by Kristi Willis
Chef John Currence of the City Grocery Restaurant Group in Oxford, Mississippi is playing chicken with the crowd at the Austin Food & Wine Festival. At his demonstration—aptly titled “What Are You, Chicken?”—Currence is trying to convince the attending food enthusiasts that humanely and cleanly raised chicken is not only good for us but as flavorful as the omnipresent pork dishes crowding so many restaurant menus.
As he demonstrates how to butcher a chicken, he regales the crowd with stories of the transcendent chicken dishes he’s enjoyed at restaurants across the country. It’s quite clear that Currence thinks chicken has gotten a bad rap, and he encourages the crowd to embrace the meat, anew. The first step, he says, is to start with a quality bird.
“Factory farm chicken could not be any more disgusting,” Currence says. “But there has been a resurgence in pastured chicken. It is entirely unlike anything; it has honest flavor to it.”
Despite his culinary training, Currence didn’t have this fowl epiphany until he tried the famed roasted chicken at Zuni Café in San Francisco. “It knocked me over,” he says. “I hadn’t really given chicken a lot of thought before that. It was kind of a necessary evil on a menu—something that you balance your loss leader with because chicken is cheap.”
After that dinner, though, Currence changed his tune and started pushing his chefs to stop relying so heavily on pork. “I told them to quit already with the bacon,” he says. “Pork is easy to get flavor from, but blow someone's hair back with chicken and then you’re doing something special. It doesn’t have to be some crazy inventive dish, just solid, flavorful cooking.”
Now, the City Grocery team experiments quite a bit with chicken dishes—particularly fried chicken recipes, a traditional crowd-pleaser in the South. Variations might include marinating the chicken in buttermilk, adding hot sauce or even a cola-based brine. “We do a little bit of everything,” says Currence. “It just depends on my mood.”
Of course, Currence isn’t afraid to adapt from the tried-and-true methods of others. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Currence volunteered to help rebuild Willie Mae’s Scotch House—a nationally recognized icon for extraordinary fried chicken. While he was helping out, he gained some invaluable lessons in chicken frying.
“The greater take away from that time was that I started wet battering [the chicken] because that’s how Willie Mae did hers,” says Currence. “Even though her recipe is a well-guarded secret, I watched her mix it up over and over enough that we can approximate it. We will never duplicate it, but we can approximate it.”
Currence must be doing something right based on the growth of the City Grocery Restaurant Group—now with four eateries in Oxford. After twenty plus years, it’s no surprise that the chef has a throng of devoted diners who count his fried chicken among their favorite meals. He’s known to show up in the community with boxes piled high with fried chicken when a loved one has passed. “Someone said the other day that the only thing they’d hate about dying is that they’re not going to get to eat my fried chicken,” he says.