If you run a mini-empire of restaurants called Big Bad Breakfast, you’re automatically in the running to be Extra Crispy’s Best Breakfast Chef of the Year. If you also publish a cookbook entitled Big Bad Breakfast: The Most Important Book of the Day, the honor is clinched. Chef John Currence has won all manner of accolades, including a James Beard Award for his work at his flagship fine-dining restaurant City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi—and he does a bang-up job at Boure, Snackbar, and Fat Eddie’s Lamar Lounge to boot. But breakfast is where he truly rises up and shines.
Nearly nine years after BBB opened its doors in Oxford, lines still snake out for epic waits at the original location and a second one in Birmingham, Alabama. Diners are happy to cool their heels and get their fill of Currence’s legendary Pel “Egg” Can Brief (two eggs soft poached on a toasted English muffin with country ham and hollandaise, served with a side of grits or home fries), The Awesome (called The Hospitable in the Bham location—it’s anything on the menu you want, stuffed into an omelet), and other amped-up a.m. plates. For those who can’t hack the lines or swing the drive, the cookbook offers up Currence’s 10 Commandments of Breakfast (“Thou shalt slather with butter.”), and recipes for crawfish cakes, sausage cinnamon rolls, and a life-changing sausage gravy.
In a year of seemingly endless acai and grain bowls, unicorn-hued Instagram bait, and an infinite ocean of nut milk, Currence’s approach to the morning meal feels like glorious, full-fat, real food anarchy, and that’s why he gets the nod for Best Breakfast Chef of 2016. Extra Crispy shared the news with him over the phone while he was wrapping up his Christmas shopping.
Extra Crispy: What makes breakfast such a special meal for you?
John Currence: Breakfast is a happy meal. Everybody's gotta get their coffee in them or whatever that thing is—a doughnut hole or something—to throw into the abyss that is the empty stomach in the morning. Nobody ever broke up with their boyfriend or their girlfriend over breakfast; it's a joyful time, the food is playful. All bets are off for most people. They're not as bogged down in dietary restrictions and concerns and whatnot.
So are people free to throw caution to the wind at breakfast?
I remember having a conversation with [my wife] Bess one morning when I was trying to feed [our daughter] Mamie a piece of birthday cake and Bess was like, "Oh my god! What are you doing? You can't give the baby cake for breakfast!" I said, "Why not?"
She said, "You just can't do it!" I said, "Wait a minute. Let's examine the ingredients in birthday cake and then examine the ingredients in pancakes. They're the exact same thing except you fry the pancakes in butter so who's wrong here?" All I could get was, "Well played. Good point. Go ahead."
How much has changed in the nearly nine years that Big Bad Breakfast has been open, and did you expect to be around this long?
The menu morphed slowly over the years—mostly due to specials—and a significant portion of it remains from the original opening. I don't ever get to claim having been the first person to something, but if you read the introduction to the cookbook, I tell a story about our opening morning. In this whirling vortex of trying to get ready for service, I was standing, staring out into space, Bess was like, “What the hell are you doing?” And I said, “You understand that this is the place that's gonna put us on the map.”
Bess said, “What are you talking about? Look at all the accolades you've gotten. You've been written about in every magazine." I said, "Nonono, nobody's done this before. We're the first ones to do this.”
I knew in 2008 when we opened that breakfast was totally underserved. Chefs are so aggressively hunting for the next thing that hasn't been played with yet. Breakfast was a slam dunk. I knew that it was coming, I knew that I needed to get that book done and out there because all of a sudden we were going to see piles and piles of books happening about breakfast, magazines getting all over it.
John Currence stopped by Extra Crispy HQ to make breakfast dishes inspired by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
Well, you are doing this interview with a breakfast-centric website.
Correct! Greatness begets greatness.
What do you predict for breakfast trends in 2017?
There's going to be continued interest in it. We're going to see more well-known chefs really involving themselves in that service. The food cost is appealing. I think the reason most chefs have stayed out of it is because we are these nocturnal creatures. What sort of derelicts are going to be willing to work those hours? Is your phone going to constantly be ringing because the dishwasher hasn't shown up? is sort of the fallback concern, but I think we're going to see more people getting involved.
There's also going to be deeper exploration of dishes. The whole thing about the egg plate as the de facto American breakfast—it doesn't exist anywhere else in the world and it's oddly arbitrary. The fun thing for us at Big Bad Breakfast is that we just busted the mold. You can serve anything for breakfast. All you have to do is just throw an egg on top. All of a sudden it becomes breakfast.