Interview: Chef JJ Johnson and the Making of a Modern Chef

On Monday, September 24 Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

For a discussion late in the day, we sat down with Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson, a James Beard-nominated chef who works in New York City. He is a partner at the Henry in NoMad as well as FieldTrip, his quick-service rice concept that is set to open in fall of 2018 in Harlem. Prior to these most recent developments, Johnson was executive chef at The Cecil and Minton’s, which he followed up with a four-month residency at Chefs Club last fall.

He published his first cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, this spring.

Johnson was interviewed by Jason Clampet, Skift Table General Manager and Skift co-founder.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Skift: Appreciate you taking the time out of having recently opened a restaurant and getting one ready. Give me just a quick rundown where The Henry’s at now, which you took over about four weeks ago, five weeks ago. Then we can talk a bit about FieldTrip, which is an excellent name for a restaurant.

JJ Johnson: Thank you. Yes, I have a restaurant on 31st Street between 5th and 6th called The Henry. Recently took that over from an existing food god. It’s my typical food that you know who I am, which is pan-African. It has about seventeen items on the menu. We’re open for dinner right now, and then we’ll go to an all-day menu starting on Monday.

Skift: Okay. And, then setting aside time for FieldTrip.

JJ Johnson: Yeah. FieldTrip is my grain bowl concept, all about rices around the world. That’s something I’ve personally been working on for four years. It’s about mother grains and granddaddy grains that make up the rice culture system. So, FieldTrip is a name for rice field trips around the world, all the places I’ve been and have studied these rices. Our slogan is, “Rice is culture”.

Skift: So, somebody who’s cooked in some great kitchens, Cecil most recently, you know, what made you decide, “Hey, I’m going to go fast casual and do a twelve-dollar bowl of stuff”?

JJ Johnson: Originally, FieldTrip was going to be a sit-down restaurant, very similar to Momofuku. That model worked. Me and my business partner looked at it, studied it, and then we could never get the P&L to match up to get to break even with the locations we were looking at — and would people actually come to sit down for rice?

We went back and we looked and we looked, and we said, “Rice is at the center of the plate of everybody’s household. We all grew up on it. And, this is something somebody can truly eat two to three times a week. How can we make it cool? How can we make it tasty? But also, how can we make people want to sit in there and potentially eat in the restaurant for forty-five minutes?” And, then the model started to take place.

So we went quick service. But we’re not going quick service in saturated markets. I think people think quick service has to be in this dense market of 13% density. But then everybody’s fighting over the same density.

We’re going in what we consider outer boroughs. I know Harlem is not an outer borough. Many people think of it as an outer borough. It is part of Manhattan, so we’re starting there. Then if it’s able to grow we’ll do the Bronx. We’ll do Brooklyn. We’ll do Queens.

If we’re able to take it outside of New York, if we’re that lucky, we’ll do places like Charlotte, Oakland. We’ll do Miami. We’ll do downtown L.A. We’ll do places where people are truly craving to eat good; but the bigger brands are coming later.

If you watch in Harlem, Shake Shack’s about to open, Chipotle is about to open. I don’t mean Harlem like by Columbia, even though that’s Harlem. But the density’s high there. I’m saying like in the heart of Harlem, they’re just starting to open, which sucks for me, but means that I’m onto something.

JJ Johnson, the Chef/Owner of FieldTrip, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018.

Skift: Right. What’s the price point?

JJ Johnson: The price point will be from $7 to $13, and beer and wine will be five bucks on tap.

Skift: Good. With –

JJ Johnson: Happy hour all day.

Skift: Yeah, and you open for breakfast, right?

JJ Johnson: We, I think we could do breakfast. But we’ll be open 10 to 10 and hopefully grow to breakfast. Just because it’s a working-class community, we’re right in front of the train. We’re between 115th and 116th, and Lenox right in front of the 2 and the 3 trains.

I have stood out there at 4:30, 4:00 in the morning, and it’s a lot of people going to work. So maybe a coffee window. I’m not sure. I don’t know if we can, I didn’t raise that much money to be able to chill and say, “Hey, let’s waste it on R&D”.

Skift: With an ingredient like rice, everybody thinks they know rice. It’s such a personal thing with family. If you’re Cuban, you know what Cuban rice is. If you’re Dominican, you’ve got your idea of rice. If you’re from, you know, different parts of Asia you’ve got your own rice. How do you tell a different story, and how do you basically say, “No. This is all that rice can be?” Because it’s more than Uncle Ben in a bag.

JJ Johnson: Yeah, I grew up on that stuff. Not good, Uncle Ben in a bag. Probably a lot of you grew up on Uncle Ben in a bag too. I’m not cooking these traditional styles of rices from around the world.

I’m literally getting the rice from this specific place from around the world. I’ve been working with Glenn Roberts and a rice researcher out of Cornell. So, I will have a rice that Glenn has been growing now a little bit more, because I’m going to start purchasing it.

This black China rice, which we all know as forbidden black rice. But that will come from me, from what I’ve seen black rice cook, is black pineapple fried rice, right?

Skift: Which you had at Cecil, right? Something like that?

JJ Johnson: I did have that at Cecil, yeah. That was my R&D ground for that. So, you have black pineapple fried rice, and you won’t be able to build your own bowl because you need to understand the flavor profile first.

There will be this one section that will be composed and curated. Then there’ll be Carolina Gold, which we call the rice of the Americas. There’ll be just broken brown rice, which we’ll do brown rice and beans. There’ll be a sticky rice coming from the mountains of the Philippines. Rices that I know I can get my hands on. But I’m also contacting rice farmers on a daily basis.

I get inquiries from time to time, so I have a rice farmer out of Brazil that’s interested. I’m trying to get this west African rice to come back into the United States, or be able to get shipped back into the United States. The cooking techniques are how I envision it: Not how your grandmother made it, or your auntie, because I don’t want to get into any debates that it’s “wrong.”

Skift: My grandmother didn’t make rice, so I was really deprived. You know, your journey as a chef, I found it interesting. When you left Cecil and Cecil ended, you did the stint, kind of the first pop-up thing with the Chefs Club and kind of set the tone there.

Then taking over the Henry and starting a fast casual joint. It is not a typical journey for a chef. What are the choices you’ve made as a chef that have allowed you to have this different path? How much was choice, and how much was you having to improvise because opportunities were different?

JJ Johnson: Yeah, I mean opportunities for me have been really different. I’ve paid attention to what the old chefs have done and how they’ve done it. Who’s done what well? Who hasn’t done things well? How can I take that path? But maybe if I would have done this, what this chef has done, and then do this, maybe it would work out better for me.

I mean people believe that I get a thousand phone calls a day for what I’ve done. I maybe get one phone call every six months for something, or maybe a year. But it’s nothing that ever sticks to the wall. Everything is really something I’m curating, or I’m calling a friend. That’s how Chefs Club started.

A buddy of mine when I was Forbes 30 Under 30, Jeron Smith, who’s Steph Curry’s CMO, who worked for president Barack Obama, I called him. I said, “Hey man, I’m in a jam. Cecil’s closing. I’m leaving. I’ve got to get out of here. What do you think I should do? I know I only know about you so much, but you seem like you have all your ducks in a row, and you seem like you’ve taken this odd course that many other people would never believe how you … You worked at Nike, then you worked for President Barack Obama, now you work with … How did that even happen?”

He was like, “Literally you have to call a friend. Think of somebody that really truly believes in you and call them and ask them for help”.

I called Aaron who booked all the chefs at Chefs Club and I said, “Hey Aaron. I want to do a rice popup at Chefs Club Counter”. He said, “No chef wants to cook at Chefs Club Counter. You’re crazy”. I said, “No. I want to just do, I want to test this at Chefs Club Counter. I have a little bit of money I can put into it”. Not knowing that the owners of Chefs Club have more money than God.

Skift: And you ran with that, right?

JJ Johnson: I tried to, yeah. They were like, “Hey, yeah. Nobody wanted to do the Chefs Club Counter. It really doesn’t have an identity. Maybe you can help us with this identity.”

We did this pop up, ‘All about Rice’ and it sold out in 24 hours. We opened another day, it sold out. And then I was like, “Hmm, maybe I can actually put butts in the seat.” And that means a lot for a chef if you can actually put people into seats.

We did that and they came to me two weeks later and said, “We’re changing the model at Chefs Club, I think you’d be a good person to start it up. Would you mind doing this residency program?” And at the moment, I wasn’t thinking about doing full service. I was like, “I need to raise money, I’m looking for an investor, and the only person I’ve ever asked money from is my mom and my dad, before. What am I doing out here?”

And then my partner was like, “Hey, do it. We’ll probably get some people in the dining room that’d be interested about our concept. You have a place to test and do some things.”

And, I was only supposed to be there for three weeks and it winded up being …

Skift: … You didn’t leave.

JJ Johnson: I didn’t leave. We were all making money. I was making money. Chefs Club was making money. Chefs were calling them to do other residencies and it, it also helped me… I don’t wanna say prove myself. But, I would get a lot of conversations from people, “Oh, you’re only good at Harlem.” And I’m like, “What does that mean?”

Skift: Well.

JJ Johnson: And, I was like, I’ve got a lot of accolades in Harlem but this moment at Chefs Club kinda was like, “Okay now what are you gonna say?”

If somebody came into the dining room at Chefs Club, I was able to raise the money for FieldTrip. And, then my goal when I was in Chefs Club, I kind of envisioned that this concept would work perfectly in a hotel. I don’t know why I thought that. But, it would work somewhere.

My landlord from Harlem had a friend from another hospitality group that was looking to expand. My lawyer told me I should bid on this Henry project and we both were bidding on it at the same time and I just threw a bone in the room and I said, “Why don’t we just do it together?” And he kinda looked at me like…while I was working with them on something else,

I was like, “Why don’t we do this together to see how it works?” And I landed with the gig at the Henry.

JJ Johnson, the Chef/Owner of FieldTrip, speaking at Skift Restaurants Forum in New York City on September 24, 2018.

It’s get in where you fit in. That’s how I look at it. I know where I want to be. The Henry’s been really successful. I didn’t go in there, I didn’t do the dining room over, I didn’t change anything.

I put a “JJ” neon light up, I put some pink napkins, I played a 90’s hip-hop playlist and people come in there and think it’s this brand new restaurant. And it works. But the feeling of the restaurant reminded me of Chefs Club. Like, it was wood, it was a slightly open kitchen. It’s right by the train. Anybody can come. My fans from Brooklyn, Harlem can come.

If you live downtown and never wanted to come to Harlem to eat my food because you felt it was too far, now you don’t have an excuse because I’m right here. All these things are going through my mind when I was working on that project.

Skift: I had the image of you holding your neon sign, walking up Sixth Avenue from Chefs Club in SoHo to the Henry and just like hangin’ it up and you know, putting on an apron and just cooking.

JJ Johnson: It kinda worked like that, a little bit.

Skift: As you’ve been thinking about raising money, starting your own, starting FieldTrip, was having the hotel F&B element there an easier step or am I oversimplifying things?

JJ Johnson: It’s a different problem. Different issues. Like, having to be open at 5:30 in the morning for breakfast, that’s-

Skift: Room service.

JJ Johnson: No, they don’t have room service. We don’t have room service there, they don’t want it. I want it, I love room service. I think people, our industry, we get off the plane, we’re running, we want a good minibar, we want good room service from time to time.

But yeah, just some, just different obstacles in a brick and mortar but I’m okay with that. I think the industry is going in a different direction in some areas.

Also, the opportunities that my peers get, I don’t get so, some things that I typically would think twice about because I know another opportunity would come, I have to use an opportunity to create another opportunity.

That’s how I kind of looked at the Henry project. I mean the solid food I cook, there’s no home for it, anywhere, right? So, to say that there’s this home for it in Nomad, Midtown on 31st Street also opens up the doors for other chefs that look like me. So, it’s a bigger play.

Skift: To touch on that a bit, you know, you were at Cecil for a while and your relationship with Alexander Smalls up there. As you’ve grown as a chef, how’ve you looked to mentors, how have you tried to identify mentors and how has it been different from some of your peers?

JJ Johnson: I mean working with Alexander and Richard Parsons, I call that grad school. Working with one of the most powerful men in the world: Richard Parsons. And you’ve got Alexander, a super creative guy that can think of anything, that’s been everywhere, anybody can imagine or wants to go. I would say now, as I grow, I do look for mentors. I haven’t found a mentor.

I have reached out to people on different platforms that are not food. And, I don’t think everybody wants to mentor. Like, I will mentor any day. But, I don’t think everybody wants to mentor. I’m lucky enough to still, I mean my mom and dad work off emotions so my dad is always a mentor to me in certain instances.

Chris who used to be at Food & Wine was a mentor when selecting the name of the FieldTrip restaurant. So, I talk to people, sometimes in a mentor role but they’re not actually the mentor. They just don’t know I’m mentoring, I don’t know the right word for it, that I would use but, I’m using them as a mentor in that moment.

Skift: Yeah. They don’t know you’re a mentee.

JJ Johnson: I’m their mentee, then. Yes.

Skift: When you think about beyond mentors but just kind of network, network for black chefs, you know, being able to call and be like, “Hey, I’m looking for … you know.”

You talk about your colleagues and contemporaries, they have these opportunities and some of that comes just because they’re treated differently because they’re white guys and have deeper networks. How do you go about building networks?

JJ Johnson: I mean, I’ve been lucky. I worked for like, Drew Nieporent. I’ll get invited to Drew’s birthday party, right? That’s a network within itself.

Skift: Wow.

JJ Johnson: Now you’re in the room now with everybody and you’ll meet somebody. I don’t think a lot of my peers, I’ll take my sous chef, for example. He worked for Missy (Robbins) at A Voce, years ago.

I don’t understand why he’s not a CDC [chef de cuisine] somewhere. He’s been working in French bread kitchens. I won’t let him go. It’s just hard. I don’t want to say — it’s hard to say — it’s just that we don’t always have the seat at the table and how do you get a seat at the table, right?

And my job is to make sure that my peers will have a seat at the table because, you know, they’re very talented. They have an education.

I’m very lucky that a man, Alexander Smalls, called me because at one time, I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I was working at Morgan Stanley executive dining room. My mentor at that time was Ed Brown because he was the president of RA [Restaurant Associates]. I left there, went on a cooking show because I didn’t know what else to do. I hated to have to go on a cooking show

And then, Alexander called me. I probably wouldn’t be in New York, today if Alexander didn’t call me to say, “Hey, I think you have something, let’s work it out.” I probably would have been going to South Carolina, working for Sean Brock or going to California. I might have not even been sitting here, right now.

But I know that every opportunity that I get, I have to work a little bit harder because I don’t get the second chance that my peers get. And me and my peers have this — me and PJ [Scalapa] from Scampi have this conversation all the time.

We went to college together, he was able to raise three times the amount of money I was able to raise. He didn’t know why it was taking me so long to raise money. He was like, “Your paperwork is tight.” But, he had Michael White open up his Rolodex to say, “Let me help you. I can’t get any more money but call these couple of people and potentially, they’ll write you a check.”

Skift: In terms of your cooking, you know. I remember the first time I went up to the Cecil. Full disclosure, my wife wrote, helped write the cookbook. So, there’s a little nepotism in play-

JJ Johnson: Between Harlem and Heaven.

Skift: Between Harlem and Heaven, which is awesome. But, I remember you came down and sat at the table and just walked us through the menu because it was so unfamiliar and a lot of the stuff you were putting on the table had your touches. How did you develop your own style like that? And as you’ve now gone to Henry and starting FieldTrip, how’re you refining that?

JJ Johnson: Cecil was all based on one trip I took with Alexander to Ghana, spent 60 days there, learning more about myself than about the food, realizing that I grew up in the African diaspora, my mom being West Indian and Puerto Rican, my dad being African American. I didn’t realize I grew up in this household with all this food, flavor. And, then I was like, “Okay, now I’m able to cook this food.”

But, from my time at the Cecil to now, I’ve actually traveled to, I would consider like five meccas of the world of food. So, Singapore, Israel, India, Ghana, and I’m probably forgetting somewhere I went. I’ve cooked in Israel, right? I cooked in a kosher kitchen in Israel at the Waldorf for 15 days.

I actually saw a lot of West African influences in Israel. I went to Singapore and I saw this melting pot of culture. I was able to pull these flavors. I visited rice farms in India, so I’m able to pull these flavors from these places and then that helped to refine my cooking. But, also, my cooking now is truly on me.

It’s not on somebody telling me if I can put that on the menu or not. Or no, I want it to taste different, make it spicier, more salt, it needs more acid. I’m truly the final say so everything is truly my food or my culinary director is hearing me say those things to her.

Yeah, it’s a little bit more refined, it’s a little bit more focused on Africa, the Caribbean. It’s truly who I am in moments of my life.

Skift: We’ve got a couple of minutes for questions. First one: Being in a hotel is a difficult, is it difficult to convince to locals to give your restaurant a try? Is customer loyalty more of a challenge there?

JJ Johnson: I went to a conference where the Vice President of Food and Beverage for Marriott was talking. And he said as they open up more and more hotels they’re trying to make restaurants more geared to the locals versus asking, “Well, where should I go eat?” Right? And, I think the greatest thing about being at the Henry is that locals are coming in and then the hotel’s guests are eating there because of the locals. Not vice versa.

I’m also in the lobby of the hotel so you have to walk by the restaurant and you don’t even realize you’re in a hotel, which makes it really cool. So, no, I’m very lucky that 67% of the business right now is locals and the other 33% is hotel guests.

Skift: Do you expect to see continued shift towards fast casual over full service? Is that what customers want and on the flip side, does the business model work? You know, you said the P&L works a little better for that now.

JJ Johnson: I mean the P&L for us worked better for that based off the money we raised and based off, we didn’t really, we didn’t raise money to take salaries for the QSR [quick-service restaurant]. We looked at it as a true business. I think the industry, it all depends on where you’re at in the world, where you’re at in the country. I think QSRs will always work well in urban markets. I think full service restaurants will always work in, I think, in the suburbs.

I think, big, big, big branch QSRs will always work in the suburbs too. But you’ll see the market go up and down, in my opinion. I mean QSRs in downtown, there’s no more place for them to go. They have to start going uptown or outer boroughs. Or they have to go to a new market.

Skift: Thanks for joining us today.

JJ Johnson: Thank you.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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