Oxford Chef John Currence, creator of acclaimed restaurants such as City Grocery and Big Bad Breakfast, is regarded as an innovator in the restaurant industry.
While the famed chef is most known for his bold style of cooking, he has recently made national news for his bold statements on the importance of acceptance and equality in the state he calls home.
On Friday, Currence and fellow Southern chefs Art Smith and Kelly English will host the first-ever Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table in New York City on the eve of 35th annual Mississippi Picnic held in Central Park.
The evening will feature several celebrity chefs who will join forces in opposing Mississippi’s recently passed Religious Freedom Act, a controversial bill that could allow state residents to sue over laws they say place a substantial burden on their religious practices.
While supporters of the bill maintain the law is necessary to secure first amendment rights and protect religious freedoms, opponents say it could be used to discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community.
“I’m furious,” Currence said. “I don’t like the way that Mississippi is perceived, because I know the quality of people who live here. We give ourselves over to a vocal minority who perpetuates a negative stereotype about the state. It is paramount to the future of Mississippi that we move forward, that we break free of the shackles of our history and of the small mindedness of a very small amount of people.”
Currence said that for the past several summers he has participated in dining events with City Grit, the venue of the dinner, around the time of the Mississippi Picnic.
This year, however, with the grand opening of his new Big Bad Breakfast location in Birmingham, it appeared as though a dinner would be impossible to execute. That was until he caught news that the potentially discriminatory bill had been passed.
“I was just spewing venom, I was so mad, because this was a Thursday afternoon, and the law had just been signed,” Currence said. “ It had been passed on Tuesday and signed on Wednesday.
“Just sort of off the cuff, I said all right about the City Grit event and maybe not going, and I went, ‘Wait a minute. Let’s go. Let’s go and let’s do it at the same time as the block party, and just do a big gay dinner, and poke a stick in their eye.’”
What began as an angry reaction quickly evolved into a reality. As time progressed, more and more chefs became interested in contributing their talents to the dinner.
Slowly but surely, Currence recruited an army of culinary superheroes to support the Mississippi LGBTQ community.
Chef Jamie Bissonnette, 2014 James Beard award winner in the category of Best Chef in the Northeast, will provide guests with their first taste of Southern-inspired appetizer dishes.
The dinner will proceed with the first plated dish prepared by Southern food giants, Virginia Willis and Bill Smith, that Currence describes as an “insanely refined and delicious” seafood stew that will be a culinary cross between coastal Georgia and North Carolina.
Food Network celebrity chef Aarón Sánchez will work with Currence to prepare a quail dish, marinated and grilled with roasted beets and rose petal vinaigrette. Refried black-eyed peas with saffron rice, fire roasted onion and pepper relish on top – a Southern nod to Mexico.
Continuing with the Southern theme, Chefs Smith and English will provide a Deep South rabbit and dumplings dish, drawing culinary influence from Louisiana and Mississippi.
The meal will conclude with an ambrosia-inspired fruit salad sundae provided by pastry chef Dwayne Ingraham and Bryan Petroff and Doug Quint, founders of New York’s own Big Gay Ice Cream Shop. Currence said the initial concept for this dessert was a joke.
“The first thing that Kelly and I said when were going to do the meal was, ‘We need to make this totally campy, and have the courses be stuff like fruit salad,’” Currence said. “When Bryan (Petroff) and Doug (Quint) from Big Gay Ice Cream heard that, they were like, ‘We’re totally stealing that. We’re doing a fruit salad sundae.’”
With an all-star crew of talented chefs, it’s no surprise that tickets for the dinner sold out in a matter a minutes.
“We’ve received nothing but positive feedback,” Currence said. “It’s very nice, but frankly it’s very easy. We’re on the right side of this thing. This is about putting Mississippi in a positive light. There’s nothing positive about discrimination. It is an ugly, terrible, awful place to be, and there are some of us who will not stand for it. If we’re here we can’t prosper in that kind of environment.”
On May 10, Gov. Phil Bryant delivered the commencement address to The University of Mississippi’s graduating class, an event that also sparked opposition exhibited by students and faculty.
Currence said the night before the governor’s speech, the two shared a conversation in which he invited Bryant to attend the dinner.
“We can’t imagine anything that could possibly look better than him being at this dinner, and no pun intended, holding hands with us just to telegraph the message to the world that as the senior officer in the state, you know he’s absolutely not going to be part of anything that would suggest the legality of discrimination,” Currence said. “There’s a chair with his name on it at the corner of Mott and Prince.”
The chef’s ultimate goal is for this dinner to light a fire conversation within the state, and that Mississippians will begin to take issues of human rights, acceptance and inclusion more seriously.
“This is all part of a greater conversation,” Currence said. “It’s difficult at times because this conversation pushes people’s buttons, it pushes into areas that are not comfortable for them, because you have to say things that people don’t want to hear.
“I’m approaching a half century, and having spent almost half of my life in Mississippi, I consider myself a Mississippian at this point, and desperately want to be part of the generation that leads the state out of the dark and leads it into a place where it is celebrated for being as wonderful as it is.
Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond to requests for an interview about the Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Table.