JOSEPH 'JJ' JOHNSON
Hometown: Long Island, NY
Joseph 'JJ' Johnson first fell in love with the art of cooking when he was young child watching his grandmother “prepare these extravagant meals that she would lay out on the table.” “I would be underneath trying to help her out.” Since then he’s gone to culinary school, worked at the Morgan Stanley executive dining room, helped open up multiple restaurants, and released a cookbook. His one month stint at Chef’s Club was extended another two months because the demand was so high for his menu.
He focuses on globalization of cuisine and culture (Afro-Asian-American especially) and just released his cookbook “From Harlem to Heaven” which he co-wrote with Alexander Smalls, the chef he helped open The Cecil for (The Cecil was voted Best Restaurant in America by Esquire and has won numerous awards). He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and traveled around the world afterwards but it wasn’t until he visited Ghana where his taste and identity really clicked. He says that the food he cooks is the “food of my childhood” and that he’s “fortunate to have traveled to places like Ghana, India, Singapore" and that those "places really stemmed the style of his cooking over these last years.” When asked where he finds inspiration from, he uniquely says “rice”, namely that “rice fuels the world”.
I was super excited to have this conversation with JJ about his journey growing into his identity as a chef, the life lessons he gained over time, and about what people my age should focus on early on in our careers.
STEPHANIE: It's so interesting that you're such a big promoter of rice. What would you say inspired your pursuit of specializing on rice?
JJ: Whenever I traveled, it didn’t matter if I was at a low-brow restaurant or a high-brow restaurant, rice was always at the center of the plate. Growing up, it was always at the center of the table for me personally. I think 90% of us grew up on rice somewhere and it’s what I consider the most casual and common ingredient in the world. It has its own language to it and it doesn’t matter where you are or what dialect you speak, I started to see that rice had its own translation in many cultures. It’s essentially the same grain but every culture calls it something different and has its own way of flavoring it.
I looked at ramen bars and thought, “Why can’t there be rice bars?” The noodle is the thing that David Chang really fueled with Momofuku and he made it become cool. Everyone started opening ramen noodle restaurants after he made it famous. I’m trying to do that with rice and elevate it and make something that nobody really cares about but everybody eats into something cool.
Steph: You are also really deep into the fusion food world. What do you think is the social impact of fusion food and why is it important for the world?
JJ: Fusion food first started out with neighboring countries combining their food together and showing the world that they lived near each other and there was this blend of culture. I visited Ghana and saw the Chinese and the Africans living peacefully together and they have been for over 50 years. Now as the world has become more globalized, you see fusion food like Korean and Mexican food, African and Chinese food, and it shows the world that these two cultures that are seemingly different at first glance actually live together harmoniously and are more alike than you think. Chinese and African people have lived together in Africa for centuries but no one knows that.
Steph: That's incredible. I remember I met someone one time who was African and he told me that he knew Chinese and African traditions were very similar to each other.
I interviewed a journalist that specializes in food & drink and he said that to him, chefs are one of the most creative people in the world. So being a chef yourself, how do you hone that creativity and strengthen that muscle?
JJ: I eat out a good amount because I love seeing how other chefs are expressing themselves. If I’m going to Scampi to see my boy PJ cook Italian food, I’m going there because I want to see how he expresses himself from the way the table looks, what kind of glassware he picked, how’s he plating the food and what ingredients he used. I feel like that helps me strengthen the muscle – looking at food through other chef’s eyes and still being in my own place. Traveling to experience and study food.
Steph: Kind of like how a writer reads other people’s books and becomes a better writer by being a stronger reader.
JJ: Yeah, you need somebody else’s creativity to spark your own creativity. Sometimes other people can bring out the best in you.
Steph: I read your interview with Eater and it talked about how you worked as a chef at Morgan Stanley's executive dining hall, you did research in Ghana, and you’re now one of the most popular chefs in the media, which is how I found you.
JJ: Wait, I’m one of the most popular chefs in the media? [Laughs]
Steph: You have a pretty good brand online! Being who you are now, what advice would you give to your 17-year-old self who is just starting out and going through struggles or wondering if he should become a chef?
JJ: I’m still going through struggles…but going back in time to when I first opened up The Cecil, I was so focused on winning awards and being nominated. That’s how you stay motivated at first. LeBron doesn’t wake up and think “I don’t want to win awards today.” Steph Curry doesn’t wake up and think “I don’t want to score 50 points tonight.” No, they both want to do those things. And at first, those are the self-checks that you kind of need. I always wanted to win awards, to strive and break down barriers, but the ultimate thing is that it’s in the food. You have to make sure the food you put out tastes good, make sure your staff is being consistent, things like that. You won’t get anything without the food. It has to be good. I think that's where a lot of kids get lost.
Get the skill sets, get the foundation, grow, get the opportunities. The TV stuff, the brand ambassador things – those things will be there after you’re an expert. You become credible first instead of just a personality and entertainment. Bobby Flay didn’t grow up wanting to be a personality. He became a chef and just happened to be a personality. He worked really hard and people wanted to know what he was saying because he was an expert.
And some things come sooner for some than others. I’m learning that now. I remember when Stephen Lewandowski was 26 running Tribeca Grill and I thought “Oh my god, when I’m 26, that’s when I’m going to be an executive chef” and I didn’t become an executive chef until I was 28 going on 29. And at 28 going on 29, my friends were already owning restaurants. Now I’m going on 33 and I’m trying to open my first restaurant and my friends are on their second or third restaurants. So some things just happen for other people differently and I’m really thankful that the media wants to know my story and capture what I’m doing. I feel like food is an expression and it’s what I do at the end of the day.
One of my good friends one day told me, “I want to drop some knowledge. Many people fight to get to the end of the tunnel. It’s not about getting to the end of the tunnel to get the light. It’s about maintaining the light.” Because if you get to the end of the tunnel, it’s over. But if you maintain it, you’ll have it for the rest of your life. And the tunnel may change from time to time, but if you’re rushing to get to the end, what do you do next?
In high school, I told my home economics teacher “I’m going to be the next Emeril Lagasse.” Once I got to culinary school, I became a dishwasher and worked at the local country club in Pennsylvania. In culinary school, I realized cooking was so much more than the flashiness and that cooking is a real technique and skill. It requires mental focus, almost like being in the military, and when you first get to culinary school you’re like “my god, what did I sign up for?” As you progress, you find inspiration and you find who you want to be like when you’re older. I started asking myself how to be the best chef I could be and I took so many opportunities to become better. There were many times in culinary school where I thought I wasn’t good enough and I wanted to quit.
After culinary school, it really started to click for me and I worked to get the fundamentals down and learned how to run a restaurant. Someone told me “Before you open up your own place, know how to open up someone else’s place with their money and learn everything that they do right and wrong.” I used to never think that was true and thought he was crazy and then I got the opportunity to open up The Cecil and I saw everything they did right and wrong and that definitely helped me now to know what I want to do.
I also think people don’t follow the organic moments in life. We have this vision of where we want to be and when something great is right in front of us, we think “That’s not me. I’m supposed to be there.” But organically the world is pushing you here.
Steph: Have you ever had an opportunity where it was a really good opportunity but it wasn’t necessarily “you” and what did you do in that situation?
JJ: I embraced it because sometimes those situations are the ones that can lead you to where you want to go. For example, when I won an award for The Cecil, I was able to take that award and go to my boss and say “Okay, I’ve won this, but now here’s what I want to do” and it gives you the credibility and leverage to think for yourself. And just in general, once you’ve proved yourself a little bit even though it might not necessarily be you, you can then ask yourself “Where do I stand in this company and how am I going to grow?”
Steph: Have you had any “failures” that actually paved the way for success later on?
JJ: I think every day that I’m trying to raise money I think that I’ve failed because I’m not getting somebody to write me a check. In investor meetings, I think “Ugh, I’ve failed again.” But I think that the failures I have along the way in raising money will open the doors to the right investor and allow me to be who I want to be in the long run.
Steph: Who would you say inspires you in life?
JJ: My 94-year-old grandfather inspires me from the top. I look at things in a pyramid mode now: my grandfather’s at the top, my dad beneath him. He inspires me with how he takes care of himself and his family, what they represent, their values, their respect level for people, how they are as men.
Steph: What inspires you about New York?
JJ: I think New York is the mecca! Of everything. Its where people look to for fashion and culture and music and food. People joke that if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere, but it is truly the mecca.
Steph: Do you see yourself staying here long-term?
JJ: I was born here and have lived here for a long time. It’s not like somebody is calling me saying “JJ move to Montreal and come open a restaurant here.” All of my network is New York. New York is all I have. The food I want to create is a cultural experience and I have to be around the culture which is New York. It’s the biggest melting pot in the U.S.
Lastly, I have a few quick questions for you:
Favorite area of New York?
JJ: Chinatown – it has personality, it’s true to the culture, you can get things you can’t get anywhere else, the food is good, reminds me of places I’ve traveled to. Harlem, too – it has a really good community and is a very respectful place. People still hold the doors open for you there.
Last person you texted?
JJ: Josh Stern from Wine & Dine because we’re hosting a pool party next week in the Versace Mansion
Favorite app on your phone?
JJ: Tidal the streaming app because to me, it’s true to the culture of the artists.
How many tattoos do you have?
JJ: Is a sleeve considered one tattoo?
Haha, let’s ask how many tattoo sessions then?
JJ: Let’s see…1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10….11 sessions
When did you get your first tattoo?
JJ: In Miami. I paid for it the night before and flew there the next day. Probably not smart.
JJ: Purple yam on my tricep
How did you meet your wife?
JJ: I met my wife in a bar on the Upper East Side watching a football game. Traditional meeting. No Tindr. Even if I was single I couldn’t do dating apps.
How has your wife impacted your life and career?
JJ: When I was at Morgan Stanley, she really pushed me to get back into the private sector. She’s always pushed me in the moments in my career when I wasn’t sure and she believes in me when I didn’t believe in myself.