Hot Chef: JJ Johnson brings Afro-Asian-American cuisine to The Cecil

Visit Johnson at The Cecil (206 W. 118th St, 212-864-5281). Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn
Visit JJ Johnson at The Cecil (206 W. 118th St, 212-864-5281).
Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn

If you’re confused by the idea of Afro-Asian-American cuisine — which is how the menu leans at Harlem’s newest hot spot, The Cecil — don’t worry: Chef JJ Johnson didn’t get it at first either. But a trip to Africa solidified the chef’s understanding, and he’s putting his know-how on display.

After winning “Rocco DiSpirito’s Dinner Party” on Bravo in 2011 and working in kitchens like Tribeca Grill and Jane, Johnson is now calling the shots as The Cecil’s chef de cuisine. He has been garnering buzz for his cooking at the restaurant, which opened in September, including a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.

As he readied his spring menu — which features dishes like lamb ribs and tuna tartar — the chef found a few minutes to talk to us.

How did the idea for Afro-Asian-American cuisine come about?

About two years ago [restaurateur] Alexander Smalls contacted me. He said, “I have these great projects I’m working on, and I think I want to include you.” He then talked to me about this Afro-Asian-American cuisine, and I was really confused. I got the Afro part, but I didn’t get the Asian. And he said, “Well, Asians migrated to Africa first, and they dropped off all the ingredients — noodles, spices, oils — and African culture started cooking with it.” In November I went to Ghana with him to cook and I got to see it firsthand — rices, fresh produce, fresh fish, sesame oil, a bunch of spices — and it all made sense.

What did you like to eat as a kid?

I grew up with my Puerto Rican grandmother in the kitchen. As I created a menu with Alexander [Smalls], I started to see this merge of flavor that took me back to my childhood. My grandfather was from Barbados; my great-aunt used to make a jerky. My grandmother, I watched her have fun in the kitchen and that’s what inspired me to be a chef. As a kid I was always in the kitchen. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, and I just kept going from there.

Who was the first person you called when you found out you made the Forbes list?

I think it was my best friend from culinary school. We’re always talking about being great and putting our footprint on the food industry. I called my mom, of course. She was always like, “You should be a politician or a doctor,” so this was the moment where it was, “OK, if this is something you really want to do, then you can check it off of your bucket list.”



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
Local

Mayor announces public housing improvements

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem on Wednesday, calling for the scaffolding to come down at NYCHA complexes across…

National

Peter Theo Curtis: American released by Syrian militants…

An American writer freed this week from two years in the captivity of insurgents in Syria spoke briefly outside his family's Cambridge home Wednesday of…

Local

Bratton defends 'broken windows' work as NYPD support…

Sixty percent of those polled said they support the "broken windows" theory approach popularized by Commissioner Bratton since his first term in the 1990s.

Local

Transit changes for Labor Day weekend

The MTA is adding additional service Friday for New Yorkers getting out of the city for the long weekend. On Friday, Aug. 29, 27 additional…

Television

'Full House' might be relaunched with some of…

A new "Full House" might be in the works.

Movies

Review: 'The Congress' is a crazy, unwieldy sci-fi…

Robin Wright is the center of gravity in "The Congress," which turns from a live-action Hollywood satire into an animated spectacular on a downer future.

Movies

Review: 'The Last of Robin Hood' is a…

Dakota Fanning plays Errol Flynn's (Kevin Kline) teenage gal pal in "The Last of Robin Hood," which takes a scandal and makes it dully empathetic.

Movies

Review: The uneven 'Life of Crime' mostly gets…

Elmore Leonard's "The Switch" becomes the new indie crime dramedy "Life of Crime," with Jennifer Aniston as a kidnapped woman whose husband won't pay up.

College

When are 2014 college football playoffs? (Schedule, date,…

When and where are 2014 college football playoffs? A look at the schedule, date, TV, time for the semi-finals at championship game.

NFL

Dimitri Patterson suspended only for rest of preseason…

Dimitri Patterson ended up getting just a slap on the wrist.

Sports

Eugenie Bouchard excited for 'rowdy' fans at US…

Eugenie Bouchard is sure to endear herself to New York's tennis faithful as she tries to win her first grand slam title across the next two weeks.

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels and A's still at…

MLB Power Rankings: Angels and A's still at top, Nationals climb

Home

Labor Day essentials

Whether you’re soaking up the sun on the beach or barbecuing in the park here are some must-haves for your end-of-summer bash.

Education

Does the school day start too early?

As thousands of high schoolers get ready to head back to class, health experts say it may be time to push back the start of…

Style

Fall 2014 trend: lilac

Push those gray and black sweaters aside and make room for blush and lilac.

Career

Stop eating lunch at your desk

What are you doing for lunch today? If you are like most workers, you'll be eating at your desk - which isn't much of a…

Comments

1