Joseph “J.J.” Johnson ’04, Executive Chef
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 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.”