BEHOLD, THE SUMMER FISH FRY
Mississippi chef John Currence shares the cast-iron key to a summer fish fry.
Before John Currence became a James Beard Award winning chef for his growing empire of restaurants in Oxford, Mississippi, his first real exposure to the state’s unofficial seafood, catfish, was actually across the southern border, in his native Louisiana.
“We grew up riding out to a little place outside of New Orleans called Middendorf’s that’s now been around for almost 90 years,” says Currence. “It’s literally in the middle of a swamp on the side of Interstate 55. When I was a kid, it had a little defunct gas station next door where inside they kept alligators and turtles and all this stuff we’d go and look at while trains were coming and going on a track that ran from New Orleans to Memphis right behind the restaurant. That’s where we’d go and eat catfish and coleslaw and green onions and hush puppies. It was an absolute delight.”
In the back kitchen, the Middendorf cooks slice catfish filets in half, dip them in cornmeal batter, and flash-fry them into a paper-thin, crackling-esque delicacy.
“This was in the days of hidden kitchens, but I’m pretty sure they use deep fryers,” says Currence. “The place is massive, and when you’re cooking for a thousand people, you’d have to have a hundred burners going at the same time otherwise.”
At Currence’s own Oxford restaurants, like City Grocery, Bouré, and Snackbar, he both deep fries and pan-roasts catfish, even slow cooking it in his own take on courtbullion that dates back to his earliest kitchen gig on a Louisiana tugboat. But today, at home, “I’m always going to cook in a cast iron,” he says. “I don’t even own a countertop fryer.”
When it comes to frying fish in a cast-iron pan, it boils down to one thing: heat.
“The wonderful thing about cooking with cast iron, particularly frying, is that you’ve got such an incredible mass of steel—you have the ability to slowly bring your oil to a specific temperature, to adjust your flame, and to hold that heat well,” says Currence.
And perhaps most important is the hot surface contact between the pan and the protein that provides extra caramelization (aka that golden brown color) and texture (the good stuff: crispiness and crunch) to the exterior of the fish, whereas with a deep fryer, the filets are simply suspended in oil.
“That’s the most deeply significant part,” says Currence. “In a deep fryer, you don’t have that contact. You’re basically boiling in oil, your protein is just floating in there, and one of the greater issues is that you can overload your fryer, which drops the temperature too quickly. As the heat is trying to recover, your food is just sitting there, absorbing the oil, which is what makes fried food greasy.”
Cool fish will immediately reduce the oil’s heat, which is another reason why temperature is imperative, should you want to save yourself from slick fingers. “At the same time, if it’s too hot, you can overcook the outside before the inside of the fish is finished,” says Currence. “It’s a delicate balance.”
After filling a cast-iron pan halfway with a simple blended vegetable oil, he finds the sweet spot to be between 375 and 390 degrees.
Luckily, technology can help the process. “Having done this as long as I have, I can look at the surface of the oil in a pan, fleck some water on it, and know when it’s ready to go,” says Currence. “But, in order to be better safe than sorry, throw a thermometer in so you know right when you hit 375.”
He lets his cornmealed filets sit in the pan until they’re fully cooked on one side, then flips them with a spatula, frying them in total for about one minute per ounce of fish. Aim toward undercooked over burnt-to-hell, he says, as you can always throw a rare filet back in the oil for a few seconds longer.
Catfish done right—crisp, tender filets of fish that taste like a hot July afternoon—is key to changing the seafood’s perception as a muddy, poor-quality fish. And for that, he also supports local farmers by sourcing from sustainable aquaculture operations that have become a vital part of the Mississippi economy, like Simmons in Yazoo City.
“I’ll put fresh catfish from them that I cook up against just about any piece of fish you can put it in front of me,” he says.
And when he has the time on his nights off, he tries to find himself at Taylor Grocery, the last true-blue catfish joint of Lafayette County, located just 10 miles down the road from his restaurants, with shades of the old Middendorf’s from Currence’s youth.
Yep, they use a deep fryer, but that’s beside the point.
“Catfish is a staple, an everyman’s food,” he says. “It brings people together.”
About Chef John Currence
Born and raised in New Orleans, LA, John Currence grew up in the kitchen. The child of two globe trotters, the Currence family dinner table always saw an eclectic array of cuisines. This, combined with Currence’s own time spent hunting and fishing in Southern Louisiana, helped shape the would-be-chef’s palate, and eventually, his own style of cooking.
Currence held his first cooking job was while working offshore as a deckhand
on a tugboat in the Gulf of Mexico, though it wasn’t until he attended school at UNC, that he took on his first restaurant position, washing dishes at Bill Neal’s James Beard Award winning American classic, Crook’s Corner. Currence’s immediate fascination with the business prompted several supplemental jobs (baking bread at an Italian restaurant, butcher shop at a local grocery store,
cutting salmon and bluefish at a local smokehouse). He worked his way up through the Crook’s kitchen and after three years, Currence returned to New Orleans at the behest of a high school friend, Larkin Selman, to open Gautreau’s, where he worked as Selman’s sous chef. After several years, Currence moved on to the Brennan family of restaurants to help open Bacco, before finally settling in Oxford in 1992 to open what would become one of the city’s most prolific restaurants, City Grocery. Today, City Grocery Restaurant Group has expanded to open an array of innovative concepts, including City Grocery Catering Company, Bouré, Snackbar, and the multi-outpost breakfast behemoth, Big Bad Breakfast.
In 1998, Currence was named both Restaurateur of The Year and Chef of The Year by the Mississippi Restaurant Association, and in 2006, won the Southern Foodways Alliance Guardian of Tradition Award, bestowed upon those chefs and restauranteurs responsible for preserving the traditions of Southern cuisine. In 2008 Chef Currence one the Great American Seafood Cookoff in New Orleans, and a year later, received his greatest honor, when he was awarded the James Beard Foundation title of Best Chef of the South.
In addition to helming his restaurant projects, John Currence is an avid outdoorsman who enjoys bird hunting fishing and golf among other things. He is a contributing editor for Garden & Gun magazine, and is active in the local community, having served as chairman and president of the Mississippi Restaurant Association and
president of the Yoknapatapha Arts Council. He is also actively involved with St. Jude Children’s Hospital, Memphis Ballet, Lafayette County Animal Shelter and is a sitting member of the SFA Board of Directors, for which he has served as culinary director from its inception in 1996.