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.”