Big Bad Breakfast
By John Currence
Suzy Chase: You're the 2009 James Beard Award Winner for best chef in the South, and according to the New York Times, you're the best known chef in Mississippi. While working on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, did you know way back then that you wanted to be a chef and restaurateur?
John Currence: I did not. The job as cook on that tugboat came as a complete surprise actually. When I arrived for my first day of work on the boat, the captain informed me that by virtue of the fact that I was the lowest man on the totem pole, that also meant that I was the cook. That's how I was thrown into it. I had an incredible time that summer just working in this tiny little tugboat galley kitchen, cooking for these guys. Basically having to learn to swim on my own. When I told the captain that I really didn't know, I'd never cooked before in a restaurant situation. I'd spent time in kitchens with my parents and grandparents and what have you.
He said, "Look, this is not that big a deal. You're cooking for a bunch of Cajuns and as long as you don't mess up the coffee and rice, everything else is an afterthought. Here's a copy of The Joy of Cooking and when pork chops come in with the grocery, just look in the back of the book in the index for a pork chop recipe and cook one you like. Put if over the rice and everything will be fine." There it as, that was my first job. I enjoyed it. It certainly lit a fire, but by no means did I go away from that going, "I'm ready to chase Paul Bocuse."
Suzy Chase: In Big Bad Breakfast, you have 10 commandments of breakfast. The ninth commandment is thou shall not overcook. For all of us home cooks, how do we make perfectly scrambled eggs, in a nutshell?
John Currence: Well, you start a cold pan with some clarified butter. And there's an explanation in there for how to clarify butter. When you do that you're basically melting butter slowly so that you separate the three parts. Butter is made up of butter fat, milk solids, and water. When you melt it, those three things separate immediately. Your water will basically boil out or evaporate, and the milk solids are the little white, it is a white solid that drops out of the butter to the bottom of the pan. When you cook butter and it blackens in the pan on high heat, that's actually those milk solids burning, so that when it separates and you ladle the butter fat off the top, you have this clear oil fat for frying.
It burns at a much higher temperature than butter naturally does. The milk solids cause things to stick, so you really want to use clarified butter, one, in a cold pan too. And start that ladle, a tablespoon or two of oil or butter fat just over a medium flame. Just let it begin to warm up about 30 or 45 seconds. And then you scramble your eggs and just make sure that you scramble your eggs really well. Season them with salt and pepper and for every egg add about three-quarters of a tablespoon of milk.
Suzy Chase: What does the milk do?
John Currence: The milk just stretches a little bit and helps in mixing the egg. You just go immediately into the pan. I like a wet scramble. To me, I do understand anybody who wants a yolk cooked hard.
Suzy Chase: Right.
John Currence: My wife's one of those people. It's a dead spot in our marriage. When we cook, and I say cook the eggs wet, it's not as it they're running all over the plate when we finish them. You want to cook them until the curds are just barely finished and they still have a nice sheen and they still look very moist when they go onto the plate. To me, those are the perfectly scrambled eggs.
Suzy Chase: Now, can we store clarified butter or do you have to use it and it's a one-shot thing?
John Currence: No, no. You can store it forever.
Suzy Chase: Oh. In the fridge or just out on the counter?
John Currence: I would keep it in the fridge just to be safe.
Suzy Chase: Do you prefer white or black pepper with your eggs?
John Currence: Personally, I prefer black pepper. One of my very dear friends, Ben Barker, who he and his wife had the Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, which was one of the finest restaurants that ever served people food, we had a very simple conversation one time wherein I asked the chef what he wanted in his recipe. And he looked at me and he said, "White pepper is for sissies," and turned around and walked away.
Suzy Chase: There you go. David Chang wrote your forward, and in it he described one of his worst hangovers ever. What was your cure for him?
John Currence: Well, at the time that we opened Big Bad Breakfast, Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles was getting an awful lot of play. I wasn't interested in copying what they were already famous for and following in their footsteps, but I wanted to create something that was a colossal hangover cure in general that would just, I thought, appeal to college students. It would be one of those things that we would be known for being ridiculous. We came up with this dish called the Pylon. It's P-Y-L-O-N but it is a double entendre because we are piling on ingredients in this dish like crazy. We took a crispy Belgian waffle, which is a little bit sweet in nature, and we spread that with Tabasco mayonnaise and yellow mustard, and then take a griddled hot dog or two that we almost blacken on the flat top, on the flat sides, and slice that up. And then top that with chili, slaw, jalapeno peppers, pickle relish, onions, and crumbled oyster crackers.
Suzy Chase: Oh my god.
John Currence: To finish it. It really is one of the most beautiful things in the entire world. Oh, cheese, of course. I've forgotten cheese.
Suzy Chase: Oh yes, the cheese.
John Currence: The real icing on the cake. It is, it's absolutely wonderful. You have all these flavors of a hot dog, but then you get the sweet waffle as a bun instead of a hot dog bun. You can eat it with a giant spoon. I did watch it, in that day, bring Dave back from the dead.
Suzy Chase: Life changing.
John Currence: Or life saving.
Suzy Chase: Yes. Talk a little bit about pancakes, waffles, and crepes, and why you think that chapter could be called The Brutally Cruel Deception of Breakfast.
John Currence: I think pancakes always seem like a great idea. I guess it's a larger version of doughnuts, in my mind. Not as much for kids, but I think really adults, pancakes are one of those things that every once in a while you end up at a breakfast place going, "Man, how about a stack of pancakes?" And then all of a sudden they arrive and you've got this giant mound of it's basically fried birthday cake.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
John Currence: With no icing, but there's butter and powdered sugar and syrup all over it. You get about three bites in and invariably go, "God I wish I'd just gotten a couple of eggs and a piece of toast. I want this bit of my life's metabolism back."
Suzy Chase: I want to lie down.
John Currence: Right. That's why I tease my way through the opening of that chapter with that story. I don't know. It's a Catholic guilt thing, I guess.
Suzy Chase: Let's talk pimento cheese. You have a recipe for it on page 204. I remember growing up in Kansas in the 70's, and my mom would shove pimento cheese into celery and call it an appetizer. What the heck is pimento cheese and what do you do with it?
John Currence: Well, in the South we consider it a vegetable, it think. It's funny because just my grandmother's generation in particular, and now my mother's generation I think, are highly amused at the fact that we do look at pimento cheese from an academic standpoint now. Something that was just so taken for granted that I think there is this certain segment of the population that said, "You're going to charge me $8 for what exactly?"
Suzy Chase: Right. Remember when it came in that clear jar?
John Currence: Yeah. There's still tubs of it in the grocery store now. It is a foodstuff that we grew up with and took for granted, because it the horribly processed stuff that came out of these tubs, like so many other things from our childhood that chefs have gone back and said, "Well, let's pull this apart and see what happens when we do it ourselves and when we apply more high minded principles and quality ingredients to it." Pimento cheese is really very little more than a blend of a shredded cheese, some mayonnaise, and then usually canned, diced pimentos. Certainly, like gumbo, everybody's mom or grandmother had their own recipe. If I had venture a guess, I've probably made 250 different versions of pimento cheese in the last 25 years.
Suzy Chase: Really?
John Currence: Yeah. It's something that I'm constantly tweaking and you make different ones for different reasons and different price points. We've done everything from making our own cheese and our own mayonnaise and roasting our own peppers, to prepackaged cheese and shredded to the degree that we want it and prepared mayonnaise of a specific variety. While we make, let's say mayonnaise, there's a dozen different ways that we approach mayonnaise, as uber-nerdy as that sounds. There is prepared mayonnaise that I love. Duke's Mayonnaise is the Southern man and woman's go-to, we all rally behind it's the number one best. But Blue Plate Mayonnaise out of New Orleans, Kewpie Mayonnaise, which is a Japanese mayonnaise that I absolutely love. I find a place for all three of those in our work. It's very easy for there to be that many different combinations.
Suzy Chase: What's your favorite thing to do with pimento cheese?
John Currence: I don't know. It's really, really, really good on a hamburger, I'll say. But it's absolutely abysmal on a grilled cheese. It's very strange.
Suzy Chase: That is interesting. Because you'd think it would melt perfectly and be the best consistency.
John Currence: Yeah. But it really doesn't because with the mayonnaise in it, the emulsion in the mayonnaise breaks from the heat and so it becomes this broken mess, at best.
Suzy Chase: Oh.
John Currence: Yeah.
Suzy Chase: You've been very active in politics, leading the protest effort against the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act. I wasn't going to bring up this presidential election until I saw your piece on Extra Crispy, where you made on dish for Hillary and Clinton and one for Donald Trump. What were those dishes and are you actively involved in this election coming up?
John Currence: Well, I'm not as involved as I would like to be. What I would like to say is that I feel like that anybody who is given the opportunity to spend time in the public eye and is an influencer has a certain responsibility to be vocal about doing what's right. We live in a time where, it's funny that I've just gotten done running through downtown Philadelphia and I've been thinking about this as I run past Freedom Hall, what the founders of our country, who I studied very deeply when I was in college. I studied political science at a small liberal arts college in Virginia. I read all 57 of the Federalist Papers. I feel like I understand what these guys believed in when they signed the Declaration of Independence. We have moved from a such a focused Democracy to this just capitalist experiment gone wrong. We are capitalist evangelists at this point. Self interest has trumped reason and sensibility, I think on both sides of the aisle. I'm a very strange blend of someone who considers themself a fiscal conservative and a social liberal.
I think that it's incumbent on the government to take care of its people. That means we need to look out for their wellbeing and their human rights, education, and healthcare. But at the same time, the United States Government is a business, and it's the worst failed business experiment in capitalist history. There's no accountability and nobody seems to be interested in accountability. If we continue on the track that we're on, it's going to be an absolute catastrophe. We just can't keep this suspension of disbelief. I do try to do and be vocal for the things that I think are right. I don't understand why we're spending so much energy trying to squash the rights of the LGBT community. It just seems to me to be a passionate exercise in ramping up people's fears that the LGBT community are some sort of boogeymen that are going to come and take their children or be the ruination of the country's morality.
It's just a total waste of energy. All this segment of the community wants is to be guaranteed some rights that will allow them to live normal lives. I'm there and I'm going to be there. The bottom line for me is I think that we need a change in this country. I think we desperately need a change when it comes to the executive. But I don't think that anybody as despicable as Donald Trump has proven himself to be over and over and over again, every time he opens his mouth, every time his dumb-ass son opens his mouth and proves that they are just these xenophobic, racist, sexist morons, that that person has the character for once second to lead this country. I'm going to continue to argue for that and forever and ever, until November 8th and beyond.
Suzy Chase: Good for you. On Extra Crispy, what did you make for Donald Trump?
John Currence: I made monkey bread and only because we were able to make a really crude joke about what it looked like on the plate. It is a recipe that I make an argument for using packaged biscuits from the grocery store. The reason being that when we started doing money bread en masse at City Grocery for brunch, we tried every biscuit recipe that we could think of, homemade, and none of them made monkey bread consistency that we were happy with. I ultimately sent someone out to the store to get some giant buttermilk canned biscuits and brought them back, and of course it worked perfectly. The joke was that this was this giant, nutty, sweet thing that on the surface appeared to be good but it was really full of just phony doughy nonsense and that ultimately is just a terrible, terrible choice for you. Where when I made Hillary Clinton a classic fin air omelet, it is the same old thing, but clearly the choice between the two of them, the classic French omelet, while it might not be much of a change from your normal daily routine, it clearly makes more sense.
Suzy Chase: On Sunday I made your recipe for Hillbilly Eggs Hussarde on page 61. What's the history behind this recipe?
John Currence: Oh boy. Now you're testing my memory. I did a lot of research on this and it has to do with a ...
Suzy Chase: Did it start out a Brennan's?
John Currence: Well, I think there's a lot of debate over that. There's a lot of debate over all of these named hollandaise egg preparations. I think Brennan's lays claim to it but I think probably Broussard's lays claim to it as well. There's the Houssard, Sardou, the eggs benedict. I don't think they'll ever get to the bottom of eggs benedict. But you might have to edit this up a little bit.
Suzy Chase: That's fine.
Suzy Chase: Totally. Yeah know what, we can move on. Because I want to talk about how I made it.
John Currence: Okay.
Suzy Chase: My poached eggs and red-eye gravy turned out great, but my hollandaise was a bit lumpy. Is there a trick to perfect hollandaise sauce?
John Currence: Yes. There's lots of tricks to perfect hollandaise.
Suzy Chase: I need them.
John Currence: Well, what you want to do is again, you need to start with some clarified butter. And keep that clarified slightly warm and on the side. Not warm enough that it's hot when you put your finger in it, but it feels like really nice warm, warm, warm bath water. You separate some eggs and put your yolks into a bowl. Start, in sauce pan, about two inches of water that you just want to bring to a simmer. And then I'd say for two sticks of butter you want four egg yolks and a little splash of water in a stainless steel or a nonreactive bowl. And then place that bowl over the simmering water. And you have to, at this point, begin whisking your egg yolks constantly.
Do not want the bottom of the bowl to touch the water that is simmering beneath it, you just want it to be right above that steam that's coming off. And you whisk your eggs until they begin to turn very pale. And they will then from pale go to frothy looking. And then very quickly they will begin to thicken up like a mayonnaise-y consistency. It'll get a nice sheen. And when you drag your whisk through the yolks it will just barely leave a trail. At which point you want to take the yolks off of the water. If you touch the water and the egg yolks begin to scramble, you just need to throw it away and start all over again.
Suzy Chase: I think that's what happened to me.
John Currence: Right.
Suzy Chase: But it tasted really good.
John Currence: It certainly will but it's grainy and lumpy.
Suzy Chase: Yeah.
John Currence: Not pleasant to the tongue. Once you have your cooked custard, you need to get somebody to assist would be best, but you continue whisking the eggs off the fire and then have somebody slowly drizzle the butter in as you whisk. And whisk vigorously until all of the butter is incorporated. And you add a little bit of lemon juice, some salt, a dash or two of Tobasco, I like, and you should have a nice, tight hollandaise sauce.
Suzy Chase: Frankly, I thought this recipe could have also gone in your BFL, Breakfast for Dinner chapter. It was so filling.
John Currence: There are a couple things in there, as I look back over the table of contents, that I know that I could have. You can make argument for different things in different places.
Suzy Chase: What can we expect from you next?
John Currence: Well, we're opening a, with our partners are opening a series of Big Bad Breakfasts in the next year or 18 months. But we're very excited about growing the concept. We're looking at a couple of other projects around the country. There will certainly be another book coming down the pipe. I'm not sure exactly yet what it will be, but I have a lot of fun writing because it gives me the ability to put a lot of those thoughts that I have on paper. While I continue to want to write a chef's narrative, I think it'll probably be another cookbook. It's just a matter of what that will be.
Suzy Chase: Where can we find you on the web?
John Currence: We're at citygroceryonline.com. There's also chefjohncurrence.com. And you can find me in Twitter, @Bigbadchef and Instagram, @johnnysnack.
Suzy Chase: Big Bad Breakfast, the most important book of the day. Thanks, John, for coming on Cookery By The Book Podcast.
John Currence: Thank you for having me, dear. It's been a pleasure.