Marcus Samuelsson may be considered the culinary king of Harlem, but The Cecil’s JJ Johnson isn’t far behind. In addition to being included on Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Zagat’s 30 under 30 and Eater’s Young Gun lists in 2014, as well as receiving a James Beard Foundation nomination for “Rising Star,” the chef has made it his mission to educate the public about African food, by way of his critically acclaimed restaurant on West 118th Street.
Inspired by his travels throughout Ghana, the Caribbean and beyond, Johnson recently reworked his established menu, in order to further represent the flavor profiles of the world’s most influential Afro ports. So in addition to introducing heirloom grains and a new whole animal program, he’s offering refined renditions of popular African staples, such as “Hands Only,” a spicy mix of beans, sticky rice and rabbit sausage, based on a Senegalese street dish called thiebou dieune, and Braised Goat Dumplings, showcasing one of the world’s most popular, affordable proteins.
“Basically, I’m hoping to take African cuisine to the level of Italian food, which used to be considered peasant cuisine and now is part of the fine dining realm,” Johnson said. “We’re at the beginning stages of that; I’m introducing people to a cuisine that’s been in existence for thousands of years.” We also spoke with the chef about the best piece of advice he’s ever received, his thoughts on Harlem’s current restaurant renaissance, and why he aims to be the David Chang of his generation.
Did you always want to be a chef, growing up?
Ever since I was four years old. My grandmother used to cook and play really loud salsa music, and I think that drew me away from watching cartoons. I also saw a commercial for the CIA when I was nine or ten, which was pretty exciting.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received from a chef friend or mentor?
My dad always told me not to live life like you coulda woulda shoulda. Never look back with regrets. That’s really pushed me throughout my career. Now he complains that I’m too busy, and I have to remind him that I’m not living life like I coulda woulda shoulda.
So what precipitated your decision to really change up the menu at The Cecil?
It was largely inspired by my recent travels to places like Ghana, as well as Israel, where I observed the West and North African influence in Jerusalem. It drove home the idea that African cuisine isn’t one dimensional; that I needed to come back and engage our patrons in an ongoing culinary conversation.
Can you talk about dishes that you think are especially representative of your new direction?
I’m loving the Goat Dumplings with peanut piri piri, the Braised Lamb with sticky rice and coconut yassa, and a dish based on one I had in Ghana, which was basically fried plantain fritters with powdered sugar on top. “The Carrot,” featuring carrot purée, roasted heirloom carrots, tops and coriander dressing, emphasizes our excitement about the whole vegetable movement. There’s also an item called “Hands Only,” which includes rabbit sausage, black eyed peas, sticky rice and roti, because one of the most formative culinary experiences I had was in Ghana where all ate with our hands, which isn’t something I’d ever done before. Theres a Pan Roasted Cod with sorghum, which migrated by way of African slaves to the South. I dove really deep into the ports of the African diaspora, so there’s Moqueca, which is a Portuguese dish that migrated into Bahia — which has the second largest African concentration outside of Africa.
So would you say Harlem is in the middle of a restaurant renaissance of sorts, or do you think there’s still a ways to go?
If we look at Harlem in the 50’s, 60’s and even 70’s, Harlem was the place to be. There were restaurants on every corner, along with oyster bars and jazz clubs. Marcus Samuelsson has done a great job of getting that energy going again, and we’ve grabbed the baton from him, and even more restaurants are following, but yes, there’s still a long way to go. Instead of Brooklyn, I’m always trying to convince my friends to open restaurants in Harlem. The community really wants it; if you walk around here on a Friday or Saturday night, every single restaurant is packed, from 11oth street all the way up. A lot of places opening here are from lesser-known chefs though, so it might take a big name or two to light the spark in a major way.
What excites you about working in and cooking for the Harlem community?
It’s the greatest community in the world. No matter where you go, people have heard of Harlem; it’s like a historic and cultural touchstone. When I walk to work every day, there’s an old lady who waves to me, and I’ll wave back. Everyone says hello to each other. It’s amazing to cook in a real community, and see your neighbors at your restaurant.
What do you do (and eat) in the city on a rare day off?
I hang out with my fiancé, work out at the gym, and then eat out at places like Upland or Charlie Bird, and get drinks at Sweetwater or Seamstress. I’m always bouncing around to see my chef friends, so I don’t get lost in what I’m doing, foodwise.
What do you consider to be some of the greatest accomplishments in your career to date?
I would say the greatest feeling for me on an everyday basis is feeding the tenants upstairs from us at Housing and Services Inc. My most impactful accolade, which I believe really helped people see who I was and what I’m about, was being listed on Forbes 30 Under 30 a couple of years ago. But everything has helped give me a foot up, whether it’s getting my name out there or putting me in a room with incredible chefs whom I admire. And being on the James Beard Award long list ended up benefiting not just me, but the people who work for me; when they leave and look for other jobs, they can say that they worked for a James Beard Rising Star semifinalist, and their potential employers know that they’ve been given a really good foundation.
What’s your ultimate career goal? What brass rings are you currently reaching for?
On the macro level, I want to be the greatest of my time. Ten years ago, April Bloomfield and David Chang came onto the scene, and now they’re considered the greatest chefs of their era. I want to have really impacted the industry, having helped people understand what the food of the African diaspora is, and how it’s affected the culinary world at large.