John Currence, Mississippi Grilling Royalty, Masters USA BBQ

After working his way up in a few kitchens, including the Brennan family restaurants, Currence settled a bit further east in Oxford, Mississippi. There, he opened award-winning City Grocery, an established landmark for regional cuisine.

Currence presides over half a dozen other restaurants, has just released a cookbook and his Big Bad Chef videos chronicle his journeys through some of the Deep South’s undiscovered food havens.

One of his success stories is Lamar Lounge, a philanthropical venture, where all proceeds benefit non-profits in Mississippi. But its real claim to fame? The restaurant, bar and live music lounge boasts the only whole hog roast in the area. That’s right, Currence and his team roast an entire hog. Every day. And, as you can imagine, they’re no piglets. We’re talking nearly 200-pounds of pork. Currence says the trick to all good barbecue is slow cooking.

“We cook our hogs for about 12-14 hours. We just pull, mix and serve.” The barbecue isn’t the only thing Currence’s regulars come for. In typical Southern style, one of the most popular dishes at Lamar Lounge is the “tot-chos.” Yep, I had to ask…Sort of a Mexican take on Jamie Oliver’s chip butty, which is a French Fries sandwich. Tot-chos are tater-tot topped nachos.

Currence’s menu doesn’t seem out of place, but he’s actually not your typical sweet, tangy, sauce-slathering barbecue chef. Instead, Currence nods to slightly more northern techniques.

“I’ve always thought the guys in Eastern North Carolina had the sauce thing figured out: vinegar, a little sugar and a little spice. Pork doesn’t need any more than that.”

Indeed, at Lamar Lounge, they roast pastured, heritage-breed pigs, garnished with pickled sweet onions, and little else, keeping it simple and healthy-ish. I point out the stark difference between southern barbecue, and the more undressed California and Mediterranean versions. Even the references differ.

While some may suggest barbecuing calamari, or vegetables, most distinguish this as “grilling.” The lighter touch taken with grilled seafood and vegetables, often marinated in simple vinaigrettes, or olive oil and lemon, Currence says, is catching on. “The simpler, the better. This is a trend being adopted nation-wide amongst all walks of food.”

Simpler and lighter may be the trend, but in the hotbeds of southern barbecue, Currence says, regional recipes, even specific meats and cuts, differ wildly and are deep-rooted in society.

“In Western Kentucky, they smoke aged sheep. In Texas, beef brisket and giant ribs. In Memphis, the order of the day is dry-rubber ribs and chopped butt with a sticky, ketchup-based sauce. In middle Alabama, the chicken is eaten with a white sauce and in Charleston, yellow mustard rules the day. I love that every region thinks they are better than the next.”

But Currence is a more modest fellow, and says despite all of his awards, including Best Chef South from the James Beard Association, he hasn’t yet mastered barbecue.

“It’s a constantly evolving process. “

His top tip? “Patience, darlin’…patience.”

Note: Check back tomorrow for another entry in our Summer Grilling Guyd as we include a smoking recipe from Chef Currence.