This story first posted in Indy Week.
Chef John Currence’s first cookbook is both badass autobiography and an affectionate embrace of his adopted home of Oxford, Miss. But his first restaurant job as a cook, and the place he reveres for launching his career, is Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill.
“Honestly, I had hoped we’d wrap up the tour with a big event there,” says Currence, whose new Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey will be celebrated with receptions on Sunday at The Garden Terrace at Fearrington and Monday at Joule Coffee in Raleigh. (See details below.)
“I'm certainly going to pop myself up to the bar and hug (owner) Gene Hamer and (chef) Bill Smith around the neck. Bill and I never worked together but he’s as much of an influence as anyone else,” says Currence, who attended UNC in the early 1980s. “We’ve always been very good friends. He was one of the few people who used to come see our awful-as-shit band play. He always showed up, which of course endeared him to me to no end.”
It’s a different Bill—Crook’s original chef, Bill Neal—who looms large in the book. While in college, Currence worked in the small kitchen alongside Neal, who is often credited with sparking national interest in authentic Southern cuisine. Neal died in 1991 at age 41, just six years after his Southern Cooking was published by UNC Press and his food was celebrated in The New York Times by Craig Claiborne.
Neal also was known for his irascibility. In the summer of 2003, Times writer R.W. Apple shared an anecdote about his legendary temper in a story about a gala dinner celebrating the late chef’s legacy at the James Beard House in New York.
“Bill loved to create tension, probably to push us,” Robert Sehling, a former Crook’s cook who is chef/owner at Charleston’s Hominy Grill, told Apple. “It got wild sometimes. I've seen people hurl coffee mugs at him.”
One of those people was John Currence.
“I really do hate the fact, more than just about anything, that the last time I saw him it was very unpleasant,” Currence says. “It was an ugly and unnecessary argument.”
The dispute had been simmering for days. Currence had been unexpectedly tasked with turning two large bags of acorn squash into soup that would be a featured dish. The story is referenced in the introduction to the recipe for Roasted Acorn Squash Bisque. What the anecdote omits is that Neal responded to the young cook’s call for feedback with fury.
“It was my first special and I wanted it to be profound and exceptional,” Currence recalls. “I thought it was something I’d be proud to serve, but it was missing something. I called Bill at home and asked what he would pair with it. There was this pause and all of a sudden this barrage of expletives—a tirade like I’d never heard.”
Currence, who casually drops expletives into his own conversation (his Twitter handle is @BigBadChef), managed to hold his tongue. The next day he arrived before his shift to clear the air, but Neal was in a dark mood because someone left a dog’s water bowl outside of the restaurant. “As soon as I walked in, he started screaming at me again,” he recalls. “I threw a full cup of coffee at him and walked out.”
Despite this dispute, Neal is acknowledged as a primary mentor in Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. It may not be as evident to readers outside of the Triangle, but he is cited more times than any other chef for his lasting influence.
“Bill does still play a role in my thought process,” says Currence. “It’s hard to be in a kitchen and not be reminded of him.”
Many North Carolina references are in the book, including a nod to former Magnolia Grill Chef Ben Barker, “the big brother I never had,” in the recipe for homemade Worchester sauce. In the notes to his Pimento Cheese Fritters, he declares that Chef Ashley Christensen’s pimento cheese is “transcendent.”
Christensen, who is working on her own debut cookbook, has high praise for Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey.
“It’s a yearbook of sorts, chronicling a life of honesty, hard work and joy in the kitchen,” she says. “John is respectful of tradition, yet still inviting to evolution and innovation at the stoves. His food belongs to him, and to all of the people and personalities—from cooks, to critics, to guests—who have been a part of shaping it.
“Even if John wasn’t one of my closest friends, I’d feel like I’d known him all of my life after reading this book,” she adds. “That’s pretty special.”
Cooks & Books: Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey Reception
The Garden Terrace at Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
Sunday, Nov. 24, 3 p.m.
Reception including food, autographed book, tax and gratuity: $85
‘Snacks with Snack’: Reception hosted by Ashley Christensen
Joule Coffee, 223 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh
Monday, Nov. 25, 5:30 p.m.
Reception including food and cocktail punches from Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey;
copies of the book will be available for sale: $35