Keeping Culinary Traditions Alive
Chef Joseph “J.J.” Johnson is in good company. As one of Forbes
magazine’s “30 Under 30” honorees, he joins such luminaries as actress
Olivia Wilde, singer Bruno Mars, basketball star Kevin Durant, and CNBC
anchor Kelly Evans.
It’s a fantastic achievement for this up-and-coming chef, who made the Food & Wine category of Forbes’
tally of the brightest stars under the age of 30 in 15 different
fields. He’s really making a name for himself as executive chef at The
Cecil, an Afro-Asian-American brasserie in Harlem and it’s sibling jazz
club, Minton’s. But with all his success and recognition, J.J. never
forgets where he came from.
The first indication that he had a passion for food came when he was
just seven years old, after seeing a commercial for The Culinary
Institute of America. “I told my mom I wanted to be a chef,” J.J.
recalls. “She said ‘You should be a doctor or a politician. Why would you want to be a chef?’” But he was hooked after watching his Puerto Rican grandmother serve up butternut squash soup and other ethnic dishes.
His life as a chef got off to a bit of a rough start, though. When J.J. began his studies at the CIA, he admits that he was the worst cook in the kitchen—but one day “it all clicked.”
Indeed it did. He graduated and went on to work at several notable
New York City restaurants, including Tropica, Jane, Tribeca Grill, and
Centro Vinoteca. Along the way, J.J. was the winner of the Bravo show Rocco’s Dinner Party,
hosted and judged by CIA graduate Rocco DiSpirito ’86. Shortly
thereafter J.J. was was approached via email by chef/restaurateur/opera
singer Alexander Smalls, who befriended the young chef and eventually
gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: a 16-day trip to Ghana to cook
alongside its chefs and explore flavor profiles he’d never heard of
before. Upon their return, Smalls and Johnson developed 36 different
menus that would ultimately be narrowed down to one Afro-Asian inspired
menu for The Cecil when it opened 2013.
At The Cecil J.J. crafts a menu integrating culinary traditions of
The African Diaspora, which celebrates communities throughout the world
that are descended from peoples of Africa. Creating memorable entrées
ranging from Chinese Chicken Sausage to Veal Kimchi, J.J. credits much
of his recent success to Chef Smalls, who he says has been a major
influence in his life.
The Cecil gained recognition from the start. It was voted the 2014 Best New Restaurant in America by Esquire magazine and was included in Forbes magazine’s
40th Anniversary edition of New York All-Star Eateries. The accolades
keep coming for J.J. as well including a nomination for a James Beard
Foundation award for Rising Star Chef (2015); an award from StarChefs.com as a Rising Star Community Chef (2015); being named one of The Zagat Survey’s 30 under 30; an Eater
Young Gun award (2014); and being recognized as Chef of the Year by New
York African Restaurant Week (2015), a annual cultural event inviting
people from all over to celebrate the best of African cuisine, wine,
chefs, artisans, and restaurants across the city.
He’s also quick to point out the impact his alma mater has had on his
career. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the CIA,” J.J. says. “The CIA's chefs and professors
there got me ready for the culinary world and set me up for success.
The college has a saying: ‘Preparation is Everything.’ That’s how I look
at my life every day.”
J.J. and his team are active in the Harlem community supporting Share
Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry campaign to end child hunger in
America. They’re largess is also felt close to home. Once a week, The
Cecil kitchen feeds their upstairs neighbors. It was a deal owner
Richard Parsons and Alexander Smalls made when they recognized that the
tenants got most of their meals from City Harvest and other local
organizations. “We’re feeding them a complete meal, so they get really
good food and know they’re cared about,” J.J. says.
The chef believes in taking care of his staff. J.J. invests in older
employees who have made career switches and come in with little training
and a lot to lose. “It’s a lot of work,” J.J. warns, “but you get
longevity out of those you train. My biggest thing is I tell my
employees good morning and I say goodnight, thanking them at the end of
each day.” J.J. also believes in five-day work weeks for everyone. “My
sous chefs and my line cooks all have two days off. If you have a good
personal life, you’ll have a good work life. I believe in that. We give
five days off so people can schedule a vacation.”
“The culinary conversation and discipline of The Cecil and Minton’s
is a reflection of my life long commitment and appreciation of the food
ways and cooking traditions of The African Diaspora,” says Alexander
Smalls. “Creating the flavor profile and recipes that represent the
shared expression J.J. and I subscribe too has been my greatest
reward. He is rightfully my heir and my choice to continue the
tradition, for which I am so proud.”