Chef JJ Johnson On What It Means To Cook Food Of The African Diaspora

This award-winning celebrity chef is determined to bring more visibility to the chefs we don’t hear about and the cuisines whose international reach we don’t acknowledge—until mainstream food media reflects the diversity of our society.

By Jacqueline Parisi

9 September 2020

When COVID-19 hit New York City, restaurants started closing in droves, burdened by the lack of financial viability of take-out and delivery, or 50% capacity mandates. Some restaurants shuttered due to limited outdoor space, and others due to the inability to execute their concept outdoors. But for chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson of FieldTrip, a fast casual spot in Harlem that celebrates the shared experience of rice not only across Asian cuisines, but also the African Diaspora and Latin American cultures, closing was never an option.

“I would have burned through all my capital,” says the James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning chef. “And I would have laid off a lot of people who would have never been able to put food on the table, so it wasn’t an option.”  

Chef JJ behind the counter at FieldTrip | @chefjj

Nor was closing an option for Make My Fish, a hole-in-the-wall spot around the corner from FieldTrip that Johnson tells us hasn’t closed either—”the whole family is working in there now,” he says.

And yet, Johnson hasn't seen mainstream food media highlighting the small restaurants like FieldTrip and Make My Fish that have fought to stay open. Instead, he turns on CBS Morning News only to see Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group—all of whose restaurants were closed for most of the pandemic—sharing his views on the state of the restaurant industry.

Johnson can't help but question the logic.

“There are people out there working hard to keep their restaurants open—let’s go talk to them. There have to be new, diverse experts. There has to be someone who can contribute more. The owner of Make My Fish has to be able to contribute something to society about what he’s done to make sure the industry doesn’t die and what people should be doing when they come back to open up their restaurant.”

White, male chefs may be who the world sees when they turn on the news, but lest we forget: cooking was historically a blue collar industry predominantly occupied by Black chefs—a dynamic that, according to Johnson, began shifting with the advent of the celebrity chef.

“When white people learned that you can get on television or make money from this or that it’s cool, they started to do it,” posits Johnson.

With more and more white people in the kitchen, the industry began swiftly changing. Chefs started earning more notoriety, and with that came more money and visibility. The working class hours remained, but the working class pay did not. And with more money came a platform for more impact.  

When Massimo Bottura, the chef-owner of Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy, founded Food For Soul, a nonprofit organization with the goal of upcycling surplus food by way of refettorios (soup kitchens) in major cities around the world, you heard about it. And then, of course, there’s José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, which works to provide meals to individuals in the wake of disasters and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, partnered with Sweetgreen to feed frontline workers. Again, you likely heard about it.

But what you may not know is that Johnson—who sits on the board of the Food Bank for New York City and serves on the James Beard Impact Programs Advisory Committee—was one of the first chefs in New York City to begin feeding frontline workers at the outset of the pandemic in hospitals across Upper Manhattan, the Bronx, and Harlem—an initiative that started when his wife, who is a nurse, told him that many of her colleagues simply didn’t have the time to eat.  

FieldTrip delivery to New York-Presbyterian Hospital | @chefjj

Johnson isn’t fishing for compliments—no stranger to fame himself, Johnson has starred on BuzzFeed’s Tasty and hosted “Just Eats with Chef JJ”—and when he brings up Bottura and Andrés, he does so with a deep respect for the work they’re doing. His goal is simply to show that there’s something integral missing from the dialogue: the acknowledgment that Black people have always been cooking and taking care of people in need their whole lives.  

“People have always been doing it. It has never changed. The only difference is that now people are writing about it. And if you write about José Andrés, if you write about Massimo Bottura, then that’s who you know who’s doing the work. But there are so, so many more people whose names you don’t know.”

As a child growing up in a competitive household, Johnson was always taught to dream big. So when he turned on the television and repeatedly saw Emeril Lagasse, he thought to himself: I’m going to be better than him one day.

“In home economics class, I was always the one who wanted to cook while everyone else was sitting there, bored, staring at the ceiling,” jokes Johnson.

After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson spent years working at the likes of Jane, The Smith, and Vinoteca in an attempt to master what he refers to as “New American food.” His goal was simple: follow the trail of what he had been taught with the hope that it would lead him one day to running his own kitchen—a sound plan until he realized that it came at the expense of a distinct identity.

Johnson doesn’t believe in pure luck. He even has a tattoo on his arm that says, Passion + Drive = Success. What he does ascribe to, however, is the trio of “right time, right place, right connection.” All three were in alignment the day he met Alexander Smalls of The Cecil and its sister restaurant, Minton’s, who asked Johnson to come to Ghana with him.

“It was that experience that opened my eyes to who I should be, what I should become, and what food I should touch and deliver,” explains Johnson who, upon returning stateside, promptly began working with Smalls to develop 36 different menus that would eventually be narrowed down to one Afro-Asian-inspired menu for The Cecil. The two also co-authored a cookbook together in 2018: Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day.

From The Cecil, Johnson transitioned to The Henry, a restaurant tucked away in Manhattan’s Life Hotel and, in 2019, closed up operations there to open FieldTrip.

It's not everyday that you see a fast casual restaurant open its first outpost in Harlem—"or any Black neighborhood," says Johnson. But the community had unfailingly supported him for years, showing up to every pop-up he hosted, and it was time for Johnson to give back.

The location—between 115th and 116th on Malcolm X Boulevard—is steeped in history. Malcolm X spoke on that corner at a rally on September 7, 1963. The historic Mosque of Islamic Brotherhood, which was founded in 1964 by Malcolm X, is around the corner on 113th Street. Down the street is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Playground.

"Think about the best rappers in the game," says Johnson. "They always come from a community that supported and uplifted them, so they could conquer the world. Jay-Z has Brooklyn, Tupac had LA. For me, it was always Harlem."

Born out of the realization that rice can be found in some form at the center of tables in almost every community around the world, FieldTrip makes ample use of freshly-milled, unbleached, and unenriched heirloom grain rice, with the goal of telling a unique story of how it arrived in the United States.

This historical and anthropological understanding of food—an understanding grounded in the premise that cuisines are a product of intersecting cultures across time and space—is the basis for cuisine of the African Diaspora, which defines Johnson’s chef identity today.

“With slavery, people were pushed around the world,” explains Johnson, “and they influenced those places’ food. The goal is to show that Black food is more than just soul food of the American South. There’s also influences from the Caribbean, West Indies, Brazil, Portugal, Peru, and South Africa all the way up to Morocco.”

The food that Johnson specializes in at FieldTrip can be traced back to Barbados, Puerto Rico, and the American South, with dishes featuring Carolina Gold Fried Rice, Sticky BBQ sauce, Jollof basmati rice, okra, Piri Piri sauce, and yucca chips.

“It’s a mashup of flavors from hundreds of years of history that nobody talks about,” says Johnson. “That’s what I’m talking about with my cooking."

A selection of dishes from FieldTrip | @fieldtripharlem

Working to bring more overdue visibility to the chefs we don’t hear about and the cuisines whose dark roots and international reach we haven't acknowledged, Johnson is determined to shift the narrative. To do the very real work of improving the food industry "until it reflects what the US of A actually looks like."

And he’s just getting started.

“I have so much more work to do,” says Johnson. “More restaurants to open, more people to hire, and more culture to change.”

Chef JJ Johnson at FieldTrip | @chefjj