Earlier this week, a restaurant builder restoring a riverside warehouse in Old Town Alexandria announced that he’d secured a rare building block for the project: a James Beard-award winning chef.
John Currence, a New Orleans native who rose to prominence by founding City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi, has agreed to serve as the chef de cuisine and operator at the Mill at 10 Duke, a two-piece casual restaurant and market that’s expected to open by October 2021.
Developer Murray Bonitt recruited Currence to oversee a 6,400-square-foot space that was formerly used as coopers shop supplying barrels for the Alexandria Flour Company. Before that, it was a mess house feeding Union troops during the Civil War. The renovation includes a ground floor with a “casual tavern feel” and a second level with an open kitchen, communal tables, an indoor fire pit, and a bar that opens to a balcony. A market component will sell grab-and-go items, coffee, beer, and wine.
Currence tells Eater that he plans to take a “fact-finding” mission to Alexandria in the coming weeks so he and his new partners can discuss plans for the restaurant and market at the Mill. Although he has no previous relationship with Bonitt, he says he likes the space and the vision for the project.
“What attracted me to them is they used words like honesty and character when discussing what they want to bring into the food,” Currence says.
The chef says French Creole and Cajun influences play a part in all his food but don’t define his cooking. He won’t know what he plans to bring to Northern Virginia until he spends some time with Bonitt.
“I’m not really going to know anything until I can look my partner squarely in the eye and have an in-depth conversation with them bout what their vision is first,” he says. “I won’t for a second presume to say that I know what to do in Alexandria, Virginia, get out of my way.”
Since opening City Grocery in 1992, Currence has caught the eye of critics and customers for cerebral Southern cooking that garnered him a Beard award for Best Chef: South, in 2009, and has attracted attention from writers like John Grisham, Wright Thompson, and Anthony Bourdain. The current menu features items ranging from a pickled shrimp tostada and an adobo stewed chicken to grilled pork chops or a blackened catfish with black eyed pea grits and collard greens.
Currence’s restaurant group has grown to include three other restaurants in Oxford, including Snackbar, Bouré, and Big Bad Breakfast. This year Snackbar chef Vishwesh Bhat won his own Beard Award for Best Chef: South. Meanwhile, Big Bad Breakfast has expanded locations Charleston, Nashville, Alabama, and Florida.
Currence has no ownership stake in the Virginia project, but he has history in the state. He studied classic American philosophy and English at Hampden-Sydney in Farmville, Virginia. When he first opened City Grocery, he served a crab cake modeled after one he ate at a girlfriend’s house when he was a freshman and sophomore in college. He also attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he got one of his first cooking jobs at Crook’s Corner, the Southern kitchen widely credited with bringing shrimp and grits into restaurants.
Returning to Virginia also appeals to Currence from a political perspective.
“The fact that we are entering the D.C. area and part of the voice for change — as odd as that sounds — that’s part of it as well,” he says. “Food is it seems like the sole commonality that the ends of the spectrum have in common. We can be a place that encourages people to come to the table together and have conversations.”
Currence says he’s “disgusted with how the Constitution is being trampled on” by the current administration, but he hopes his food can bring people together.
“The craziest part of this is that I’m a Republican,” he says. “That’s the real shocker.”