Inside Rogue Sessions: John Currence

Chef John Currence

Chef John Currence

By Nevin Martell

John Currence calls himself the Big Bad Chef, which makes him sound like a fairy tale villain. Though the three little piggies – and any other tasty livestock that get in his way – have good reason to worry, Currence really only wants to blow away peoples’ preconceptions of Southern cooking. Since opening City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi in 1992, he has earned a stream of accolades – including a James Beard Award – for his soulful and artful exploration of cuisine rooted below the Mason-Dixon Line.

For my sixth Rogue Session, I enjoyed all of Currence’s courses, as well as some new dishes that the still-absent-but-always-working Cooper debuted. Fantastically epic, it nonetheless flew by. A table full of charming conversationalists and eight drink pairings can do that.

1st course

Poulet rouge/rillettes/pickled peach

Before anyone takes a single bite, cheftender Bryan Tetorakis opens the proceedings by putting down a small bottle and a shot glass in front of each of us. This non-alcoholic aperitif is his take on the Boilermaker, so you pour the lemon- and maple-infused barley water into the glass then take it down in a single gulp. At the end, you’re rewarded with a whiskey-scented sphere that pops with a gush. This is followed by a fried square of heritage breed French chicken offset by a sweet and vinegary pickled peach compote that runs down the center like an orange mohawk.

***2nd course

Celery velouté/Georgia pecan/bourbon dates

The first of several pleasant surprises of the evening. The nuts add a pleasant textural contrast, while the bourbon-soaked dates add a spot of sweetness. In the end though, it’s the flavor of the celery – usually so understated – that makes this dish a winner and sends us all to the bottom of our bowls with a clatter of spoons on porcelain.

3rd course

Oyster/lemon/spinach/absinthe/bacon

Hemingway used to binge on a cocktail called Death in the Afternoon, made with half champagne and half absinthe. Tonight we’re drinking the Broken Vow, which has a little sparkling wine, absinthe-related green chartreuse, orange syrup and gin. It goes down well with the single Rappahannock Barcat oyster dressed up with absinthe-soaked spinach and tiny bits of bacon.

***4th course

Egg 63°/migas/dashi broth/bottarga

This is reminiscent of ramen, because there’s so much goodness going on and it’s sometimes hard to figure out which flavors are coming from where. The spotlight is on the slow-poached egg at the center showered with three kinds of breadcrumbs, which providing a contrasting crunch to the silky smoothness of the yolk. But there’s also seaweed and cured fish roe competing for attention.

5th course

Rockfish belly/sunchoke/seaweed

Apparently, medical-grade painkillers are a big inspiration for chef Cooper, because he has been designing dishes during his recovery. It’s nice to get a taste of his latest effort – sweet, briny and earthy all it once – topped off with two twists of thin shaved Jerusalem artichoke.

***6th course

Farro/lemon/rosemary/parmesan

Cooked for five hours, this comforting, soft farro sports a few rosemary needles poking out and some confited lemon mixed it, which gives a citrus pop where you don’t necessarily expect it. Conversation stops for a moment as we all polish off our small saucers.

7th course

Blue crab/Perigord truffle/celery/apple

A tower of cucumber encloses this fresh, breezy course. The glass of Zocker Grüner Veltliner – which we’ve been told has hints of green radish and white pepper – has a crisp minerality, making it a thoughtful accompaniment.

8th course

Hay smoked carrots/soil/blood orange/green goddess

Less than an hour into the show and RJ is back at it again with a dish dusted with “pine snow.” Seriously, what are his doctors giving him and can we get a prescription?

9th course

Gulf tuna/Benton’s ham/corn/arepa

The glass of Aecht Schlenkerla Urbock Rauchbier beer has a smoky nose with bold bacon and ham flavors. It’s an excellent match for the swine-wrapped seared tuna splashed with Currence’s chimichurri sauce.

10th course

Gulf shrimp/grits/duxelle/bacon

“Here’s a little bit of shrimp,” says our server as she puts down an impressive head-on specimen perched on a plateau of grits. “I like that this is ‘little’ in your book,” I respond. She laughs. “Well, I like to eat a whole plate full of shrimp, so this is little by my standards.” Fair enough. This crustacean may be flying solo, but it packs the flavor punch of a plateful.

***11th course

Cous cous/ham hock/cracklings

Pearls of cous cous hide under slivers of delightfully sweet ‘n’ smoky bourbon-braised ham hock. A couple of crunchy chicharrón are an adroit topping. Appreciative murmurs from around the table. Currence is rocking Rogue.

12th course

Pekin duck/Tabasco/sweet potato/steen’s

For this dish, the Big Bad Chef takes the leftover mash from the Tabasco factory and whips it into the sweet potato puree. A pool of molasses-meets-maple steen cane syrup floats around it with rare, slender slices of duck on top. Though the flavors are definitely Southern, there’s a Thai finish, because the sweetness and the chili heat linger pleasantly until the next course arrives.

13th course

Big bad bacon/Brussels sprouts/balsamic vinegar

Presented in a miniature skillet, this hash of shredded Brussels sprouts and Tabasco-mash-cured bacon gets a boost from some sweet balsamic, allspice, clove and cinnamon. I wish I could do the dish, erm, skillet more justice, but I’m really slowing down at this point. Nine different proteins are bound to do that to you.

14th course

Border Springs lamb belly/turnip/rosemary

The hints of citrus, clove and rosemary create a glorious aroma when this plate is set down. There’s no knife on hand, because the meat comes apart at the touch of the fork. The creamy turnip puree underneath is a nice touch; I just wish I could finish it.

15th course

Marin’s ranch sirloin/CG Worcestershire/foraged mushrooms

This 30 month aged strip steak is complemented by a medley of mushrooms, a drizzle of Currence’s Worcestershire sauce and a few crispy florets of broccoli that the delivering chef tells us are “refrydrated” (dehydrated, then fried crispy). The whole table instantly decides that refrydrated is our new favorite word.

***16th course

Valdeon/kumquat/preserved walnut

Another new dish from chef at the three-hour mark. The Valdeon Spanish blue cheese is aged wrapped in oak leaves, which takes the bite out while retaining the sweet undertones. The candied kumquat and grated licorice pair well, making this another clear champ.

17th course

Happy endings/little things/small bites

The final three morsels include the root beer float meringue, a chocolate whiskey truffle and a pecan-caramel-marshmallow-chocolate ball. The final treat tastes like an upscale turtle cluster. a worthy addition to any box of chocolates that life happened to throw at you.

The meal winds down to the swooning outro to Clapton’s epic, electrified “Layla” echoing throughout the brick-walled space. For a moment I wonder if Slowhand’s keening guitar line could just keep going forever, temporary suspending me in this space and time. Then I put on my jacket, walk outside into the damp night and head home.

Book at seat at this week’s Rogue Session with Scott Drewno.

To get live updates about my Rogue Sessions tastings, please follow me on Twitter @nevinmartell.

Read my play-by-play post on David Posey’s Rogue Session.

Read my play-by-play post on José Andrés and Ruben García’s Rogue Session.

Read my play-by-play post on Spike Gjerde’s Rogue Session.

Read my play-by-play post on Tim Byres’ Rogue Session.

Read my play-by-play post on Bryan Voltaggio’s Rogue Session.