As another day ends outside Fisher’s at Orange Beach Marina, inside, things are picking up. The cooks work in a row, some assigned one repetitive task in the formation of a dish, others there to simply move the dish from one cook to the next. The result is a culinary conveyor belt of sorts, which ends at the scrutinizing eye of the chef responsible for bringing the dish to Orange Beach.
With this particular dish, that chef is John Currence, owner of the Oxford, Mississippi, culinary landmark City Grocery. Currence inspects the dish, polishes the rim of the plate and nods his approval. Beside him, Fisher’s executive chef Bill Briand coordinates the table service, directing dishes to be served in the dining room from left to right. As the nearly 100 diners on this July evening finish one of their five courses, their plates are gradually gathered and new glasses of wine are poured, from the left of the room to the right, and another course is seamlessly delivered.
At this point, Briand and his team at Fisher’s have the Southern Grace Dinners down to something of a science. While this is most easily recognized in the smooth mechanics of the night itself, the months of planning and preparation are no less impressive. Or, as Briand says, “After doing six of these a year for seven years, we’re getting pretty good at it.”
When Briand invited Currence and a handful of chefs from the City Grocery Restaurant Group to participate in the Southern Grace Dinners, Currence was both eager to finally visit Fisher’s and to spend meaningful time with Briand. Though the pair have worked together at events such as Billy Reid’s Shindig in Florence, Alabama, and the Southern Foodways Alliance Summer Symposium, such gatherings often offer little downtime for socialization. Briand, a four-time James Beard Award semifinalist, wanted to change that.
“We started doing these dinners seven years ago when we opened,” Briand says, “and the thought was to do something different, you know, bring another restaurant in. It’s something new and exciting for our guests, and our team gets to see somebody else’s food, how people cook things and how different flavors work. It’s really all about teaching the staff and kitchen crew what these chefs have done and why they’ve become successful. To be able to stop in the middle of the summer and do something fresh and different and exciting and to be able to learn something is really great.”
Since the inception, the Southern Grace Dinners have featured some of the country’s best chefs, with an aim to “toast the coast and celebrate the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico.” The Thursday night events usually feature two to four chefs who have been asked to create a menu reflecting their culinary sensibilities. Briand and his team handle the rest, prepping as much as possible to make the experience smooth and hassle-free for his visiting chefs. “Dinners like this are kind of stressful sometimes,” Briand says. “I’ve been through it enough to make sure that we have more than what they ask for. If they need shrimp peeled and deveined, if they need the crab picked, if they need all these vegetables cut, it’s all done before they get there.”
“They could not have been any more ready for us,” Currence says. “I’ve been traveling and doing these events for over 30 years now. As far as taking care of us, soup to nuts, it’s in the top few events I’ve ever done.”
The Chefs of Oxford
It’d be hard to talk about Southern food without talking about John Currence. Although this Southern Grace Dinner marked his first visit to Fisher’s, Currence, a New Orleans native, is no stranger to coastal cooking. The morning after his high school graduation, he arrived at a Louisiana dock to start his summer job as a deckhand on a light, ocean-going tugboat.
“Congratulations, son,” the captain told Currence, “you’re the cook.” When the 18-year-old protested that he didn’t know anything about preparing food, the captain assured him that he’d be cooking for a bunch of Cajuns, “so as long as you don’t screw up the coffee or the pot of rice, they ain’t worried about anything else.” The captain provided Currence with a copy of “The Joy of Cooking,” and a culinary career was launched.
“I didn’t end up at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico at the end of summer, so it was like, ‘I guess I’m OK at this,’” he remembers with a laugh.
Since settling in Oxford in 1992 and opening City Grocery in a late 19th-century livery stable, Currence has raked in honors such as a Southern Foodways Alliance Guardian of Tradition Award (he’s also the SFA’s culinary director) and the 2009 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: South. City Grocery Restaurant Group has since seen a number of openings, including Nacho Mama’s, Kalo’s, Ajax Diner, City Grocery Catering Company, Bouré, Big Bad Breakfast and Snackbar.
As with every Southern Grace Dinner, Currence and his team were given the freedom to develop the night’s menu of four appetizers and five courses, choosing dishes that showcased each chef’s establishment while also seeking to use the best ingredients Orange Beach has to offer. Aside from Currence, chef Vishwesh Bhatt represented Snackbar, chef Rusty Anderson represented Big Bad Breakfast and chef Ralph Taylor represented City Grocery.
“They come up with the menu to start,” Briand explains, “then I do my best to help them through proteins and seafood and stuff like that. It’s really fun because we have an abundance of great seafood down here, so I call all my heavy hitters to find the best of the best.”
As each chef prepared one appetizer and one main dish, Currence chose a lemon poached shrimp appetizer and a main dish of flounder paupiettes with Parmesan rice grits. “For me, it’s an absolute joy to travel somewhere and know I can get the ingredients I want,” Currence says. “There’s something so elemental about a perfectly boiled shrimp with a good remoulade,” he adds, and the paupiettes are “a take on the stuffed flounder that I grew up with.”
Chef Vishwesh Bhatt echoes Currence’s sentiment about his trip to Orange Beach. “I can’t tell you how wonderful the experience has been,” he says. “The staff at Fisher’s was so prepared that there was actually very little work for us to do when we got there.”
Bhatt, a five-time James Beard Award nominee and winner of the 2019 James Beard award for Best Chef: South, is the executive chef at Snackbar, an Oxford, Mississippi, creation of the City Grocery Restaurant Group.
“We like to call Snackbar ‘Oxford’s living room,’” Bhatt says. “The experience of eating there is about friends and family kind of hanging out and sharing.”
A native of Gujarat, India, Bhatt moved to America at the age of 17 and discovered cooking while in graduate school at Ole Miss. “I started cooking for friends and for beer money,” Bhatt says. He also discovered Currence and City Grocery, where he eventually joined the kitchen staff. Fast-forward two decades, and he was placed at the helm of the newly formed Snackbar.
For his appetizer, Bhatt prepared a smoked redfish spread, served with Alabama fire crackers and pickled celery, “a nod to beach culture and eating on the boat.” His main dish — grilled jumbo shrimp with sweet corn, tomato and okra salad and Tabasco curry leaf vinaigrette — Bhatt describes as a “combination referencing my roots but still very Southern.”
The staff at Fisher’s, Bhatt emphasizes, “didn’t miss a beat,” in spite of the challenges presented by the coronavirus. “There was some hesitation initially about traveling, but once we got there, everything was set up so nicely. Everyone went above and beyond the protocols … they made any hesitation disappear really quick.”
Though, at the time, masks in the kitchen weren’t required by the state of Alabama, Briand’s team wore face masks and gloves to accommodate the Mississippi chefs, whose state did have such a mandate. Hors d’oeuvres were served outdoors to allow for better distancing, and diners were given the option of eating the entire meal outside, overlooking the marina.
And luckily for the Oxford chefs, Briand’s tradition of taking his visitors out on a boat trip, the day after the dinner, proceeded as usual. “That’s kind of the way we bribe the chefs,” Briand jokes. “When you come out of that marina and head out, people don’t really understand how beautiful Robinson Island and the Perdido Pass are.
“We wanted to make this more of a vacation for the chefs. Events are fun, but they’re work. We’ve always tried to make it a different style. Fisher’s tries to do everything a little bit differently than everybody else, and we’ve been successful in that.”
But most of all, events such as Southern Grace Dinners provide a much-needed respite for diners and chefs alike.
“As chefs, what we want to do is have a dining room full of people enjoying a nice meal and sharing stories, and you miss that. We haven’t been able to do that, and we don’t know when we’ll be able to do it again. So even to have that brief couple of hours was super special,” Bhatt says.
Briand adds, “I hope it shows that the world isn’t completely going to change. As chefs and as restaurants, we’re fighting an uphill battle to get back to the way it used to be, and I think that was the first little breath of, ‘Hey, we can still do things, we can still see people, we can still have chef dinners, and we’re going to continue to have more of them as we fight this battle.’ We pray that we can get back to the way that restaurants were, and I think that was great for the staff to see. So it was like a breath of fresh air and it was also like, ‘Hey guys, there is a light at end of this tunnel somewhere.’”