Table Talk with Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson

Current Gig
Chef de Cuisine, The Cecil

About the Chef
Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson started off his culinary career as a dishwasher for a country club in the Poconos. He always knew he wanted to be a chef, and after seeing a commercial for the Culinary Institute of America, Chef JJ told his mother that was where he would go to school – and he did just that. After graduating from CIA and moving to New York City, he worked at a number of restaurants, including Jane, Tribeca Grill, The Smith, Tropica, and Centro Vinoteca. Chef JJ is currently the Chef de Cuisine at The Cecil in Harlem, an Afro-Asian-American brasserie that opened in late September 2013.

The Cecil: 210 West 118th Street (between St. Nicholas Ave and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd)

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Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson at The Cecil

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania (the Poconos) in a full house with my mom, dad, and grandparents. Everyone in my family lived around the corner from each other. My Puerto Rican grandmother would cook dinner every night and I used to hate all of the food she made. (Laughing) She used to make beets, butternut squash soup, and asopao, a soupy Puerto Rican rice dish – all of the flavors that I love today as a chef, but hated as a kid. She used to pull my ear and force me to eat. I’m really glad she did because it paid off. (Laughing)

What did you enjoy eating most as a kid?
I loved to eat lasagna… and pasteles, which we made with pureed plantains, cassava root or yuca wrapped in a banana leaf and stuffed with pork or shrimp. I also loved slow roasted pork shoulder. My mom is half Puerto Rican and Bajun (her dad is from Barbados) and my dad is African American, so I grew up with a great mix of cultures. When we would come to New York, we would eat sweet potato pie, braised collard greens, and pigs feet – which I didn’t eat at the time, but do now!

At the moment, what is your favorite ingredient and what do you like to make with it?
My favorite ingredients are something that I use as a foundation for a lot of different dishes:  onions, tomatoes, bird’s eye chili, ginger, and garlic. I find that it’s a good combination of acidity, sweetness, and spiciness. It’s my own mirepoix. Here at the restaurant we use it as the foundation for our piri piri sauce.  My favorite ingredient that is in season right now is beets.  I get these great baby beets out of Ohio from The Chef’s Garden. I called them the “Skittles” of cooking – they are naturally sweet and I love to slow roast them.

What kitchen items are important for a home cook to own?
If you can invest in good oil, do it. I recommend spending an extra couple of dollars to buy grape seed oil. It’s a great oil to cook with because there is no smoke point and it’s pretty healthy for you. I would also recommend good pots and pans – cast iron pans are great for the kitchen – and a good cutting board. I always like having fresh herbs in my kitchen. It’s a good excuse to go to the supermarket and buy what’s in season.

If your food were music, what music style(s) would it be and why?
The first thing that pops into my head is Lauryn Hill. Something classic. Like, it comes out today and you love it, and twenty years from now, you’re still listening to it and it’s just as good as it was back then.  I also think of Michael Jackson, who I grew up listening to. As a teenager, it’s great, and now that I’m old, and it’s still great. (Laughing)

Where are your favorite places to travel for the cuisine?
I was in Ghana about a year ago for sixteen days. It’s a mixed culture of Asians and Africans that produces such great food. There’s a lot of seafood — prawns, grouper, spiny lobster — as well as noodles, sesame oil, and dumplings.  It was an amazing personal and culinary experience for me. I think everyone should travel the world. My friends say, let’s go to Vegas or Miami, and I’m like, let’s go to Colombia or Costa Rica! This time last year I was in Costa Rica eating mahi mahi ceviche on the beach for five dollars. It was so fresh and so great. I would love to travel to Southeast Asia and the Caribbean Islands. I haven’t been to Barbados in a long time so it would be awesome to go back as an adult.

If you had not gone the culinary route, what would you have done instead?
I would probably be coaching basketball. I played a lot of ball as a kid and my dad runs a non-profit basketball program in the Poconos. When I decided that I was going to be a chef, I started coaching the kids. We’ve got kids playing all across the country now. I haven’t been able to coach in the last two years because I’ve been so busy with cooking, but it’s really fun and exciting. It reminds me of the kitchen – this fast-paced flow of back and forth, execution, and team work.

Which chef do you admire most right now?
I admire Alexander Smalls, the Executive Chef here at The Cecil.  He didn’t go to culinary school, but is so talented and is able to execute really well.  I also admire Alfred Portale of Gotham Bar and Grill, who I consider one of the most consistent chefs in the country. Brian Ellis of The Smith and the Corner Table Restaurant Group is awesome. He’s a mentor of mine and a really great guy. He can open restaurants and make sure the food is consistent at every location – no matter which one you go to, it tastes the same every time. I really respect that.

When you get a chance to dine out, where do you like to go?
I read the NY Times every Wednesday and create a list of where I want to go. (Laughing) Right now, I want to check out Khe-Yo, Le Bernardin, and my buddy’s restaurant out in Long Island City called Blend. By my apartment, my go-to spot is Thai House. If I’m downtown, I like Otto, Alta, and Blue Ribbon.

If you had to give up one of the five food groups (Bread & Potatoes; Milk & Dairy; Meat & Fish; Fat & Sugar; Fruits & Vegetables) and could not eat anything from that group for the rest of your life, which one would it be and why?
This is so hard because your body needs everything! (Laughing) OK, OK, if I have to pick something, I’d give up fat and sugar. I can still make food taste good without it. (Smiling)

Table Talk with Chef Joe “JJ” Johnson