Joseph “J.J.” Johnson – Alumni Bio
Major: Culinary Arts
Job Title: Co-Founder, InGrained Hospitality Concepts, Executive Chef/Co-Owner, Henry at the Life Hotel
Location: New York, NY
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, and basketball star Kevin Durant. 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. has opened his own restaurant, Henry at the Life Hotel, in midtown Manhattan where he serves flavors from Africa, the Caribbean, the American South, and Asia. He also is the author of Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, co-written with Alexander Smalls, and has become a Tasty video host. 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 by chef/restaurateur/opera singer Alexander Smalls, who befriended the young chef and eventually gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: to be the executive chef at 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.