30 years of City Grocery with Chef John Currence
By Maya Martin
Pictures of Joey Brent
Sitting in Courthouse Square in downtown Oxford is a two-story, exposed-brick building that serves up some of the best southern food in the area.
City Grocery celebrates 30 years of feeding Oxford and the greater community with memorable food and surroundings.
It has been consistently recognized by reputable publications such as The New York Times, Southern Living, USA Today, Bon Appetit, and many others as a good Mississippi establishment. The restaurant’s kitchen team have also been invited to cook at the James Beard House on several occasions over the years since its inception.
Award-winning chef, restaurateur and founder of City Grocery, John Currence, could never have imagined that City Grocery would have the legacy he created. He never planned to move to Oxford with his creation.
“I had helped open restaurants in the past, but I wanted to open one for myself to better verify that,” he said. “I thought I would be at Oxford for a few years, sell my interest and move on. Go back to New Orleans or New York or wherever. Luckily things worked out the way they did and I’m still in Oxford.
Although that’s a goal, Currence said he had “no business” opening a restaurant.
“I didn’t know anything about creating a thematic or ethnic restaurant. I was just dangerous enough, armed with enough knowledge of a number of things to open up a place where I could tap into my own experience.
A Southerner through and through, Currence has drawn on his experience of Creole-French and Cajun cuisine to inspire City Grocery’s familiar yet upscale menu. Not to be overlooked, the menu also features Asian, Italian, French and Southwestern influences.
From the home cooking he experienced growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, to his travels across Europe, the City Grocery menu takes Currence’s catalog and condenses it into something that appeals to the community.
“I just did things that I knew would make people happy and created a menu with enough stuff that everyone could at least find something they wanted to eat or something that seemed interesting,” he said.
What better place to show off your culinary experience than Oxford? In 1992, Oxford was not the gastronomic center it would soon become, but this era has created a situation full of opportunities and curious people.
“There was nothing going on in Oxford and there was enough of a young, professional clientele that was hungry for something,” Currence said. “And once we opened those doors, there was no turning back.”
City Grocery is changing the perception of what Southern food is. For Chef Currence, Southern cuisine is infinitely more than its stereotype and does a disservice to the cultures that define it.
He cites Creole-Italian, Italian, French, German, Caribbean and West African as strong influences on what we know to be Southern cuisine.
“Southern food has been completely misunderstood by people for years,” Currence said. “They want to cram it into the corner of ‘Southern food is fried, it’s unhealthy.’ of immigrants who moved to the United States and tried to create the dishes of their country of origin with the ingredients available.
Now take that same concept but elevate it. Familiar and recognized dishes get an upgrade at City Grocery, “elevating [their dishes] above the qualification of regional and ethnic cuisine,” reads the restaurant’s website.
Some will credit Currence and City Grocery with making Oxford the food city it is today. The leader acknowledged this acknowledgment with some hesitation, but
“People criticize us and it would be a mistake of me to say we weren’t one of them,” Currence said. “We certainly were. The creation of the Southern Foodways Alliance certainly helped elevate that and I think our dedication to opening up quality establishments that we kind of went through the fist for a long time.
While food is a standout aspect of why City Grocery has stood the test of time, but for Currence, service plays an equally important role.
“Our dedication has always been as much to service as it is to food,” the chef said. “Unfortunately, there is this connotation that eating is about food. ‘What did you think of the food at this place? What did you think of the food at this place? As far as I’m concerned, service plays a a lot greater role in the restaurant dining experience than the food.
According to him, a spectacular server or manager can overcome the experience of a bad meal. Customers are willing to give the restaurant another chance than one that has good food and terrible service. Experience is all about the customer.
“And I love it,” the chef said.
Currence taps into the need to connect with the people they nurture. Creating the ideal dining experience coupled with fantastic cuisine and a pool of enthusiastic customers is a surefire way to keep the doors open for a long time.
When you walk into City Grocery, you should feel like you’re visiting a friend’s house for a well-cooked dinner.
“We’ve always set up the restaurant in a way that people feel welcome and included, regardless of their background, income, race, religious preference or sexual preference,” Currence said. “We are an inclusive environment. We take care of people. »
And as much as City Grocery cares about people, the people of Oxford care about City Grocery. People Square Books owners Lisa and Richard Howorth were one of City Grocery’s biggest supporters, those who fell in love with what City Grocery was doing and gave it their all, Currence said.
“It became the place they took everyone to when [Richard] came to town to do a reading or a dedication,” he said. “Everyone was taken to the bar for a welcome drink and an introduction to Oxford.
“It was while sipping coffee on the balcony of Square Books and working on menus and recipes before opening City Grocery that I quickly realized how important this place would be and how important to our success. It is important to develop these relationships because [the Howorths are] the true pioneers of Oxford.
That kind of support and appreciation has helped City Grocery keep going, strong and with no end in sight. Now it’s up to the restaurant team to keep that fire going and give the community what they crave.
“A lot of the future of City Grocery is in the guys running this kitchen,” Currence said. “Nick Schlager and Eric Tate are the masterminds behind the kitchen right now and Jennifer Nelson, who runs the front part of the house, has breathed new life into the grocery store. I think it’s, right now and without , the best the restaurant has ever been.
To learn more about City Grocery, visit the website at www.citygroceryonline.com/city-grocery.