Keeping Culinary Traditions Alive
Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson is in good company. As one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” honorees, he joins such luminaries as actress Olivia Wilde, singer Bruno Mars, basketball star Kevin Durant, and CNBC anchor Kelly Evans.
It’s a fantastic achievement for this up-and-coming chef, who made the Food & Wine category of Forbes’ tally of the brightest stars under the age of 30 in 15 different fields. He’s really making a name for himself as chef de cuisine at The Cecil, Richard Parson’s Afro-Asian-American brasserie in Harlem. But with all his success and recognition, JJ never forgets where he came from.
The first indication that he had a passion for food came when he was just seven years old, after seeing a commercial for The Culinary Institute of America. “I told my mom I wanted to be a chef,” JJ recalls. “She said ‘You should be a doctor or a politician. Why would you want to be a chef?’” But he was hooked after watching his Puerto Rican grandmother serve up butternut squash soup and other ethnic dishes.
His life as a chef got off to a bit of a rough start, though. When JJ began his studies at the CIA, he admits that he was the worst cook in the kitchen—but one day “it all clicked.”
Indeed it did. He graduated and spent time in Ghana studying West African cuisine, then went on to work at several notable New York City restaurants, including Tropica, Jane, Tribeca Grill, and Centro Vinoteca. Along the way, JJ was also the winner of the Bravo show Rocco’s Dinner Party, hosted and judged by CIA graduate Rocco DiSpirito ’86.
At The Cecil, under the guidance of Executive Chef Alexander Smalls, he crafts a menu integrating culinary traditions of the African Diaspora, which celebrates communities throughout the world that are descended from peoples of Africa. Creating memorable entrées ranging from Chinese Chicken Sausage to Veal Kimchi, JJ credits much of his recent success to Chef Smalls, who he says has been a major influence in his life.
He’s also quick to point out the impact his alma mater has had on his career. “I wouldn’t be where I am without the CIA,” JJ says. “The chefs and professors there got me ready for the culinary world and set me up for success. The college has a saying: ‘Preparation is Everything.’ That’s how I look at my life every day.”
And he’s still pinching himself about the Forbes honor. “Last year I said, ‘What does it take to be on the Forbes list?’ Then I woke up one Monday morning—and I’m on the list!”