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. As co-founder along with longtime friend and collaborator Will Sears of InGrained Hospitality Concepts, J.J. is working on a cookbook, a national restaurant concept, and a television program with Powerhouse Productions. 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 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 their restaurant, The Cecil, when it opened 2013. In 2016, The Cecil merged with Smalls' Harlem jazz supper club Minton's where J.J. served as executive chef before his departure and the creation of InGrained Hospitality.
J.J. is 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 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." And he couldn't be happier with that life.