Updated July 26, 2018
Original Interview and Photos by Laurie Ulster and Battman
Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson knows his flavors. As Chef de Cuisine at The Cecil, he is responsible for creating unique and memorable meals that combine ingredients and techniques from across oceans, continents, and cultures.
He’s also a culinary overachiever, getting his cooking chops at restaurants like Centro Vinoteca, Jane and Tribeca Grill. After appearing on — and winning — the very first episode of Rocco’s Dinner Party when he was 26, he was approached via email by chef/restauranteur/opera singer Alexander Smalls, who befriended the young chef and eventually gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: to travel to Ghana, cook alongside its chefs, and explore flavor profiles he’d never heard of before.
Named one of Forbes’ Magazine’s ‘30 Under 30‘ this year, Chef JJ has his eye on the prize: he’s always looking towards his next achievement, and never for a moment forgets the mentors who have guided him and the staff for whom he can do the same.
Located next to the rejuvenated jazz club Minton’s, The Cecil opened in September of 2013 and is doing its part to draw more and more New Yorkers uptown for a dining experience unlike any other in the city.
The Chefs Connection (CC): The Cecil bills itself as Afro-Asian-American fusion. Can you give us a sense of what that means? What can people expect when they come to eat here?
“The Cecil Restaurant in Harlem is Afro-Asian. They can expect big bold flavors, spice … recognizable food, but not recognizable flavors that have been put together before. An explosion of flavors in your mouth. A lot of our dishes are with ginger, shallots, garlic, bird’s eye chili, some zest moments of lemon and lime. But yeah, mostly spices, spices, and spice is what you get here at The Cecil.”
CC: What is one of the quintessential dishes that exemplifies all of that?
“I would say the feijoada. The feijoada’s a South American stewed dish. Normally it has pork in it, so we do it with oxtail. We take our oxtails and we braise them in veal stock, but we add star anise, cinnamon, [and] cumin to the braising liquid, with some orange and bird’s eye chili, which gives the oxtail all this flavor. Then we take the braising liquid and reduce it down, and fold that braising liquid into the black beans that we cook it in. So you get all these flavors, and then instead of making traditional pico de gallo that comes with tomatoes, we use orange. So you get all the citrus, with the spice, and then spicy. I would say that probably sums up The Cecil’s feijoada.”
CC: And what is your favorite thing that you have on the menu right now?
“Everything! The whole menu. [laughs] It’s interesting, because every dish that’s on the menu has been really thought out. Even like, tofu. I’ve got tofu pot stickers. We use the tofu in the same form we make gnocchi so instead of potato it’s tofu, because tofu’s a binder. And we put pink peppercorns in it.
“That’s always a super hard question for me. I have pride in all 36 items. But I think … [long, long thoughtful pause] … I want to say collared green salad, probably. Simple, but simple’s really the easiest way of cooking. Who would ever think raw collard greens would be good? Everybody braises collard greens, so a chiffonade of raw collard greens, this coconut, spicy dressing, adzuki red beans, shaved cucumbers, some red onions, and then candied cashews.”
CC: That sounds delicious.
“I have pride in that dish, and it was our … nobody would get it, when we first started, and now it’s our number one selling salad.”
CC: That’s just what I was going to ask you, is there anything you wish people would order more, that maybe they’re afraid of trying?
“I would say right now that’s probably our black rice dish, because nobody … who eats cold rice? I never ate cold rice. But being in Ghana, and knowing that Ghana, Western Africa, is the second largest region of consumption for rice next to China, I think of rice. And I think okay, people do cold noodle salad, so I’m going to do cold rice salad. So we do a black cold rice salad. It comes with roasted papaya and mango, bok choy leaves. We’re going to change it for summer, and do heirloom tomatoes in it, and roasted plums, a charred tomato vinaigrette. You know, changing the palette a little bit. I like to change … people look at food a little differently than how I look at it, ‘cause I feel everybody’s just cooking the same thing nowadays.”
CC: Has the restaurant been doing well since you opened?
“Doing well, knock on wood. Really well. I mean, every aspect. The community has taken us in well. At first, maybe no, because of the owners behind it, they think they’re just going to come in here and not think about the community at all. We’re the third largest private company in Harlem, we have 120 employees. 60 percent of our employees are from the community. So we give back.
“We feed the tenants upstairs. From the HSI [Housing and Services, Inc], and we feed them twice a week.”
(HSI is a nonprofit that has been working to end chronic homelessness and help those at risk of displacement through the operation and development of permanent supportive housing for over 25 years in NYC.)
“And it’s good because they respect us and we respect them, and they’re the biggest voice for us in the community. They watch over the restaurant if something happens.
“City Harvest drops off food for them, but we don’t give them leftovers; we literally make a legit meal for them, for 50 people, twice a week. We’ll do roasted chicken, or yesterday I did spring rolls. In our food cost budget that’s $500 that we spend a week to feed them really good food.
“So yeah, we’re doing [the] community good. And the food industry is getting here.
“I wish Pete Wells would come up and give us a review. Gael Greene was the first one here, she was actually here the second week, her and Steve Cuozzo. Cuozzo was here the third day we opened, which I thought wasn’t fair. Gael Greene was here the second week. She’s been back to celebrate her friend’s birthday, her birthday, she wrote about us in Manhattan Magazine and then again on her blog. It’s been really great in the food community. The things that you wish about, when you’re in culinary school, can I be at James Beard, can I get a review by Gael Greene, these things come about to reality, so it’s like dreams to reality.”
CC: And you’ve had some celebrities in here too, right?
“Mariah Carey has been here, Nick Cannon. Denzel has been here a couple of times.
CC: And Food Network stars too? I know Marcus [Samuelsson] has been in here.
“Marcus has been here once. Drew Nieporent’s been here. The CEO of BET has been in here several times. Famous designers … I’m not good with this. I treat everybody like they’re my mom, so …”
CC: Do you come out and walk around and talk to people?
“I come and walk around because I just like to see how people’s plates look. And there’s times that I walk around and see that somebody’s plate maybe will be half full, and I’ll talk to the server and say, ‘Can you touch on that table and see if they didn’t like their food, or make sure that they did like it, and if not, I have no problem taking it off their check.’ ‘Cause I want everybody to be happy when they walk out the door.
“And sometimes I walk the dining room and somebody grabs me and they’ll be like, ‘Hey I really liked the food, can I take your picture?’ It’s cool, but I don’t physically go up to a table and talk to a table unless they want me to talk to them. I’m not that type of chef. But if somebody wants me to come up and talk to them, yeah.”
CC: I want to talk about your trip to Ghana, from before The Cecil opened.
“I won ‘’ and I get an email from this guy Alexander [Smalls]. Never heard of him, he owns this restaurant called Café Beulah, a famous opera singer, all this … I’m like ‘Why did I never hear of this chef-opera singer-gentleman?’ And he lived in Harlem, and we went out for breakfast, and he told me about this concept. He said I’m trying to use Afro-Asian cooking. And I went home and I did all this research online, and I couldn’t find anything about Afro-Asian cooking. And I started picking up encyclopedias about Afro and Asian, and I started writing all these notes, and talking to him. And about a year in, he emails me and goes, ‘Hey JJ, I just came by to cook in Ghana, to do American-themed dinners over 16 days, would you like to go and be my chef?’
“I’d never cooked for him before, he’d never tasted my food, and I was like yes, I didn’t even ask for days off, I was like, ‘Of course!’
“I didn’t know what to expect. We took over this Ghanaian kitchen, and my biggest thing was like, ‘Okay, I come from culinary school, do they have the same standards as I do? It’s a different country.’ And I remember I just have to work with every employee, every cook. And they had skills, and I remember just watching this guy in the middle of the kitchen making piri piri sauce, and I [said], ‘What is this?’ Oh this is piri piri, and he rubbed it on a prawn, and just threw it in the oven, and I ate it and it was so spicy I just started tearing and sweating, and the whole kitchen was laughing at me.
“And we went to markets, we were on boats, we went to guinea hen farms. I really got to see it all. Probably the moment when I said, ‘Okay, I am a chef, I understand food, it’s like this marriage, I get it. This is different, but also the same. I grew up with some of these flavors, and I understand what you see.’
“It was this amazing experience. The first time we saw Japanese whiskey was in Ghana. We have Japanese whiskey in our bar now, here.
“So we came back and we developed about 36 menus for the restaurant, before we opened. And we finally were able to settle on one. We tested out all the food in Alexander’s apartment. We had a sommelier that came in and ate the food with us, and gave us wines. We brought a mixology team in, and that was my buddy , Tim Cooper, and he did the cocktails based off the flavor profile that we were looking for. He’d never heard of this concept before. Tim was like, ‘Tell me what you want, tell me what kind of flavors you think you need,’ and he worked with it, it was a learning experience for him. And now we’re here.”
CC: So what other international flavors and cuisines are you interested in?
“I look at the new chefs, or the new, that are cooking against the grain. Merging flavors and profile. Like everybody gets mad when you say fusion, but it’s not really fusion, it’s really where have people migrated to. And there was a French guy, working with an Asian guy, and they realized that this food and these flavors go really well together. Or there was a Mexican guy that was with an Asian guy, and they’re like, ‘Hey you’re right … we pickle, you pickle. I like spice, you like spice. I use jalapeño, you use different chilies,’ and they kind of just merge these flavors together. But also the same thing with the Dominicans in my kitchen, the Mexicans in my kitchen, or the Asians in my kitchen. I’ll make fufu, and the Dominican girls will say, ‘Oh, that’s mangu!’ And it IS mangu, but it migrated, the name changed through culture.
“And then it’s funny because I’ll start to see all these menus having an influence of Asian techniques, or these spices they’ve never used before … I even see it on Marcus’ menu now, Marcus has things on his menu that he’s never even thought of. I’m looking at his menu and I’m like, ‘Aleppo? They never used Aleppo before. What’s making them use Aleppo now?’
I don’t know if we’re influencing the food world, or chefs are traveling more, and seeing more influence, and respecting other cooking techniques from parts of the world that weren’t respected before. And maybe Anthony Bourdain’s the reason why people are cooking differently, because he’s raising awareness of other places in the world that we all don’t go to eat, and you’re looking at this saying, ‘Oh wow, this is really great, it looks amazing on TV, how can I figure this out?’
“I mean, I refuse to fry – I don’t refuse to fry chicken here. But … we do fried guinea hen. And in the process, I was at Culinary Institute of America, and they said guinea hen came from France. And when I was in Ghana, I’m on a guinea hen farm, and then you look in an encyclopedia and it says guinea hens came from Guinea.”
CC: Which is why they’re called guinea hens?
“Right. So okay, we’re going to fry guinea hen , we make a cinnamon brine, and it’s amazing. And how did we get to that point? I think Alexander just said, ‘Oh let’s try cinnamon,’ and I said, ‘Okay, how can I get cinnamon in here?’ Make a cinnamon brine, we put it in the flour, we use two different types of cinnamon. We use a gentleman called Mr. Recipe, we get all of our spices from him. And he’s picking all these spices from around the world, and he’s in this super cold room when he blends spices so [they] don’t lose the fragrance. So there are some areas that we work really hard in to make sure that the product is good.”
CC: Is there any country whose cuisine you’d like to explore that you haven’t yet?
“I still need to get through Africa a little bit more. A lot of people keep talking about Thailand, and the Philippines, supposed to have amazing food. But me personally, I need to go to Italy, because I just want to sit, walk down the street and just eat freshly sliced prosciutto, and just grab a tomato. But I think my list this year is going to be Senegal, Morocco . Costa Rica influenced me last year. But yeah, the normal European countries. Spain, Italy, France. Then I’ll focus on South America, the Caribbean, then I’ll go to Europe.
“But what this cuisine is, and how much I put into it, I need to get into West Africa much more.”
CC: So let’s go back to your childhood. I read that you said you saw a commercial for CIA [Culinary Institute of America], as a kid, and that was it for you. Is that just something you tell people who interview you?
“[Laughs] No, it’s real. Tim Ryan, the president [of CIA] laughs at me: ‘Oh yeah, I remember that commercial.’
“I was in my grandmother rand my grandfather’s house, watching TV, and I saw this commercial come on for CIA. I remember that green logo coming onto the screen. It looked amazing. I was like eight years old, seven years old, and I was like, ‘That’s where I want to go to school.’ And my mom was like, ‘No, you should be a politician, you should be a doctor, you should be a teacher.’ I’m like, ‘Noooo, I want to cook.’
“And I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother. My grandmother used to make the kitchen fun, ‘cause she would listen to salsa music, and she’d be dancing and singing, and cooking all this great food that I hated, as a kid, and she used to pull my ear and make me eat. And now, I love these beets, and squash, purple yams, all these spices that I grew up on, and food I grew up on, vegetables. But that’s where I always wanted to go. I always wanted to go to CIA.
CC: And then you were cooking as a little kid?
“Yeah, I cooked as a little kid, and I was a dishwasher at 14 years old, at this country club I used to ride my bike to, to and from work was like a 10-minute bike ride. And I used to wash dishes for about three years. And I used to look at these guys cook, and it’s sad to say what I used to say to them: ‘I’m going to be better than you.’ ‘Cause they used to do these outlandish things, that make me cringe still to this day.”
CC: Like what?
“Things that people don’t want to hear. But just like … not taking pride in food. But it was a great learning experience, starting as a dishwasher, scrubbing pots and pans, filleting chicken breasts, cleaning walk-ins. Some of the guys with me now, some of the younger guys are like, ‘Are you sure you were a dishwasher?’ ‘Yes, I was a dishwasher before I went to culinary school.’
“I look back, and all the chefs I ever worked for really put time and effort into me. Like when I worked at Skytop, [the chef] said, ‘When you graduate from the Bachelor’s Program, don’t take a line cook position. Take a junior sous chef position, because you’re going to do the same thing as a line cook, but you’re going to have responsibility. They’re going to make you do inventory, you’re going to order, you’re going to do all these different areas. But if you go in and start as a line cook … you’ve been line cooking with me now for two years, you don’t need to line cook anymore. Just keep honing the craft.’ And he would tell me to stay late, and I would do inventory with him, and the ordering.
“So there were guys that would take the time and effort. And my mentor now is Brian Ellis, who is the Executive Chef at Corner Table Restaurants for The Smith and Jane, who I can pick up the phone and call and say, ‘Hey, I need help with THIS.’ And he’ll say, ‘Okay, you should do this, this, and this.’ Everybody needs that mentor to help guide.”
CC: So since you’ve had the benefit of help from all these great people, what is some really great advice you were given that has stuck with you?
“If you want to be great, you have to be able to hold yourself accountable first. If you can’t hold yourself accountable, you can’t hold anybody else accountable, and you will never progress in your career.”
CC: So who taught you that?
“Brian Ellis taught me that. Overcooking fish, and trying to put it on a plate, he’d say, ‘Hey, you know that fish is overcooked. Why would you put that overcooked fish on the plate?'”
CC: And to the opposite, now: have you learned anything from seeing really bad choices or getting really bad advice?
“I think bad experience is great experience. A chef at CIA once told me, ‘Don’t open a restaurant with your own money first. Open up somebody else’s restaurant first with their money. You’re going to see everything that they do wrong, and you’ll write all these notes, so that when you open up your restaurant, you don’t do any of those things wrong.’
“So when we opened up this restaurant, I’ve probably got a list of everything I felt they did wrong and everything I felt they did right. I think you get that with every experience. Everywhere you work, there’s all the great, and there’s all the bad, and you have to take the bad from what you learned and say, ‘Okay, I won’t do that.’
“My biggest thing is I tell my employees good morning. I walk in the door, first thing I do is say to all my employees, good morning, ask them how their days are going, and I say goodnight, I tell them thank them at the end of each night. I think there’s not enough people in the industry that even tell their employees thank you. They just walk out the door and they go home, and they’re like, ‘Am I appreciated or am I not appreciated?’
“So that’s probably the best bad experience I’ve learned [from], is taking care of your employees. Like knowing that hey, your cook went home last night because his kid is sick; when they come back tomorrow and nobody asks them, ‘Hey, how’s your son doing, is everything all right?’ I make sure I go the extra mile to make sure that they know that I at least care, ‘cause they make my life easier, and I want to make their lives as easy as possible.”
CC: A lot of restaurant kitchens are famous for – even now – yelling.
“Oh, I yell. I’m not going to lie.”
CC: What makes you yell at someone?
“I just have pet peeves, and the silliness … you don’t communicate, or you know you’re going to want something at your station and you run out, and wait until you don’t have anything left to tell me. Now I can’t help you. I can’t help you at all. But yeah, I scream. I try not to scream as much anymore, but … my kitchen’s fun and serious, so in down time the guys joke, and I’ll let them listen to music. And during service, we’re serious; we’re about the best quality food. It’s intense.”
How many nights a week are you putting in here?
“I put in five, but I probably…my trainer’s in the Bronx, when I get back from the gym I go through 125th Street, because I live close by. I walk by, I’ll check in, in the morning: ‘How is everything?’ And everybody’s like, ‘Why are you here? Go home!’
“But five days. I believe in five day work weeks, for everybody. My sous chefs have two days off, my line cooks all have two days off. “
CC: That’s rare!
“If you have a good personal life, you’ll have a good work life. I believe in that. We give five PTO days off, so people can schedule a vacation.”
CC: That sounds unusual to me, for this industry. Right?
“Yeah, it’s really unusual. My buddy has no vacation, because he’s a chef. [laughs]
“It’s a new era. The new, young chefs have to dictate how the industry’s going to be. If we don’t dictate how the industry’s going to be, then it’s always going to be the perception of … there’s no time, there’s no health insurance, there’s no this, and you die at 60 years old. I tell them, you have to dictate it. I need a week off. My employees need a week off.
“Sometimes we might work six days, like my sous chef Tiffany, she worked six days last week, so I’m like, ‘I owe you a day.’ So there’ll be a week where you get three days off because you worked six days. Now I owe you because you did something for me. So that’s what I believe in.
“So if I can change it a little bit? When she leaves, and she goes to be a chef at the next place, then she’ll hopefully be in the same mindset of changing that. Some of my friends say I’m crazy, but it works for me here. And we have 40 employees in here now.”
CC: So I want to go back to CIA, because I read something funny that you said in an interview. You said that you were really terrible and then something clicked. I want to know what was terrible.
“[Laughs] I was terrible! I remember being in ‘Skills 1’, and the Chef would be like, ‘You know, if your haircut is as good as your knife cuts, you’d be good!’ Because I always had this conversation about hairstyle, like, ‘Oh my hair’s uneven, or the line’s not straight,’ and he always used to say, ‘Well if you take this much time in your haircut, that you do in the kitchen, with this not being right and that not being right, your food would be great.’
“So I still sucked at culinary school, and at my externship. And then one day I came into the kitchen and my palate changed, and my knife cuts were good, and it was like … it was a crazy moment.”
CC: Was it really like just one day?
“Really, one day. It just came together.”
CC: And why do you think that happened?
“Practice, practice. It just came together. I don’t know.
“I remember … where was I? I think it was at Jane. I was with Jane for about three years, it was my second year in, I was a junior sous chef because they’d just promoted me, and I was kind of on my own, in this world on my own, and I survived in the kitchen on my own, so I knew my knife cuts couldn’t be bad.
“My dad always told me, ‘You might only get this chance once. You need to make sure that you really kill it, ‘cause you might not ever get this chance again.’ Like when I got into Forbes ’30 Under 30’. I didn’t remember them telling me, ‘Are you interested in the Forbes ’30 Under 30′ list?’ They came here and I was like, ‘Yeah, of course! Who wouldn’t be?’ And then they came, and they tasted the food, and they really loved the food. I remember Vanna [Le] coming in and doing a little photo shoot, and she [said], ‘Listen. [This is] one of my best restaurants I loved all year.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure? Because you guys go everywhere and eat.’ So to really hear that?
“Or to be at James Beard, cooking at the James Beard Award Dinner this year, and Michael Delmonico came up to me and said, ‘Listen, you have the best dish here,’ and hugs me. And I looked at him, ‘No, no, listen,’ and it’s like this frozen moment. And my pastry chef, she’s looking at me and laughing. ‘Chef, you sure?’ And he’s like, ‘Listen, I can tell you put in … you thought this dish through.’”
[The dish was curry edamame custard, seared lamb loin, bird’s eye chili jam, with papaya-mango-fennel slaw on top.]
CC: Where did you get your ambition from? Is that a family trait?
“Yeah. I’m very driven. 50% crazy. I think I’ve watched so many people in life fall.
“I grew up around my grandfather, and my grandfather would always say, ‘You know what’s right to do; do the right thing, don’t worry about what other people are doing. If he doesn’t want to do the right thing, that’s not your job to tell him to do the right thing.’
“And then my dad just saying, ‘You never want to look back in life and say I coulda shoulda woulda.’ There are a lot of people, I’ll hear them say, ‘I could’ve been a professional umpire, or I should have finished college,’ you know? So living life like that, and there’s no shoulda-coulda-woulda moment. If I can get it, let’s try to get it, and if I don’t get it, I know I fought really hard for it.
“And knowing I owe a lot of money to The Culinary Institute of America. [Laughs]”
CC: Do you have any thoughts on other things you’d like to achieve?
“My ultimate goal is three stars in The New York Times. A James Beard award. Perhaps a Rising Star, or something else, in the future.
“And I think the ultimate goal is being able to take the team underneath me and seeing them progressing in the food world, like seeing Tiffany leave me one day, and go somewhere and be able to do what I’m doing, and knowing that I have her back, like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to tell such-and-such to come check you out, because I know you can cook well.’ Or, if she doesn’t want to do that, maybe we expand and she’s the chef here and I go to open the next place, or whatever it is. I like to see people succeed.”
CC: So you have a very refined palate, you grew up around good food, but is there anything really terrible that you like to eat?
“I hate salmon.”
CC: Well that’s what you hate. How about something terrible that you like?
“ I love diner food.”
CC: What’s your favorite thing to eat at the diner?
“I love the home fries at the diner. I don’t care where you go. The way they smash them, and, like a caramel crust on top? No matter how many times I make them, I can never get them like the diner.”