I’m sipping a cold beer on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, lazing about on a screened-in porch in rural Mississippi. The conversation goes from football to Brazilian forestry camps and then to food. Ah, the conversation always gets back to food, and that’s because I’m surrounded by chefs, who I’ve learned, love to “talk shop” more than just about any other professional I know. These chefs include three winners of the prestigious James Beard Award, one who was recently nominated, and another who will likely win in the next few years. Chefs love to talk about food, and so do I, so I feel right at home on this early November day.
It’s the wind-down time from the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium, held each year in Oxford, Mississippi, and I’m the guest of John and Bess Currence. John, also known as “Johnny Snack” or “Big Bad Chef” is the chef and owner of a handful of restaurants in Oxford, including the fantastic City Grocery. John is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, despite his tough guy appearance, and each year he busts his ass to make sure the 300 or so attendees at the Symposium get fed. He ensures that guest chefs get the support they need, whether it be with manpower, equipment or space. John spearheaded the rebuilding of Willie Mae Seaton’s landmark New Orleans restaurant, the Scotch House. He writes for Garden & Gun, had his home kitchen featured in Saveur, and recently did a Sunday-morning cooking gig on CBS. But the Symposium is over, and after 3 days of being surrounded by chefs and food writers and foodies, the conversation still revolves around food.
It doesn’t hurt that also on the porch is a large group from North Carolina, where John learned his craft. Ben and Karen Barker of Durham’s Magnolia Grill. Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner. Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner. I sit back and enjoy the conversation. I’m not really in a position to add much to the conversation, not being in the industry, but the passion these folks have for their jobs tells me why their restaurants are so successful. They have that essential spark. Quite simply, they love what they do, and they get a thrill hanging out with like-minded folks, sharing stories of what has worked for them, what has not, and, many times, what has been hysterical. Three days of non-stop food talk is not enough. There’s always time for more.
Sharing these stories, usually over a meal or a drink, sometimes in a formal lecture setting, but often not, is what the SFA Symposium is all about. The Symposium brings together chefs and food writers. Brewers and range makers. Makers of candy and ham. Bloggers and publicists. But everyone is there for one reason: to eat and drink and to talk about eating and drinking. This is my kind of symposium. A little bit of intellectual stimulation, a fair share of music, and a shitload of debauchery — or do I mean gluttony? Ah, hell, it’s just a lot of fun.
Many others have written about the details of this year’s Symposium — the top lectures, the best bands, and the kick-ass food — so I’m not going to re-hash those. Instead, I’ll share some of the personal, unpublicized moments of the weekend.
I had the pleasure of working with Sean Wilson of Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery, serving some of their excellent beers, while dressed as a mad scientist. Folks kept thinking I worked at Fullsteam, as I got emails and tweets telling me how much they loved “my” beer. Yeah, the Scuppernong Sparkling Ale, Sweet Potato Ale, Rocket Science IPA, and Fullsteam Carolina Common were all fantastic. And who knows, maybe I’ll change careers? One final note: trading beer that doesn’t belong to you for catfish hot out of the fryer is a fair swap any day.
Lynn Hewlitt, owner of Taylor Grocery, the temple of fried catfish, told me to “Be a man” when I said that the torrential downpour was making the road to Taylor a bit scary. He may have used the word, “pussy,” too, but I’ve suppressed that thought.
John Currence actually used the words, “asymptotic” and “synapse” within a 5 minute span. Not your typical chef-speak.
Seattle-based food writer Leslie Kelly dressed as Elvis, dancing in the streets to “A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action.”
Dale Reed, co-author of the quintessential guide to North Carolina barbecue, “Holy Smoke,” sipping from two cups of beer, trying to decide which one she prefers.
New Orleans restaurant critic Brett Anderson telling the crowd as he tears up in retelling his story about how music helped pull him through the aftermath of Katrina, “I cry at weddings of people I do not know.”
A New York chef friend of mine, whom I shall not name, hugging me. And then hugging me again 5 minutes later. And then a third time. And a fourth. He’s a real friendly guy, particularly when bourbon is involved.
Ann Cashion of DC’s Johnny’s Half Shell dressed as a piece of candy corn. Simple and brilliant.
My dear friend Ashley Christensen will eat and drink anything put in front of her. Except for licorice-flavored cocktails. The woman actually has a gastronomic flaw.
I learned that I really did like livermush, particularly when made by Phoebe Lawless, sliced thinly, fried up, and served on white bread with hot mustard.
Ben Barker shared the story of how his parents sent him as a teenager to work at a logging camp in the Brazilian rain forest. Ben must have been very bad as a young man.
There were so many stories, and some of them might get me hurt if I were to re-tell them here. But that’s the beauty of the SFA. There are no prima donnas. There’s not a lot of icon-worshiping (except for maybe Allan Benton and David Chang hanging out together). It really doesn’t matter if you’re in the industry or not, as even as a food geek like me, who occasionally writes about food, is welcome. And those chefs have no problem talking about their craft with you. In fact, they wouldn’t have it any other way.