Restaurant, New Orleans
Located in a strip mall near the last exit in West New Orleans before you get on the highway, this is one of the last chain doughnut shops from the 70s. The branding remains the same as does the doughnut recipe, but they’ve expanded to po’ boys, sliders, gumbo, jambalaya and smothered turkey necks and rice. The place is always packed and the food is on point.
You can dine-in or take-out at this affordable, fast-casual, elevated Greek spot set in a high-end shopping development.
Bully’s Soulfood Restaurant, Jackson
This place is just spectacular and soulful. Owner Tyrone Bully built it by hand and he puts just as much care into each and every dish he cooks.
I just adore husband-and-wife owners Katy and Joe Kindred. Their restaurant celebrates community and challenges palettes with dishes like squid ink conchiglie with sea urchin butter.
Hello, Sailor, Cornelius
The Kindred’s follow up on Lake Cornelius has an updated camp fish menu and retro feel you can’t not love.
High Wire Distilling, Charleston
I’m such a huge fan of this distillery. Everything owner Scott Blackwell and his wife Ann Marshall do is just so thoughtful and cool. Their sorghum whiskey shouldn’t be missed.
This is a tiny, hidden gem of a French-inspired restaurant that continues to do insanely delicious food every night. Miel has one of the loveliest patios in the city. You can sit out there by the firepit and have drinks or eat in a separate private dining room.
Vera Cruz All Natural, Austin
They have the best tacos. It’s a must-stop every time I’m in Austin.
Red Truck Rural Bakery, Warrentown and Marshall
Former Washington Post art director, Brian Noyes, opened this bakery in a renovated 1920s gas station. It’s so tidy and cool—as if designer Billy Reid dreamed it up. When the economy crashed in 2015, he wrote president Obama saying he’d continue to dump his savings into his dream, knowing Obama would lead us through the tough times. The following year, on Pi Day, Obama shared the letter on a post on the White House Facebook page along with a photo of him eating a slice of Brian’s signature half sweet potato, half pecan pie. His business has been booming ever since.