"Big Bad Chef"— the name is a tall order to live up to, but it's one that fits John Currence to a tee. The nickname that began as a Twitter handle almost 10 years ago (@Bigbadchef), has since defined Currence’s mark on the culinary industry.

His uncensored, outspoken and overtly sarcastic personality sets him apart from his peers. But it's his Coca-Cola Fried Chicken recipe that put the acclaimed chef on our radar. According to Chef Currence, it’s the “best damn chicken you’ll ever have.”

A bold statement like that called for a taste test. A small Coca-Cola Journey crew traveled to the second location of Currence's restaurant Big Bad Breakfast in Birmingham, Ala. The verdict? Well, let's just say the man doesn't lie. His Coca-Cola Fried Chicken is bad to the bone. And by bad, I mean the best chicken I've ever had. So savory, so tender, so... awesome. Of course, I'm no Top Chef judge. But as a Southern girl who's had her fair share of fried food, I'm confident in my claim. 

After devouring every last morsel, it was time to get to know the chef on a deeper level than his fryer. Turns out Currence has a tender side to him. With no formal culinary education, he cooked his way to the top through some interesting life experiences...

John Currence

What inspired your Coca-Cola Fried Chicken Recipe?

Factory-farmed chicken is very devoid of flavor, so about 30 years ago, I started brining everything when it came to birds. Birds just naturally don’t have a lot of fat, and fat is what brings meat its flavor. It’s the vehicle of flavor, if you will, so my thought was if you brine, you’re going to add moisture to meat that can otherwise get very dry. Whatever you’re brining in will add flavor. Once I began really analyzing it, I started thinking about Coca-Cola. The acids in the soda would help break down the protein and tenderize the meat a little, too, so let’s try that. When we did, we found out that was exactly the case. It made it tender, flavorful, sweet. The sugar really helps giving the chicken itself the nice rich golden color... so much so we have to moderate how much time it spends in the brine, because it if stays too long, it absorbs too much sugar and turns super dark. It’s a very effective brine for chicken on a number of levels. 

John Currence

What memory or connection do you have with Coca-Cola?

I grew up in the South, you know. In the '60s, you were born with the little bottles in your hands pretty much. My grandparents owned a general store in Lenoir, N.C., where I spent my summers. I remember sitting in the front windows of my grandfather’s store with all his buddies. In the afternoon, after everybody got done working in the gardens and what not, they’d all come up to the store and sit on milk crates. They’d drink their Cokes and get these little packets of peanuts and drop peanuts down in the Coke and turn them up. They’d drink the Coke and eat the peanuts out of the bottle while they talked. It was such an organic kind of thing for them. They could just talk and juggle this bottle between their knees, pour some peanuts in their hand, drop them in the bottle, let ‘em sit for a minute, let it fizz up and then just drink and eat them right out of the bottle. That’s one of the early childhood memories I have, learning how to eat peanuts out of Coca-Cola.

You claim you make the 'best damn fried chicken' in the world. What makes it that good?

You know, people like our chicken. I don’t think anybody besides me has claimed that it’s the best damn chicken in the world, but it definitely gets some attention.

And you still stand by that?

You damn right I stand by that.  

How did you get your title as the 'Big Bad Chef'?

I used to write a blog for Garden and Gun, starting about 10 years ago I guess. Part of the deal was that they wanted me to tweet. And at the time, you know… I’m pretty up with what’s happening in the world, but when they told me I needed to be on Twitter, I was like, "I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about." They said, "Well, it’s this new platform where you express thoughts that you have in the moment in 140 characters. And I was like, “That’s the most narcissistic thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”  I went from being like, "This is total nonsense!" to being totally sucked into it. It’s like having a megaphone.

This all happened around the time where I had accomplished everything I wanted to as far as accolades go. Now what I’m interested in is taking care of people... getting my guys the recognition they deserve. We’re very fortunate that we as chefs have been given this sort of moment and platform to speak from. Now I have this responsibility to do something with that, as far as affecting change. We’re very much a grassroots industry, and if people are going to look to us for sustenance and some sort of guidance, we have some responsibility to do the right thing. I like having that opportunity. And I guess there’s something flattering that people listen. We have the opportunity to rally and push the needle in the right direction. I enjoy that.

John Currence

You mentioned before that you never went to culinary school. How has that influenced your style of cooking?

Yeah, I never went to school. I had great educational opportunities my whole life, and I had the horsepower to get through them as a B- or C+ student without applying myself. I never thrived in the classroom. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I wanted to learn. Education was always a tedious obligation. I couldn’t pay attention. Where I thrived was in the workplace. I constantly had jobs, and I always learned a thousand times more when I was doing something with my hands. So when the opportunity arose on a number of occasions when I reached a crossroads in my career and thought about going to school, I always stopped and thought, “No, no, no… if you do, no matter how interested you are, that’s not where you do well. You do much better when you’re juggling three jobs.”

Once I got into cooking and decided that's what I wanted to do, I could not help myself. I would have one job working the line somewhere then pick up another job baking bread. When I was young, like super young, I wanted to learn how to cut meat. I knew they weren’t going to let me do that at a restaurant where they have very precise amounts of protein. They weren’t going to put a butcher knife in an amateur's hand. So I ended up volunteering at a local grocery store meat department. They thought I was crazy. Finally, they showed me how to butcher a chicken and everything else. That’s how I’ve always operated. Do I wish I had gone to culinary school? Sure. School would have been a tremendous opportunity, but there’s no way I’d be in any better place than I am right now.

I understand there is a particular lady who influenced your love for fried chicken. Can you tell me about her?

One of the most culturally historical restaurants in the entire country is a restaurant called Dookey Chase on Orleans Avenue in New Orleans. It’s an incredible restaurant run by one of the Zions of our industry, a woman named Leah Chase. Leah is someone I consider an adopted grandmother. She’s in her early 90’s now. She’s someone I absolutely adore, and she loves her fried chicken. Until you sit next to Leah Chase and eat her fried chicken, you’ve never really had fried chicken before.

One day about 15 years ago, a very dear friend of mine, who is also very close to Ms. Chase, whispered in my ear and goes, “Look, I know you love Ms. Leah’s chicken, but I’m telling you there’s this place around the corner called Willie Mae’s Scotch House, and you have to go eat the fried chicken there.” It literally was right around the corner. At first I was appalled at the thought of going to eat someone else’s chicken. It was like cheating on a girlfriend. I was on my way out of New Orleans heading back to Oxford (Mississippi, where he lives and owns two restaurants), and it was early enough in the day I could slide by this other place and get some of this chicken to-go and see what it’s all about. So I left Ms. Chase’s, snuck around the corner, under the fear that I was going to get caught cheating, and got a Styrofoam container of these white beans, white bread and fried chicken. I started eating it on the road on the way out of New Orleans and I was like, “Holy crap this is the craziest, most delicious fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in my life.” 

John Currence
Coca-Cola Fried Chick recipe found in his cook book.

Flash-forward a few years to the 2005 James Beard awards, and Willie Mae was given the America’s Classic Award for her place. It really was this sort of falling down shack of a building and one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. I mean nobody went there except neighborhood politicians and drug dealers… just very much a neighborhood joint. So they give her the Beard award, and there isn’t even time for her to get traction on that award and for people to become aware of it before Hurricane Katrina hits. She takes eight feet of water, she’s turning 90 years old and she’s washed out of her house and restaurant. So I end up being part of the group that decided to save Willie Mae’s Scotch House.

Now, people stand in line for hours to get in there. It’s like this super hipster badge of honor to say you’ve eaten chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House. Anyways, as we were going through this rebuilding process for several years, I began trying to figure out how it was she made her chicken. There’s no recipe. One of the things I learned from her early on is that she went completely against the Southern grain. You’re raised in the South to triple dip your chicken in flour. She makes a wet batter. So not only is it delicious, but its way easier. That’s what I adopted from her for this particular recipe.

I know this is a really long story, but you asked the question!

John Currence

When we met, we were at your restaurant Big Bad Breakfast in Birmingham. Why is breakfast the most important meal of the day?

Because my mom said so! (laughs) There’s kind of a tremendous irony that breakfast gets blown by more often than not. But when you think about it, your car doesn’t run well without warming it up. And it won’t run at all if you don’t put gas in it. The human body is a machine, so everyone should consider breakfast as something incredibly important because that’s the fuel foundation for your day. All really credible long-term effective diet programs/healthy living programs will tell you that you need to eat a well-balanced breakfast. One, to lay down the foundation for the day. And two, to kick-start your metabolism in the morning. We don’t talk a whole lot about metabolism… you take it for granted until you hit about 40 and everyone has the metabolism of a mosquito. I’m sure the adage “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” goes back to when we were a more manual labor-oriented nation. You needed fuel for the machine. 

What makes your place stand out?

John Currence

We had a really great team that came together. They took a hard look at the original store in Oxford, Mississippi, and realized there wasn’t a whole lot we could duplicate. The Oxford store is very unique. It was intentionally done as much on the cheap as possible in order to put it together. Still to this day the chairs don’t match, the tables don’t match. It’s kind of this glorious disaster. The design in Birmingham was designed to mimic the level of comfort we have in Oxford. It’s meant to be cozy. It’s meant to feel very personal and ‘homie’ without being kitschy at all. Our greatest focus, besides the food, is the service. The service is what sets that place apart. It’s not like going into a place and getting that, "How yah want your eggs?" We treat costumers to a fine dining experience. 

On a more personal note, what’s your favorite thing to cook?

It changes with the seasons. I can’t really say I have anything that is my most favorite to cook. I love things my family responds to. I know the response I’m going to get taking chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. If the question is, "What gives me the greatest affirmation?”, it’s pulling chocolate chip cookies out of the oven knowing exactly how my wife and daughter are going to light up. And I’m finding out that there’s nothing more humbling than trying to cook for a little girl whose response in one moment can be absolute joy and in the next be like, "What did they ever give you a Beard medal for?"

John Currence

I’ve asked you this before, but if you could cook and have a meal with anyone, who would that person be and why?

How do you expect a man who has a mother that is alive to be interviewed and not say their mother without the threat of being disowned, slapped or guilted until the day you die?

Well you didn’t say your mother last time…

(Laughs) Wait, I gave another answer?

Yeah, you did.

Was it David Lee Roth?

No, keep guessing. It was another lady in your life.

I know, my wife.

No… it was your daughter.

Ohhhhh... okay. Yeah, you know, I don’t think there’s anything that gets as close to enjoyable as dinner with family and friends.