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April 22, 2020, 12:57 p.m. EDT

Worldwise: How Oxford, Miss.-based Chef John Currence Pays It Forward

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Ask award-winning chef John Currence about his upbringing in New Orleans, and he’d probably tell you it undoubtedly helped carve out his career in the kitchen. 

“There isn’t another city in the country that has a more deeply ingrained cuisine or food culture than New Orleans does,” he says. 

When his parents left the U.S. for the U.K. in the 1970s, he had the opportunity to travel extensively with his mother, becoming acquainted with the cuisines and cooking styles of France, Portugal, Spain, and other countries in Western Europe. “Tasting dishes in the places where they were born,” was a significant influence on him. 

After college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Currence, now 55, returned to New Orleans to open Gautreau’s, working as a sous chef for several years before eventually settling in Oxford, Miss. There, he began his tenure as a restaurant owner, opening the raved-about City Grocery in 1992. “This little town provided the place for me,” he says.

Beyond mainstay City Grocery, Currence’s culinary success in Oxford also includes Bouré, Snackbar, a catering company called The Main Event, and Big Bad Breakfast, a cozy café churning out hearty plates of fried chicken and waffles and buttermilk biscuits with tomato gravy. 

Determined to pay it forward in his adopted hometown and state, the chef founded  Move On Up, Mississippi  in 2015. Through funding educational initiatives, the foundation aims to improve the health and wellness of children in Mississippi. Currence says he saw a chance to do something in the community that would have an immediate impact on people’s lives.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Move On Up’s mission is more important than ever. The organization is feeding more than 100 families each week, providing meals and supplies when they need them most. “We want to make sure no family goes hungry or without essentials,” Currence explains.

Recently, Currence shared with Penta what he loves and what inspires him most.

The way I stay Zen at home is... I build Legos with my daughter and do jigsaw puzzles.

My favorite place in Oxford is... the balcony at City Grocery Bar—it’s just peaceful and has broad, sweeping views of the square. When I sit outside, I know maybe 60% of the people walking and driving by. I’ve noticed now more than ever that this moment of recognition you share with someone is a meaningful connection, and it’s what we all need in this current climate. 

The one thing in my kitchen I can’t live without is ... no question, it would be my stove. That was one of my greatest luxuries that I afforded when we renovated our house. I want to be clear; it’s not something I can’t live without. It’s something I don’t want to live without. It’s a Lacanche range. It’s the Bugatti of home cooking apparatuses for me.

My favorite thing to cook right now is ... two things: Red beans and rice is one of the greatest comfort foods in my life. It goes back to growing up in New Orleans—eating red beans and rice on Mondays. And also chocolate chip cookies. My daughter Mamie and I can make them together. She loves to measure out all the ingredients and put them in the mixer. It’s a heavy hitter for me right now.

If I were to buy a piece of art, it would be by... without consideration of budget, I think right now it would be Picasso ’s “Guernica” because it embodies every bit of the chaos and confusion we’re currently living through.

The best book I’ve read in the last year is... Dead Wake by Erik Larson , which is about the final voyage of the Lusitania. It’s not only an account of the trip and the people on it, though—it gives a deep history of submarine warfare tactics. I love all of Erik Larson's books because of the insane amount of research and detail.

A passion of mine that few people know about is... tennis—I’m absolutely bananas about playing tennis. It’s exercise, it’s outside, and I love it from a competitive standpoint for the same reason I love boxing. It’s you and one other person competing. No one else gets credit for winning, and no one else gets faulted for losing. 

The thing that gets me up in the morning is... waking up with Mamie and spending the mornings with her. It’s a little harder right now because she’s at the age of nothing but questions and wanting information, but there’s nothing better than having her climb in bed and snuggle with me in the morning. 

A person who inspired me to do what I do is... I'd have to say one of my first chefs at Gautreau’s was Larkin Selman , and I’ve never known a greater passion than his. That would be my answer from a cooking side, but also the Brennan family [of Brennan’s in New Orleans] and Danny Meyer [of Union Square Hospitality Group in New York City] inspire me. I tried to model our service and hospitality after them.

If I could have a drink with anybody, living or dead, it would be... well, right now, I would love more than anything to sit at the bar at Bombay Canteen in Mumbai with Floyd [Cardoz, who died of Covid-19 on March 25] and have one more drink. But I’m going to cheat and say I would have my mom there too. We’d all drink Champagne.

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