Dining

Fired Up

Meet John Currence, the Southern chef using cooking as a platform for change
Meet John Currence, the Activist Chef
Photos: City Grocery Restaurant Group

Over the last decade, James Beard Award-winning chef John Currence has garnered national recognition for his thriving restaurant group down south in Mississippi. But instead of using his popularity to promote himself and his businesses, Currence uses his platform to express his political beliefs. He's by no means the only activist chef out there today (José Andrés, Tom Colicchio and Hugh Acheson come to mind), but during one of the most politically divided times in our country's history, how does a self-described "bleeding-heart liberal" in the middle of an overwhelmingly conservative state speak his mind while maintaining success as a chef and restaurateur—success that hinges on pleasing those around him?

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In Mississippi, one of the reddest conservative states, there is a small pocket of liberalism.

It's not inside of a college classroom but in a collection of restaurants in downtown Oxford, all owned by chef John Currence. Technically, Currence is a registered Republican—he was born in New Orleans to a father who worked in oil and gas and told him, “You can register as a Republican or move out of this house.” He says he's mostly been too lazy to change his registration and calls himself a “social bleeding-heart liberal and fiscal conservative.”

Known in the food world by his moniker, Big Bad Chef, Currence made a name for himself by opening fine dining restaurant City Grocery in Oxford's historic town square in 1992. Next came Bouré, an upscale Creole joint; Big Bad Breakfast, a cozy diner; Snackbar, which mixes Indian food with Southern staples; and Fat Eddie’s, which served old-school Italian American fare until it closed this May. In June, the chef opened another Big Bad Breakfast location in Rosemary Beach, Florida, not far from Panama City.

But when he's not cooking, he's speaking out.

Inspired by the coffeehouses where revolutionaries met to plot independence during our nation’s founding and the lunch counters that served as stages for sit-ins in the 60s, Currence believes his restaurants can also foster change today. “I truly believe the dining room is where people can and should come together with dialogue and discourse, and, hopefully, people want to be part of that conversation rather than just preaching to the choir,” he says.

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In the early days, he took up issues ranging from the war in Iraq to a strange law in Mississippi that forbade stores from selling cold beer. When Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a famed New Orleans restaurant, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, he helped rebuild it.

Today, he's active in the Southern Foodways Alliance, and you can find him Tweeting to his 13,000-plus followers, many of whom are locals, about President Trump, who he calls “totally irresponsible, insane, narcissistic, a psychopath.” After Trump Tweeted about striking a deal with Putin to limit cyber attacks, Currence took to Twitter:

Another recent Tweet in response to Trump saying that trips to his golf clubs "cost almost nothing:"

He doesn't stop at Twitter though; his restaurants serve as a platform, too. At City Grocery, the menus have political commentary scribbled across their bottoms. In the early 2000s, he would bang on about George W. Bush’s war in the Middle East with statements like, “This is about nothing except protecting oil interests over there.”  

When the immigration debate heated up at the end of January this year, he posted a sign on the door declaring that everyone was welcome in his establishment. Upstairs at the bar, he regularly hosts those involved with the University of Mississippi's political science department, who often stop by for a drink after work. “The one thing I’ve gotten from all these people who have gotten their PhDs in political science is that nobody gets it,” he says. “They are all trying to figure out ‘How the hell did we get here?’”

Currence is also known for throwing fundraisers to advance his causes. In April in response to the administration’s travel ban, he threw a “Mexissippi Supper” to celebrate and support the Mexican American community, who form the backbone of the restaurant industry. When the state legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 2014 allowing businesses not to serve the LGBT community, the chef canceled a dinner he was supposed to cook for the governor and held a protest event instead. “My knee-jerk reaction was 'I am not going to go cook for him,'” he told The New York Times.

Though Currence says he has never explicitly forbidden anyone from eating at his restaurants, he also claims the most extreme Republican leaders in Mississippi know they are not welcome. “Those clowns aren’t coming to me anyway,” Currence says.

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He makes his voice heard, but, of course, it's all a balancing act with business, too. His wife and the general manager of City Grocery, a close friend, often keep Currence from acting on his impulses. After Mississippi passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he was almost ready to ban anyone who helped pass the bill or spoke in favor of it before his wife persuaded him otherwise. “I printed out [a sign] and was ready to march up to the restaurant and put it on the door, when my wife grabbed me by the hair and said, ‘You aren’t going anywhere. People don’t want a lecture when they come to eat.’

“When I look at it and see that we are trying to appeal to 5 percent of the overall population in Oxford, if we eliminate 46 percent of them, we are then trying to make our living off of 2.5 percent of the population,” he explains. “It has given me pause to be a little more measured, a little less vulgar—but not less passionate.”

Occasionally, local Twitter followers will tell Currence to stick to his day job. But, like Currence, more and more chefs are using their star power to make a difference. Memphis chef Kelly English fought against a similar anti-LGBT bill in Tennessee and even offered to host a political fundraiser for anyone who wanted to run against the current senator who passed the bill. Art Smith, who has worked as a private chef for both Oprah Winfrey and Jeb Bush, has helped Currence with his protests.

For Currence, the way to really move the needle is to try to change one mind at a time until it becomes a movement. “I have very clear moments when I am having a debate with someone and saying, ‘This isn’t going anywhere. I’m a part of a gigantic echo chamber,’” he says. “But then there are moments where the producer of The Wire pops out of nowhere and retweets something, and I realize there are other guys out there trying to build a critical mass so something will change.”

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