Masters of the Pit: Chef John Currence
March 27, 2014
As part of our ongoing “Masters of the Pit” series, today we’re catching up with acclaimed Chef John Currence of the Oxford, MS-based City Grocery Restaurant Group and author of “Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey” from Andrews McMeel Publishing.
Clint: Growing up in New Orleans, I’m sure you had your share of gumbo, etouffee, and jambalaya but was there much barbecuing and grilling going on in the Currence household?
Chef Currence: There was tons of grilling. My dad fancied himself a BBQ expert, so we spent a lot of time in the backyard grilling. He worked in the tugboat supply business and every year he’d have a new BBQ with all kinds of modifications.
Clint: Did your parents have a particular specialty when it came to the grill?
Chef Currence: Steak was dad’s thing. He was meticulous about his coal set up, so he’d have my brother and I out there with him watching his process.
Clint: When did you finally get to man the grill yourself?
Chef Currence: When I moved out was really when I got to finally man the grill. Dad would let me start the fire when I was in high school – he’d showed us how to properly light the charcoal chimney.
Clint: And obviously fine tuned your live fire cooking skills over the years, so much so that you have a restaurant, Lamar Lounge in Oxford, MS, that is dedicated to the fine art of slow smoked whole hog. Besides owning a big a$$ smoker, what’s the secret to getting a whole hog just right?
Chef Currence: Patience. Patience, respect for the process, and respect for the animal you’re cooking. It’s about love and you have to submit to hearing someone describe how to do it. I could explain to you how to BBQ a whole hog over the phone and you’d have good food when you’re done. But making it transcendent means studying the flow, how heat convection works and having patience to make sure it’s done right.
Clint: Your latest cookbook, Pickles, Pigs, and Whiskey, features a section devoted to brining and smoking including a recipe for smoked endive which I’m sure few people have ever thought to do. Are there any other ingredients that folks might not immediately think of smoking or grilling but just seem to work well with a little smoke and flame?
Chef Currence: Peaches are always great with some smoke. Grilled tomatoes are tremendous. I like firing almost any kind of vegetable. I’ve gotten so fascinated right now with why restaurants ever lost the desire to cook over live fire. From my own experience, I won’t open another restaurant if we don’t have some kind of live fire cooking.
Clint: Now I understand that you’re quite the hunter. Are there any particular game meats that you enjoy firing up on the grill?
Chef Currence: Game meats are a challenge because there’s so little fat, that they pose a challenge to cook over live fire. That said, a good venison tenderloin can be great. I’ve been really into smoked wild turkey lately. Or a coal-buried mallard is exceptional. You get that duck wrapped in aluminum and buried in a pit of hot coals and it cooks real slowly, that’s just killer.
Clint: And you’ve also been fishing for most of your life. What’s your favorite fish to cook up on the grill and do you have any tips to getting fish just right when cooking over live fire?
Chef Currence: Red fish is great because they have giant scales and really fat flake on them. The skin makes a nice cooking vessel. Across the board, folks are terrified of undercooking stuff that they don’t think about overcooking. Overcooking, especially with fish, is the most common mistake that home cooks make. Don’t overthink it. Salt, pepper and a little lemon, cook it fast and hot.
Clint: Finally, when you’re not in the restaurant and perhaps your just having a few friends and family over for a backyard cookout, what are you firing up for your guests?
Chef Currence: Despite the fact that we (Americans) aren’t given much credit for our contributions to the culinary world, I think the burger is really perfect. I can just go out back and make some great burgers and be real happy with that. Burgers, chicken, steak (which I probably get from my dad’s interest in them), or red fish are some of my favorites. I recently was with some friends and we had some beautiful three-inch thick porterhouses that I can still taste today they were so good.