2017 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Joe Johnson of Charcoal Venice

2017 Los Angeles Rising Star Chef Joe Johnson of Charcoal Venice
April 2017
Growing up in Virginia, Joseph Johnson recalls learning classic French cooking from his Southern grandmother—memories that point to the origins of his all-encompassing passion for food and hospitality.     
Teenaged Johnson began his professional career in the dish pit at a hotel restaurant near his hometown of Petersburg. He persuaded the chefs to let him help out in the kitchen, eventually working his way up to executive chef before turning 19. But he still had lots of learning to do. 
Inspired by a vacation, Johnson moved to Southern California and quickly enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. While in school, Johnson worked at the Pasadena Hilton and externed at Savory in Malibu under James Beard Award-winning Chef Paul Shoemaker. From there, then began a stage at Michelin-starred Mélisse in Santa Monica, where he became Chef Josiah Citrin’s sous chef in little more than a year. Johnson thrived under Citrin’s mentorship and honed his fine-dining repertoire.
In 2015, Citrin opened Charcoal Venice and enlisted Johnson as his chef de cuisine. A decidedly more casual affair—but no less technical—Johnson burns through nearly 1,000 pounds of charcoal each week to execute a menu driven by smoke, char, simplicity, and pure California ingredients. 

Interview with L.A. Rising Star Chef Joseph Johnson of Charcoal Venice

Caroline Hatchett: How did you get your start?
Joseph Johnson:
When I was 16, washing dishes in a hotel. I’m from Virginia; I took a chance and moved to Las Angeles and attended culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena. I worked in a hotel during school, too. Then I worked at Savory in Malibu, and later, at Melisse. 

CH: So, how much is charcoal integrated into your kitchen?
Eighty-five percent of our dishes involve charcoal. We have a Josper charcoal oven, a Woodstone grill, and two Big Green Eggs. We have a  split hood ventilation system, and we use organic oak and hickory lump charcoal—1,000 pounds every seven to 10 days at a cost of $0.88 per pound.

CH: Where did you learned to cook with charcoal?
Professionally, at Melisse in Santa Monica, but first when I was at family barbecues. I also did lots of research, and ate out a lot. I grew up grilling, but the charcoal technique came from Melisse—refined but still approachable. 

CH: Who's your mentor? 
Josiah Citrin of Melisse. 

CH: How are you involved in the local culinary community? 
We do charity events like Alex’s Lemonade and the Baby to Baby gala. 

CH: What's the biggest challenge facing your restaurant? 
Keeping the menu focused. There are so many options. 

CH: What’s the kitchen like on a busy night?
We have five cooks during service, and me and a sous chef on the pass. Friday night we hit between 180 to 200 covers; 120 during the week. 

CH: What's your five-year plan? 
Part of me wants to go back to Virginia, and move on to my own endeavors. That was the goal. I came here for vacation and it was fun. I loved the culture. I miss my family. I know what I need is here right now. I’m into spice rubs and building flavor in different ways. Spice rubs balance out a sauce or a dish. I’ve done a lemon verbena-mango salt, a six-pepper rub… I want to get more vegetable-focused, to shift away from the meat I’m doing here. A fast casual concept first, then I want a restaurant that’s educational and will give back to the community. I want to challenge myself more.