Currence at it again

BY GINNA PARSONS
Daily Journal

OXFORD – The fact that John Currence has opened yet another restaurant in Oxford is not a big story.

But how Currence got to the point of Big Bad Breakfast is.

The New Orleans native began serving customers breakfast and lunch in the MidTown Shopping Center eatery on North Lamar in late May. Meanwhile, he still owns and operates two other restaurants in Oxford – Boure on North Lamar, and his signature restaurant, City Grocery on the Square.

So why would a three-time nominee for the James Beard Foundation's Outstanding Chef Southeast want to open a short-order diner specializing in breakfast?

Believe it or not, BBB is the restaurant Currence wanted to open when City Grocery was born.

Piling on jobs
Currence grew up around fine food in fine restaurants in New Orleans.

“Back then, you got dressed up to go out to eat,” he said. “We wouldn't dare go to Antoine's without a jacket and tie.”

Oddly enough, his foray into the food business wasn't in a fine restaurant at all: His first cooking job was on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico. From there, he went to Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia in 1983 to study engineering.

“The electromagnetic thermodynamics class blew me out of the water and I throttled back to political science and philosophy,” said Currence, 43. When graduation day came, he was two classes away from a diploma, much to his parents' shock and disappointment (they showed up for the ceremony). He would eventually earn the degree some 15 years later, in the summer of 2001.

In the meantime, he left Virginia and moved to Chapel Hill, N.C., to further his education but found he needed a job to help pay for school and rent. So he got a job at Bill Neal's restaurant, Crook's Corner, where some of his friends were working.

“That was the beginning of the path that brought me here,” Currence said. “Bill Neal was a pioneer of celebrating Southern food at the fine dining table. He was one of Craig Claiborne's favorites.”

Currence fell in love with the business immediately and began piling on jobs at other restaurants. He got a job at a smokehouse and learned how to butcher fish, brine it, dress it and smoke it. He'd head to that job at 4 a.m. before showing up at an Italian restaurant to bake bread.

“I went to Food Lion and volunteered my services in the meat-cutting room. I tried to get a job in a Chinese restaurant and in a coffee shop to see what short-order cooking was like,” he said. “I wanted to learn everything. I went kind of crazy for it. I didn't recognize it as a calling. I just knew I really liked it.”

City Grocery is born
In 1989, Currence got a call from a friend who had made a name for himself in New York, but decided to go back to New Orleans to open a restaurant. The friend offered Currence a job as sous chef at his restaurant, Gautreau's.

“I saw it as an opportunity to pull the rip cord on Chapel Hill,” he said. “So I moved home and after three or four weeks, it just kind of hit me one day – to be a part of a beautiful, creative process every day fulfilled everything I needed.”

Currence would later move on to work at Bacco, an Italian restaurant opened by the famed Brennan family of New Orleans.

After a particularly hectic week, he got a few days off and headed to Oxford to visit a friend, Palmer Adams.

“Palmer was a dreamer,” Currence said. “We had always talked about opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Then we started talking about restaurant ideas in Oxford. I was kind of smitten with the place after a couple of days. So I came here to visit a second time.”

The two men decided if they did open a restaurant, it would be something like Camellia Grill in New Orleans – open early, open late and specializing in eggs and sandwiches. So when they heard that the owners of Syd & Harry's restaurant on the Oxford Square might be wanting to sell, they jumped at the location.

“We walked in the door at Syd & Harry's and said, This is it,' but we knew we had to change the concept,” he said. “We started out with good solid food. In 16 years, the food has matured greatly.

“City Grocery has been my own professional growth curve. I arrived here in 1992 with no business opening a fine dining restaurant. I had nothing but enthusiasm and a good work ethic and some experience under my belt. I knew that owning a place of my own was not an absolute guarantee of fulfillment. I just felt like Oxford offered me a way to do it in a controlled environment.”

Boure catches on
In the fall of 1993, he and Adams opened Nacho Mama's on West Jackson, modeled after a college taqueria in Atlanta. It lasted eight months.

“We could never make the kids understand it,” Currence said. “People from City Grocery were expecting white linen Mexican food.”

They shut the restaurant during spring break in 1994, changed the name and repainted. When students came back to town, they were greeted by Kalo's, a Greek tavern modeled after Keifer's in Jackson.

“It just exploded,” Currence said. “The college kids went nuts for it. I did that for about a year. Then my partner and I split. I kept City Grocery.”

Currence next launched a catering business, which has since shut down. And in the fall of 1997, he set Randy Yates up in Ajax Diner.

“We got Amy Lott in the kitchen at Ajax and it just exploded,” he said. “Then we went into a period of dormancy. Ajax was going great, City Grocery was going great and the catering business was keeping us busy.”

Then, the building where BourŽ is located opened up.

“We jumped on it,” he said. “We had no idea what to do with it when it became available. But people kept saying, We really wanted to come to City Grocery, but we couldn't get a baby-sitter.' We needed something to fill that niche.”

Boure opened on North Lamar just off the Square in 2002, offering inexpensive food, nice table service and an environment that welcomed families.

“It's a New Orleans version of Houston's – pastas, sandwiches and at night, several nice cuts of meat and great seafood. Magnificent salads.”

With Ajax Diner now in the hands of Yates and Lott, Currence struggled at BourŽ.

“It took a whole lot out of me,” he said. “Then, after a year, it just exploded.”

Dream finally realized
Next, Currence spent 18 months with other Southern Foodways Alliance chefs to reopen Willie Mae's Scotch House in New Orleans, which was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In June 2007, a month after Willie Mae's reopened, Currence embarked on his greatest adventure to date: He got married.

Bess Currence, once an editor for Oxford American magazine, had moved to New York to become a literary agent. It was a no-brainer for her to move back to Oxford – “the mecca of the Southern literary scene” – and manage her clients by phone and e-mail.

“I did it for a while but I had a really bad experience and that just kind of left a bitter taste in my mouth,” she said. “I called my boss and said I just didn't want to do it anymore. I felt like something died inside. The thought of giving it up was terrifying – the thought of losing my job title and sense of self-worth.”

But Bess Currence had been in the restaurant business 10 years before she moved into the literary business. So when her husband heard the MidTown location was vacant and decided to open another restaurant – this one modeled after his beloved Camellia Grill with the lunch-counter concept – she had no problem agreeing to help manage it.

“It has been a huge growing experience for me, both as a woman and as a person,” Bess Currence said. “Now, I cannot cook at all. I have no food sense. I was a baker for a year in Wyoming but definitely did not have the gift. John does all the food when we entertain. I do the flowers and the cleaning.”

Together, they're already making a success of Big Bad Breakfast. On a recent Friday morning, all six booths and nine tables and almost all the 14 stools at the counter were filled. Servers bustled about with trays of food and coffee pots, serving hungry – and often boisterous – customers.

The breakfast menu features items such as omelets, breakfast meats smoked right on the premises, french toast, waffles and cathead biscuits, called such because they can be as big as a cat's head. Lunch offerings include Coca-Cola-brined fried chicken, burgers, chicken, egg and tuna salad sandwiches, grilled pimiento cheese, salads and breakfast plates.

“The response has been fantastic,” John Currence said. “The location is a little bit of a gamble. The romanticism with the Square has given way to parking problems. Now, the challenge is conditioning people to remember we're here.”

When asked if he had any more restaurant ideas up his sleeve, Currence just grinned.

“There's one more I've been thinking about for years, but it's going to have to be the absolute right real estate at exactly the same time,” he said.