Chef JJ Johnson wears many hats: acclaimed chef and owner of New York City based chain FieldTrip, award winning cookbook author, and the host of Cleo TV’s “Just Eats With JJ”. Clearly, he is a very busy man. In fact, I interviewed him just one day before the opening of his third FieldTrip location in Midtown Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center.
“I just realized that I’ve been going so hard trying to run these restaurants, get these restaurants open,” Johnson said. “It’s been a complete year and I don’t think I’ve stopped. It’s been a little bit more work than I expected, but hopefully it pays off. I think anything that’s never too easy always means that it will work out. At least that’s my wishful and faithful thinking.”
He was understandably exhausted, but still found time to speak with me. This was very much appreciated. It was an honor to speak to someone who is breaking so much ground for Black chefs around the country.
Chef JJ Johnson’s career is rooted in highlighting the African Diaspora through food. This is apparent in his concept of Afro-Asian-American cuisine, which traces the influences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade on modern flavors. This was the inspiration behind the 2018 James Beard Award-winning cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, which he penned with Alexander Smalls and Veronica Chambers.
I was able to sample some of Chef JJ Johnson’s delicious food at FieldTrip’s Harlem location on West 115th and Lennox Avenue. If that was any indication of what Afro-Asian-American cooking tastes like, I am all ears. Cheers to much success for FieldTrip and all of Johnson’s endeavors. He does the work with our community in mind, and I hope he is able to continue to build a culinary empire.
An Interview with Chef JJ Johnson
Sharila Stewart [SS]: Of course you’ve been a chef, you’re a restaurateur, you now have a TV show. You have a lot of things going on, but let’s go back to where it all began. When did you start cooking and when did you fall in love with it?
Chef JJ Johnson [JJ]: You know I started cooking with my grandma in the kitchen. Looking back, I believe that she injected food DNA into my soul, into my body. I have wanted to cook since [I was] eight years old. My family just took me under their wings and really cultivated it.
My uncle Donald, my aunt Lisa, they would take me out to eat. They were really big foodies. They would challenge me. They would make me eat things that a typical 10, 11, 12 year old kid wouldn’t eat–escargot, all these things–to see if I really wanted to do this. They were like, you need to know what it tastes like. And then I started as a dishwasher riding my bike to a country club. Then I went to the Culinary Institute of America.
SS: While you were growing up, of course like you said, your aunts and uncles were showing you these different foods, you were cooking with grandma. But was there anyone in the chef world particularly that you said, okay I see them doing this and I want to follow in those footsteps? Or was it mostly just family that caused you to go [into cooking] more professionally?
JJ: As I got older and I was in high school, I always said I would be better than Emeril Lagasse. That was the ongoing joke. I grew up in the Poconos, northeast PA. I didn’t know about Michelin stars or three stars in the New York Times. I just knew who this prominent figure was on television. So i was like, okay, I’m going to be better than that guy.
And that’s still the ongoing joke. Kids from high school hit me up like, you really do cook. You really did follow your dreams. I’m fortunate that I’m able to do what I love. My hobby is my profession.
SS: That is a beautiful thing. Not many people can say that. I’m glad you’re carrying that [dream] out and showing people all these different paths in the culinary world.
Chef JJ Johnson on Culinary School
SS: Like you said, you went straight to the Culinary Institute of America and then you started going into restaurant kitchens. A lot of people go back and forth about whether it’s worth going to culinary school if you want to be a chef.
Chef JJ Johnson: [Laughs.]
SS: [Laughs.] I know it’s probably a question you get a lot, but what is your idea about that?
JJ: You know, I really wouldn’t be where I am without culinary school. So for me it worked. I got the foundation. They painted the picture for me. I didn’t grow up as a city kid, being a dishwasher in this robust, busy restaurant. Also, looking back, being Black in the restaurant industry is also tough, so saying I went to the Culinary Institute of America opened the door and at least allowed me to get that interview. And then from there I could prove myself.
So I would go back to the Culinary Institute of America any time. I think it’s a great school. Of course it cost so much money. We could talk about that for days. But they do give you a great foundation. They do show you food through a bunch of lenses. Maybe they are missing some, but who isn’t?
I think the biggest thing, and you could probably say this from undergrad: “Ooh I wish I had talked to that professor more, I wish I had done this a little more”, right? So those things were really big.
A Life Changing Trip to Ghana
SS: You talked about the different lenses of culinary school and how you are trained. The different cuisines that are put into place. I did some reading on how you talked about how you were trained in the French way, but it wasn’t until later on that you experienced more of the global cooking that you are known for now.
Can you speak about that turning point? When you went from the classical, more European cuisines to diving into the Lowcountry, diving into West Africa. What was that turning point for you?
Chef JJ Johnson: When you come out of culinary school you’re honing a skill. Like let me learn how to make pasta the best, risotto the best, cook fish the best. That’s what most chefs do, they just hone a skill and try to perfect it.
When I went to Ghana, I realized what I should be cooking in life. Who I should be. What my purpose was. i’m very thankful for that trip. A lot of people say that when they leave West Afria they come back with these marching orders. Well, I came back with mine. That’s when I teamed up with Alexander Smalls and opened up The Cecil [restaurant].
I always look at food through the West African lens. It doesn’t matter where I travel in the world. I’m always seeing the impact of the movement of the people. I’m always looking at food and being like, that doesn’t make sense. The only way that makes sense is because these kind of people were here. Most people don’t want to talk about that because that’s like this big negative impact. But i think that’s the beautiful thing about food: you can see the darkness and you can see the brightness through it.
Understanding Food Within a Diasporic Lens
SS: Those gems you got from Ghana and West Africa, how did that shape what you did at The Cecil and the cookbook you did with Alexander Smalls [and Veronica Chambers]? You guys won a James Beard Award for Between Harlem and Heaven that really brings that background of the transatlantic slave trade, of all this different intermixture [of culture]. How did [those experiences] influence your cooking style moving forward?
JJ: I realized I was a true kid of the African Diaspora. I think our families of that era tried to not expose us to so much because the last era was fighting so hard. Our grandparents were fighting so hard that it was like, okay, we don’t even need to talk to our kids about this.
I grew up as a Black boy, yes. I knew my grandmother was Puerto Rican, I knew my grandfather was West Indian, but at the end of the day I was just Black. Those things didn’t really matter because of the way the world perceived Black people. So I never knew about the Diaspora. Certain things that would happen, [but] my family really sheltered me from a lot of that.
Yes, they taught some things, [but] I truly believe that a lot of people’s families sheltered kids from the age of 25 to 40. And [that is] why we have done so much research and made it really prominent for people to really know our history–because there was that generation of like, “we’re going to take it away from you guys”. And now it is like, no, this is who we are. And that’s what the food that I cook [is about].
I’m celebrating the history of people. Where they’ve been, how they’ve moved, the delicious flavors and why you should learn a little more about it. It breaks my heart when people don’t really want to learn about it. They don’t want to understand it because they can’t put their finger right on a map. But slaves didn’t have that benefit.
So I’m just celebrating that. I’m pulling from a lot of the Diaspora, where I’m from, who I am. The West Indies, Puerto Rico, West Africa. Where I’ve traveled to: Singapore, Israel, Ghana, India, and then the American South. I probably haven’t touched on the American South that much yet in my career. I probably will do some sort of American South restaurant, but I haven’t really dug that deep yet.
Unpacking the Meaning Behind Afro-Asian-American Cuisine
SS: So you mentioned all of these places you’ve traveled. You’ve mentioned being someone who is from the Caribbean, Latin America, as well as the American South. When you, and I’m guessing Alexander Smalls participated in this as well, coined the term Afro-Asian-American cuisine, what is the idea behind that? Is that going more toward the West Indian background and that mixture [of cultures]? How does this relate to your idea of Black food?
JJ: Afro-Asian-American cuisine is defining who the people are, and potentially where they traveled to. So America is the last place. Afro is the start. And the Asians were the ones who were the migrant workers in between it all. When the slaves didn’t want to be slaves anymore, people had to find migrant workers. So they went to Vietnam, they went to China, they went to Japan. Those people worked beside West African slaves.
There was food that came from that. Whether it’s in Brazil with the Japanese and the Afro-Brazilians. It’s India and Barbados and Trinidad. It’s Panama and the Chinese. There’s these flavors consistent with these people that no one ever talks about. So that’s what Afro-Asian is.
And you really see it in Senegal with the Vietnamese that live there. You see it with the influence of the Chinese in Ghana. And that’s not by coincidence or the idea that Asians are just everywhere. They’re everywhere for a legitimate reason. We highlight that. A lot of things I pull from you’ll see from Barbados and India or a little bit of Chinese here because I saw it in West Africa.
People say, why do you cook with a wok? When I was in Ghana on the streets they would have woks frying things up, like street meat. Maybe not a traditional wok you see in Asian culture, but a tin pan that can consume a lot of heat to make suya. I’m just celebrating the people.
SS: You’re educating me. I didn’t know about the Asian presence in Senegal, all of these different things. You’re bringing this to the forefront, the idea that we are more connected than we realize.
Discussing Our Southern Roots
JJ: Where is your family from?
SS: We’re from here [the United States]. I’m from California, but my family has roots in Oklahoma and Alabama. So the South.
JJ: Alabama. I cooked in Alabama at a Farmers’ Appreciation Dinner in Montgomery a couple years ago. I was very skeptical before I went but it all worked out for me. [Laughs.]
SS: You know what’s so funny? I’ve never been to the Deep South and everyone’s like, why do you want to go there? I’m like, I want to see. [Laughs.] I want to see the cotton. I want to see everything. So I’m glad that you had that chance. It’s definitely something I want to do.
JJ: Yeah, you won’t catch me in Mississippi. That’s where my dad’s father’s from. He always told me as a kid, hey man you will not go to Mississippi. I was going to do my [culinary school] externship in Mississippi on a casino boat.
SS: Do you think you’ll ever find your way down there?
JJ: I’ve actually been invited down there a lot. They say you have to fly into somewhere and drive two hours. And that’s what makes it very uncomfortable.
SS: I definitely get that, especially when we talk about the Deep South.
All About the Cookbooks: Between Harlem and Heaven and The Rise
SS: I want to talk about the cookbooks. What I do on my blog is I cook through some recipes from cookbooks. One I plan to do is Between Harlem and Heaven. What recipes would you suggest for me or anyone who’s opening the book for the first time?
JJ: Oooh. The purple yams I think are a great one for a side dish on the table. If you can’t get guinea hen but you want to do the cinnamon-scented guinea hen, you can do it with chicken. It’s one of my favorite dishes in the book, so if you do fry that would work. Poisson Yassa, the gumbo, the peri peri shrimp.
SS: [Laughs.] So basically the whole book!
JJ: I mean, the whole thing! The great thing about the book is you have small things and you have large things. You can definitely work through the book. Something easy is the purple yams with the coconut milk. It’s really good.
SS: That sounds good. I’m excited to make it and see how it tastes. Speaking of cookbooks dedicated to the food of the Diaspora, you were recently featured in Marcus Samuelsson’s cookbook, The Rise, which is what I started working through as I looked into different Black chefs.
You inspire two dishes in there: a Shellfish Stew with Black Rice, which is what I made, as well as a Gold Coconut Broken Rice with Tamarind-Glazed Halibut. Do you think those dishes relate to the food that you make? If so, in what ways?
JJ: I made those recipes so long ago for Marcus. Broken rice is that rice that the slaves, the migrant workers, everybody had to eat. And now it’s like a hot commodity. Oooh, broken rice. Broken rice represents the culture. Tamarind represents the Caribbean. I actually love that dish in the book.
But again, my interpretation is very different from everybody else’s. I’m one of the few [American] chefs that went and cooked in West Africa. And then being able to go to Israel and being able to eat in the Four Quarters, in the Muslim Quarter, seeing that had an impact on me. Even Singapore, seeing how Singaporean food is made up of three different cultures [Chinese, Malay, and Indian].
So really seeing the vibrancy of how people have moved around the world and the food that’s come out of it. That’s what you see in a lot of those dishes that I put in Marcus’ book. I think it is very different from a lot of other chefs, where they’re cooking something from a childhood moment. I’m cooking something from places around the world.
FieldTrip: Chef JJ Johnson’s Globally Inspired Fast Casual Chain
SS: When you talk about cooking things from around the world, I think that also shows up in your restaurant, FieldTrip. It’s really globally inspired by this idea of rice being this thing that basically everybody eats. You opened it in 2019. Can you talk more about the mantra “Rice is Culture” and how all of your experiences influence that menu?
JJ: It goes back to traveling. When I was in India, I remember the biryani coming to the table. Everyone was getting so excited about the rice. Not worrying about the goat or the vegetables or whatever else was there. It was the rice, the rice, the rice. And it was like that everywhere.
I was like, why is that not like that here? I realized that rice is the most disrespected ingredient in the United States. But we all grew up in a rice culture. It was the first thing our parents gave us, or something you’d eat all the time. So “Rice is Culture” is basically [referring to the fact] that we all have a rice culture, whether we like it or not.
SS: That’s real. I know I grew up eating rice almost every night, so this is definitely intriguing. Out of all of the dishes on your menu, which would you say is your favorite?
JJ: Aw man, you’re trying to really get me. I love the shrimp bowl. The sticky rice with the green curry. If you ask for a little extra green curry on the bowl, make sure we put it on top of your rice. It’s really good. I love the black rice and the peri peri sauce. I don’t like salmon, but the shrimp bowl is one of my favorite bowls.
SS: I’m going to have to try that, because I had the crispy chicken bowl and that was really good.
JJ: Okay. You started in a good place then.
SS: Yes, it was delicious.
On Starting FieldTrip in Harlem
SS: So another thing that’s important to talk about is that you have three [Fieldtrip] locations now [Harlem, Long Island City, and Midtown]. I went to your Harlem location. That seems to be one that has a lot of press around it. Why Harlem? What has the community thought about this global rice bowl in the neighborhood?
Chef JJ Johnson: Whew, the community. Harlem will keep you honest, I’ll tell you that.
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, Black people won’t lie.
JJ: You know, I wanted to disrupt a community that was always told that we only eat fried food. Smothered this, fingerlickin’ good this, and that we didn’t want anything consciously better. That was step one. And then that corridor where I’m at in Harlem has one of the highest unemployment rates in New York City. So it’s like, let me bring jobs to a community.
And I always believe if I make it in Harlem then I can make it anywhere else in the world. Because if it can work in Harlem, then I can have this in the Bronx, in Oakland, in Atlanta, wherever, right? Communities that look like Harlem.
I will tell you that in the beginning people were not receptive of it. They didn’t think it was a Black owned business, or a Black led business. People in the neighborhood would tell me, oh because you have “Rice is Culture” there you think it’s going to make people come in? Harlem will keep you honest.
But people would come in, people would eat. The greatest thing now, during COVID, people who would never have eaten in FieldTrip, wanted to eat in FieldTrip. They wanted to support our business. They saw how hard we were working, [they] saw what we were doing for the community. The tone changed.
I get it. I don’t even think Fieldtrip in Harlem is “nice”. I feel like I didn’t even put a lot of money into it, I just got the doors open. It’s nice enough, but I wish I could have made it amazing. But teaching people like, you got Jordans on your feet, you got a diamond necklace on your neck, why can’t you have a nice restaurant in your community? Why does that only have to be white people bringing that?
And I get it. They see it all the time. It’s something that happens all the time. It’s a front. Hire a bunch of Black people that work there and then they profit off of it. And we see it everyday with big box businesses.
So I just hope we can keep going at full force. I’m hoping that Harlem will keep coming in and eating delicious food, and that we can keep expanding into another market that looks like Harlem. That’s the next move, for FieldTrip to potentially go into the Bronx.
SS: I think that will be excellent because the Bronx really needs this type of thing. Even moreso than Harlem, there is just a [lack of] eateries there. So you talk about people seeing the things that you are doing for the community and then getting more interested in FieldTrip. Can you talk about some of the things you’ve done with the surrounding community?
JJ: During COVID we’ve fed workers, families in need. We sent produce boxes across the street to NYCHA housing. We’ve helped the food bank. We’ve done a lot during COVID around the necessity of people getting nutritional healthy food and people being able to get a hot meal.
I’m working with [the nonprofit] Rethink Food which is amazing for us on the business side but also helping them on their side. Hunger, or food insecurity, has always been near and dear to my heart. I think restaurants can end hunger in America.
SS: I think that is a powerful thing, and the fact that you are doing it in a community like [Harlem] is a great precedent to start. Especially if you can expand that to more communities that look like Harlem. I love that idea.
Getting Personal with Chef JJ Johnson
SS: Let’s talk a little about you cooking at home. You’re cooking for all these people. You’re feeding people great food in different neighborhoods. But I want to know more about how you eat. So can you talk about five must-have ingredients you always have in your kitchen?
Chef JJ Johnson: Curry powder, cumin, rice…
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, you have to stay on brand.
JJ: I always have some type of lamb in my fridge. I love lamb. And then some type of condiment. I’m always trying a new condiment. So right now I’m trying this berbere spiced sauce.
SS: Mmm, that sounds really yummy. So we are going to do this as if we were on Chopped. You have cumin, curry powder, lamb, rice, and a condiment. What are you making? Come on, it’s quick.
JJ: [Laughs.] I’m making like a curry crusted lamb with some berbere spiced rice. And there’s no vegetables there so hopefully there’s some vegetables in the pantry that I’ll saute up.
SS: Okay. That was pretty quick! And so, going a little more into you cooking for people and showing people quick and easy dishes that sound delicious, you have your show [on Cleo TV], “Just Eats With JJ”. You cook up stuff for people, different figures, politically active figures, people active in the food community.
The show is really centered around Black people enjoying food. Can you talk about why you decided to go on TV and the importance of a show like yours?
JJ: Well, the importance of a show like mine is that it is on a network for us, by us. I think it is important that when I took the show there were not many Black people with cooking shows on television. So it was like, how can we develop this really high level show for people to watch and cook from?
And then the other part of being on TV, was that I think it just became part of my career that I was fortunate enough to be on television. I think a lot of chefs want to be on television, but everybody can’t get there. I was just fortunate enough to be able to do it. It’s also a marketing tool to help people come to your restaurant.
SS: That’s excellent. It’s great to have another how to cooking show, for you to be bringing people and showing them how you cook in your kitchen. How can we watch on Cleo TV?
JJ: I heard that you can watch on Roku, Direct TV just picked it up. If you don’t have television, I think YouTube. Every market is so different, so it’s really hard.
SS: That makes sense. We’ll look more into that so we can support. Just to wrap up, I wanted to know: what legacy do you hope to leave on the culinary industry? You talk about expanding, you talk about this whole empire, so I want to know. What’s the end goal for JJ?
JJ: I look at FieldTrip and myself now the way I look at Steve Ells and Chipotle in 1992 and how he changed the whole fast casual scene with Chipotle. I think that FieldTrip is doing the same thing right now in 2020. I believe my legacy will be the way I changed the way our communities are eating food, giving them the necessary options to consciously eat better.
SS: That’s a beautiful thing. I think that would be tremendous if we could have a Black led business that was all across the nation with healthy offerings like FieldTrip. That would be a huge legacy to leave.
JJ: From your mouth to God’s ears.
SS: [Laughs.] Yes, yes. Do you have any projects you’re working on that you would like to share? I seen something about you possibly working on a rice cookbook? I don’t know if it’s true.
JJ: I’m working on a rice cookbook, but that won’t be out for a long time. I’m always cooking something up.
SS: So stay tuned?
JJ: [Laughs.] Stay tuned.
Follow Chef JJ Johnson for updates @chefjj and tune in to “Just Eats with JJ” on Saturdays at 9PM EST.