2015 New York Rising Star Community Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson of The Cecil

2015 New York Rising Star Community Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson of The Cecil
February 2015

Joseph “JJ” Johnson found his initial culinary spark cooking alongside his obliging, hardworking grandmother, who brought Caribbean influences into the kitchen, instilling in him a passion for expressive flavors and for following the rhythm of the seasons.

From home hearth to classical training, Johnson made the move to the Culinary Institute of America, giving a technical backbone to a well laid foundation of food love. He went on to hone his skills in some of New York’s most esteemed kitchens: Centro Vinoteca, Jane, and Tribeca Grill among them. Constantly in search of new flavors, Johnson also spent time in Ghana, studying West African cuisine and cooking at Villa Monticello, Ghana’s Premier Luxury Boutique Hotel and Spa.

Now diving headfirst into eclecticism at The Cecil and historic Minton’s jazz club in Harlem, Johnson’s star is clearly on the rise. Not only winner of Rocco DiSpirito’s “Dinner Party” competition (where he wowed the culinary elite with his twists on straightforward cooking), Johnson was on both Forbes’ and Zagat’s “30 Under 30,” was named an Eater Young Gun, and The Cecil Esquire’s restaurant of the year, all in 2014. Even as his career unfolds, Johnson continues to revel in transforming simple cuisine with bold flavors and unexpected ingredients.

Interview with New York Rising Star Community Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson of The Cecil and Minton's

Mary Choi: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
Joseph “JJ” Johnson
: I contribute to various organizations like C-CAP. We take externs from all the local culinary schools, like the International Culinary Center, the Culinary Institute of America, and the Institute of Culinary Education. I recently judged a competition for Pellegrino. And we provide all the low income tenants upstairs with food twice a week. We invite all of them down into the dining room for a meal. Growing up, my dad was a community basketball coach and that stuck with me. I want to give back the way he did. My entire team gets involved as well—we all work together to prepare the meals, put together little packages, and deliver them to the tenants. That way the staff takes ownership and is included in all the work we do.

MC: How did you get your start in the industry?
Actually, I think it was in my DNA. When I was 14, I would bike to the nearest country club that was two miles away from my house to work as a dishwasher. I realized I wasn't good at basketball, football, or soccer, so when the other boys in my neighborhood were running around shooting hoops and such, I would bike over to my job. This experience was really when I started to love being in the kitchen—I learned a lot about owning food and loving it.

MC: What chef organizations do you belong to?
Well, I'm a member of the James Beard Foundation and you know, I'm always up for any StarChefs related event.

MC: Who would you say your most influential mentor has been?
 Definitely [Restaurateur] Alexander Smalls and Chef Brian Ellis. My dad always says that everyone has two sets of parents in their lives. One biological set and one set you encounter later in life, Alexander is that second father to me—even my father admits it! [Alexander] was an opera singer, so he's extremely cultured and well traveled, he knows people all around the world, he was even saying “hi” to people he knew when we were in Ghana together. Alexander's always reminded me that I should carry myself with sophistication, be knowledgeable, and constantly try to be an innovator. On the other end of the spectrum, Brian is my go to for all things culinary. He gives me the real deal about cooking and he has insight about the industry—about how to run a proper and successful kitchen. He always makes time for me. I could text him right now and he'd tell me he was in a meeting or something, but he always responds. It's great to have that kind of support.

MC: Where do you see yourself in five years?
Well, okay, my inner goal really is to be the best of my generation, like say April Bloomfield or David Chang. I want people to look back and think, “Wow JJ really changed the culinary game with Afro-Asian cooking and running two successful restaurants from one kitchen.”