Published on May 7th, 2012 | by TLV News0
City Grocery Celebrates 20 Years
Introduction by JoLynn Wells,
Interview with John Currence by Newt Rayburn & Nature Humphries
Oxford, Miss. (TLV) – Hard to believe though it may be, City Grocery opened its doors twenty years ago this Spring. In honor of this momentous achievement, a number of activities have been going on throughout April and on into May. First was the appearance of the original menu that graced City Grocery’s doorstep in April of 1992, followed by a modern take on that original menu beginning May 4th. The festivities continue through the third week in May as six chefs (some Grocery alumni) come together to create a six-course wine dinner at City Grocery on May 18th and 19th.
The celebration culminates on Sunday, May 20th with a “Farm-to-Table” extravaganza at Woodson Ridge Farms beginning at 3 pm with speeches and cocktails. Dinner will be served at 5 pm and then dancing and socializing will last late into the night.
James Beard Award winning chef and owner of City Grocery John Currence elucidates the exciting events for us and comments on the journey that brought his enterprise to the empire it has become.
City Grocery has been celebrating the 20th anniversary with some “throwback” events, including using the original 1992 menu. What were some of the challenges of recreating a menu from 20 years ago?
There weren’t too many challenges, per se, other than not over-thinking the food. I think one of the things I have the hardest time with is remaining connected to the simple elements of our food, from time to time. There are moments I look at our dishes now and I know they are too complex and over-thought. Twenty years ago we were virginal and allowed the food to speak completely for itself. We still do, for the most part, but I do find that I am a little over-wrought at times creating new dishes. Looking back has made it clear that I can be guilty of that, but it has also been reassuring that where we started was nothing to be ashamed of. Some of the nicest compliments have come in the last couple of weeks from folks who have eaten with us regularly for the last two decades and have said the dishes transport them back to the first time they tasted our food.
What are some ways the restaurant has evolved over the years?
I am not sure the restaurant has “evolved” over the years as much as it has just “grown up.” I was nowhere near ready to open a restaurant when we did in 1992, but I knew I could, in Oxford, grow up along with it, as long as I gave people a reason to come along for the ride. I learned as I went (and I still do) and as I grew, so did people’s trust in us. The food grew, the quality of the service grew, the ambition of our wine program grew, the décor and art in the dining room grew. Pushing ahead has always been our objective. I have this oppressive fear that the moment you stagnate, you might as well be moving backwards, so progression challenges our guests and our staff. It’s a challenge, but I do feel like we have continued to be successful at that.
What is the most appealing thing about the “locavore” movement, and do you consider yourself to be a locavore?
We work within a framework of the “locavore” movement. The amount of locally-raised product is growing constantly in Lafayette and surrounding counties, but there certainly isn’t enough supply that we could ever claim to be 100% local. We try to source everything we can, within reason, but I am not enough of a martyr that I would use a crappy local chicken over a quality heritage breed from Tennessee.
Our goal is to put food on the plates for our guests that we can feel proud serving and people can feel good about eating. A majority of the food out there is total shit and I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to offer a quality alternative to people who chose to eat with us. A huge percentage of meals are eaten outside of the home now. If we don’t change our eating habits and stem the tide of obesity and diabetes, the cost of health care will crush us. We want to reach out to our guests and offer a better quality of product and a better way of life.
Thinking back over the last 20 years, did you ever envision the CGRG developing into an Oxford empire?
I don’t look at what we have as an empire…though it’s a fun term to throw around, because I get to be dictatorial: Wright Thompson is my menacing, but totally kind-hearted body guard. Jack Pendarvis is my own personal lounge singer. There is no ticket lady and all of the sudden students are respectful, kind, helpful and gracious…I think I have digressed.
My wife always teases me that whenever I get a craving for something, we open another restaurant. Oddly, she’s not that wide of the mark. When we started in Oxford there wasn’t very much in the way of options, so we did kind of start opening things in a willy-nilly fashion. Randy Yates and I fell in love with a burrito joint in Atlanta, so we opened Nacho Mama’s. Everyone loved Keiffer’s in Jackson (including us) so we shamelessly commandeered their idea, added a ton of extras and opened Kalo’s. We thought a really spun up meat and three with BBQ would kill it, so we did Ajax.
None of these was done with the intention of creating an “empire.” We were just having fun, creating jobs and building unique dining opportunities. And that’s what we are still trying to do. When we identify a need, we feel passionate about a kind of food and feel like we can fill it, we just do it.
CGRG encompasses a huge percentage of the service industry workforce in Oxford. Do you have any advice for the ambitious among them?
My advice for anyone getting into business here is to strive to be exceptional. There are lots of businesses that come in, slap up a sign, get themselves open and just roll the dice on whether they will catch on. We see a lot of turnover in those businesses and it’s a shame. Give your business model a good hard look and commit to be the best at whatever it is you are going to do. Also, be involved in the community. Success is partially bred through the understanding that your relationship with your community is absolutely vital. You have a responsibility to give back.
With four restaurants in the same town, do you ever feel like you’re in competition with yourself?
They all serve very different needs, so there is little worry of that. I have, for twenty years, waited for the chef-driven restaurant to open nearby to create “competition.” What most folks fail to understand or believe is that I have looked forward to and hoped for it. More choices means more business. I want people to talk about restaurants. I want them to compare. There’s nothing worse than just not inspiring any kind of conversation.
Now that Bouré has settled into the new location with one Double Decker Festival under its belt, what’s next for CGRG?
I’m not allowed to come out and play until I’ve finished my homework. I am way behind on meeting my cookbook deadline.
You seem to have embraced social media. How do you think Twitter, Facebook, Yelp!, etc. have affected the service industry / restaurant world?
Absolutely. The power of social media is undeniable. We try to employ it for guest communication as much as possible. I’ve been blessed with a nice Twitter following. Apparently, if limited to 140 characters, I am somewhat entertaining.
What is your favorite meal to cook at home?
I built an Italian wood burning oven into our home kitchen about five years ago. It’s super badass. My wife Bess loves Coq au Vin, so that’s a favorite. I have a pile of chickens, so gathering a fistful of yard eggs and whipping up a vegetable quiche is always killer. But, probably my favorite thing is getting that oven blazing hot and cooking fresh dough pizza with whatever is in the fridge.
What style of cuisine most fascinates you?
I am not fascinated as much by cuisine as I am just by food in general. I want to know as much as I can about the importance of changing how we eat and what we eat, so we can use that knowledge in what we create at the restaurants. I am truly fascinated by heirloom vegetables, seed saving, heritage breed animals and healthy practices for raising all of the aforementioned. I love pickling and canning and am crazy about learning all manners of preservation technique. I love how we used to eat and survive and want to help bring all of that back along with the flavors I remember as a child.
As for cuisine, I am very interested by the food of Northern Spain and Southwest France. I have always loved true, country Italian, but there is little better in the world than the food of the American South and that encompasses so many different cuisines, blended into and pocketed throughout, you can touch on almost anything right here.
This article was published in The Local Voice #155 (May 3-19, 2012)…Click here to download the PDF of issue #155.