JJ Johnson will be cooking at the James Beard House on June 4 for the Iconoclast Dinner Experience, honoring the legacy of chef Patrick Clark. Learn more at theiconoclastdinner.com.
You know that prediction that, at some point in the not-so-distant future, the world’s population will all be the same shade of mixed-race caramel? Its culinary equivalent is already here, and it’s just as blow-your-mind exciting as the idea of a legitimately post-racial world. It’s happening in Harlem, in JJ Johnson’s kitchen, The Cecil.
The restaurant’s mission is “Afro-Asian-American cooking,” an alliterative mouthful that, at first glance, raises more questions than it answers. The longer story is that Johnson is tracing the tendrils of the African diaspora as they’ve fanned out around the world, touching down in Spain, colonial Brazil, and the rice marshes of South Carolina. At a time when we’re still trying to figure out how to do justice to African Americans’ culinary heritage, he’s taken the conversation a step backward, to its Africa roots, while simultaneously taking a massive leap forward, linking all of its threads with Asia in a complex global web.
Those are the big ideas, anyway. His connection to the concept is more visceral—and his story is one that rings true for a number of New Yorkers. “I grew up with a house full of Puerto Rican women in Pennsylvania making pasteles for Christmas, pernil, asopao; we would come to New York [to visit] my dad’s side of the family, which was Southern, or we would go to Queens, to my grandfather’s, who was from Barbados, and we would eat rum cake and jerk chicken,” he says. “I didn’t know I grew up in this diaspora of food until I went to Ghana in 2011 and all these flavors and smells reminded me of childhood.”
“At a time when we’re still trying to figure out how to do justice to African Americans’ culinary heritage, Johnson is taken the conversation a step backward, to its Africa roots, while simultaneously taking a massive leap forward, linking all of its threads with Asia in a complex global web.”
From that revelation, Johnson has gone from journeyman cook to culinary Nostradamus. After graduating from the CIA and working at Jane, The Smith, Centro Vinoteca, and the secret executive dining room at Morgan Stanley, an out-of-the-blue meeting with Alexander Smalls—the legendary restaurateur and chef of Cafe Beulah—gave him the chance to build something new at The Cecil. In 2014, it was named Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire critic Josh Ozersky. The next year, Johnson was longlisted for the James Beard Rising Star award.
And it’s not just his cooking that’s ahead of the curve. As conversations about diversity in kitchens finally feel like they’re taking root—both for women and for chefs of color—he’s walking the walk. His chef de cuisine, Tiffany Minter, is an African-American woman and mother of three. Every week, the restaurant prepares free meals for the residents of the SRO hotel above his restaurant, assuaging fears about gentrification displacing longtime Harlem residents. And he works with the International Rescue Committee to hire recent African immigrants to work the room, providing on-the-job skills training.
“A lot of the Africans the IRC works with, they hear about the food we’re cooking and really want to work here,” Johnson says. It’s a taste of home for them, a touchstone that links the lives they’ve left behind with the lives they’re starting here.” For the rest of us, it’s the taste of things to come.
From a chance encounter with Josh Ozersky that pushed him to make oxtail dumplings, to losing his composure while eating spicy piri-piri sauce in Ghana, here are the ten dishes that made JJ Johnson’s career.
When I was four years old, instead of watching cartoons, I would watch my grandmother dance in the kitchen. My mom was a schoolteacher and my dad used to commute to work, so I would get dropped off at my grandparents’ house where I would be with them all day. My grandmother would play really loud music and cook food. Mind you, I hated all of her food as a kid—hated it. It was really good stuff [though], these amazing Puerto Rican dishes with so much flavor. But I was an American kid. I wanted lasagna, pizza, pasta, the typical stuff. My dad would be like, “You’re missing out!” And she would force me to eat, holding my ears, forcing the spoon in my mouth. She would make her own chicken stock for asopao, boil the whole chickens in the stock, and add the rice and herbs there. When my grandmother passed away, one of my aunts tried to make it, but she bought stock in a can and it just wasn’t the same. Later, when I made it here in the kitchen, my Puerto Ricans and Dominicans on staff were like, “How did you make that like that? Who helped you?” That means I did it right. (Photo: Yelp/Rey R.)
“O.G. Crab Cakes”
As a fourteen year old, I used to ride my bike to a country club where I was a dishwasher. I worked there until I went to culinary school. My uncle, Donald, owned a crab boat in Virginia, and he would bring crab meat with him in the summer when the family got together. I loved to cook and he loved to cook, so we would have crab-cake competitions. He taught me how to make a crab cake properly—“It’s all about the crab, let the flavor come through, don’t use too many breadcrumbs.” I call them O.G. crab cakes because he was this O.G. guy, teaching me how to do it right. It was the first dish I really paid attention to when I started cooking. (Photo: Flickr/Ralph Daily)
Fried Chicken Wings
My Aunt Jeanie makes the best fried chicken. We would go to Jones Beach with her in the summer, and she would fry chicken wings to take with us. To this day, if we hang out, it’s like, “Okay, Aunt Jeanie, you’ve got to make the fried chicken.” I don’t know how you keep cold fried chicken so crispy, but hers was like Popeyes. I don’t think she stole hers from Popeyes. [Laughs] She taught me in the kitchen, gave me all her old black-woman tricks. She would say things like, ‘You don’t need to put it on a timer! Just watch it float, then take it out.” It’s funny who you learn tricks to making things properly from. (Photo: Flickr/Steven Depolo)
Orecchiette with Pork Broth
I went to work with Leah Cohen at Centro Vinoteca—I came in right after Anne Burrell left and everybody left with her. It was me, Leah, and Omar, who helped Michael White open up Marea. And Leah had just been on Top Chef, so it was really busy. She was really into cooking fresh pasta, and I remember making orecchiette by hand, standing there with her with my thumb pushing out the orecchiette. She’d be like, “We need 200 orders!” and I’d groan. But now I look back and see that the pride she had in making fresh pasta is the same pride I have in making dumplings at the Cecil. We could have gone to buy pasta from Raffetto’s right around the corner, but the love is going to make it taste better. (Photo: Flickr/Giuseppe Masili)
Piri-Piri Prawns with Yam Flapjack (The Cecil)
I was working at the secret Morgan Stanley executive dining room, and Alexander Smalls offered me a trip to Ghana to cook American-themed dinners with him. At that point, he was already talking about Afro-Asian-American cooking. When I got there, I saw everything that he was talking about firsthand. I took tons of notes, went fishing, visited guinea-hen farms and markets. But the biggest thing was cooking alongside West African cooks at the Villa Monticello, this really high-end hotel in Accra.
I didn’t bring a sous chef or a buddy; I just took over a staff by myself, and only got to talk to the chef once or twice. Piri-piri prawns was the first dish I had there. The prawns were the size of my hands, and the guys marinated them in this thick piri-piri rub, sautéed the prawns. Nobody told me that their piri piri was spicy as shit, and I started crying and sweating. The whole kitchen thought it was funny, but that was the moment that we really came together. I was there for a full month, cooking nonstop—it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. (Photo courtesy The Cecil/Lucy Schaeffer)
Before I started working with Alexander Smalls, I had some reference points for Southern food, but not Lowcountry. I call Lowcountry cooking the glamorous Southern American food: They ate guinea hen, pheasant, caviar, shrimp, and lobsters. They’re on the coastline, and it’s a real regional cuisine. I don’t think I’d ever have interpreted Lowcountry cooking until I was able to go to Gullah Island and Charleston to really see it. When we were in West Africa, we had this Senegalese gumbo that was super different, more of a stew, with lots of okra and fermented fish. Alexander felt like it was close to a South Carolina gumbo, and so we started working on the Cecil’s version. It was the first dish that I made side by side with Alexander. (Photo courtesy The Cecil/Liz Barclay)
Tamarind Glazed Oxtails with Josh Ozersky (The Cecil)
Josh Ozersky ate at The Cecil for the first time on a whim. He and some buddies came in for a cocktail as they were on their way to another restaurant, but they wound up sitting and ordering—there were three of them, and they ordered so much food. I remember my runner coming up to me in the kitchen and saying, “Hey, this guy just picked the oxtail dumpling up with his hands and opened it up.” My director of operations walked through the dining room and said, “I think that’s Josh Ozersky.” He asked to meet me.
We sat down and talked, and he said to me, “Hey, this was a really, really good meal. I’m going to be picking the top restaurants of the year for Esquire. You’re on my list, but I’ll be back, and if it’s not this good or better, I’m taking you off the list.” I was like, “Alright, bet! No problem. It’s not going to get any worse than this, and I hope it gets better.”
Last year, he asked me to be in Meatopia. I said I wanted to do goat, and he said, “No problem.” Then three weeks before the festival, he told me someone else was doing goat, and says “You can do oxtails! You do those oxtail dumplings; you could be the man of the oxtail.” We did a tamarind barbecue sauce and braised the oxtails, then grilled them to get super caramelized. The dish won, and people would come to the restaurant asking for these oxtails, so we decided to put them on the menu.
Josh Ozersky was really a friend and mentor, and I respect him for all the work he did, for all the chefs that nobody wanted to write about that he wrote about. He dug deep. It was just amazing that a guy like that would write about me. (Photo courtesy The Cecil/Lindsay Talley)
Plantains at Hartwood (Tulum, Mexico)
I was in Tulum for a wedding, and I thought to myself, “Yo, I gotta go to Hartwood.” I asked for a super-late reservation, because it was an afternoon wedding. By the time the reception was over, we were all headed to Hartwood. We ordered the whole menu, even the sides, and it was amazing. He [chef Eric Werner] did these whole-roasted plantains, still in the husk, and when it came to your table, piping hot, you just scooped it out with a spoon. He didn’t put anything on it. I think he’s the one who made me come to the realization that sides should be really amazing. They’re their own dishes, not just these things that you pull from the menu and put on the side. Here’s this guy who was cooking in New York, then he goes and opens up a place with, like, ten menu items, and everything’s fucking phenomenal. That definitely appeals to me.” (Photo: tripadvisor.com)
Raw Skuna Bay Salmon
I’ve been using Skuna Bay for about four years, and I brought it here to Harlem. It’s the only farm-raised fish I use. Last year they asked me to come out to Campbell River, BC and board a boat to see their process. They’re growing salmon in the middle of the ocean—killer whales are smacking the nets. When the box of salmon arrives, you know who the fisherman is, you know exactly where it’s coming from; it actually makes you feel better about the food that you’re cooking. There’s a guy putting pride into this fish. I don’t do a lot of calling out of sources on my menus, but all my staff know I use D’Artagnan, and I use a grass-fed beef program out in upstate New York. We dig deeper that way. (Photo: skunasalmon.com)
I was invited to Taste of the South this year by John T. Edge and Sam Beall of Blackberry Farm. Who wouldn’t want to cook at Blackberry Farm? The theme of the dinner was vegetables, but John T. wanted me to cook something that showed everyone the food before the South. I thought about fonio, an ancient African grain that most people haven’t had. I made a porridge with the vegetables from Blackberry Farm and a coconut yassa base, which is a classic sauce in West Africa. I get fonio from the African market around the corner from the restaurant; I was sure they wouldn’t be able to find it for the dinner, but they just got on Amazon and typed in “fonio” and it popped up! Being at Blackberry, knowing that they’re the ones who really helped put Appalachian cuisine back on the map—it really spoke to me. It was a movement, kind of like what we’re doing here at the Cecil. (Photo: Wikicommons)