Interviews

FORBES 30 UNDER 30: JOSEPH ‘JJ’ JOHNSON

This year by far was the best Forbes 30 under 30! The event’s move to the Kimmel Center was great and the atmosphere was on point. I must say food was in the air! The Kimmel Center was immersed with so many different scents and smells. It was really hard to put it into words. Since I was in the building, why not catch up with a rising name in the New York food industry. I sat down with a young chef named Joseph “JJ” Johnson to get some insight on his inspiration, community and of course food!

Anthony James: Give us a little back-story; who is Joseph “JJ” Johnson?

Joseph “JJ” Johnson: Ummmmm. Joseph “JJ” Johnson is a young innovative chef that cooks food of the African Diaspora. [I am] probably the only chef in the country that cooks that style of food or that owns it.

aj: Oh wow!

JJ: And in doing so the restaurants are in Harlem, New York. I hire people from the community, support the community, and just try to cook the best food everyday.

aj: Now what inspired that? And what was the back-story of hiring/bringing people in and supporting the community like you just said? 

JJ: So the back-story is Alexander Smalls, is one of the owners, [he] took me to Ghana. I cooked in Accra about 2 years ago, [or] 3 years ago, and we were just doing American themed dinners but he had this concept of Afro-Asian cooking I had no idea what he was talking about. And when I was there I saw it first hand and we kind of melted this, [or] we kind of worked together on creating this menu. Umm and it really took off and gained a lot of respect within the culinary industry and outside the culinary industry. Then the supporting of the community, to hire within the community is [because] Dick Parsons is our main owner and when they revived Minton’s Play House, which is the famous jazz club in the Cecil Hotel. Doing that was saying that these are two big operations and would you guys really hire from the community and we said 100%. 80% of our staff is from Harlem or Washington Heights, that’s from the Bronx, and really a staff of color from Tibetan, to Dominicans, to Mexicans, to Blacks, and everybody. So it’s like a real melting pot kitchen and which everyone gets a long [so] it’s a big family.

aj: That’s cool because a little bit about me I actually am going to school to be a minister, so giving back to the community is always something that I’m focused on. That really plays on something for me.

JJ: Yeah you know our building is owned by the city, which is called HSI (Housing and Services, Inc.). They take the homeless off the street and give them a place to live and we supply a meal once a week for 80 tenants.

aj: Wow I have a lot of respect for that. That’s dope.

JJ: And it’s also big for the staff because they live in the community and they see they actually do something for the community so they bring the food up or they come in early so it’s really a good thing.

aj: That’s cool. That’s really dope; I like that. You don’t hear that a lot so that’s actually nice to see that, not only hear that, but to also see that happening. 

JJ: Thanks.

aj: And I definitely will support that. I would love to come out and check that out.

JJ: 100%.

 aj: Next time we’re in New York we’ll definitely come out.

JJ: Definitely come out.

aj: Now something really light hearted: how does it feel to be involved in Forbes 30 Under 30?

JJ: I was on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, what year is this 2015, so I was on the last year list. It was the first list I ever was on. Forbes 30 under 30 it changed my life. Like people started to come into the restaurant. Restaurant bloggers or newspapers wanted to write about us. The Forbes family has been amazing. You know Randall [Forbes] comes to eat at the restaurant tons of times, Savannah Lee who used to be a part of the team that was with INC. would come and eat. She’s the one that hit me up at the restaurant like ‘wow this food is really good. Who is this guy in the kitchen? Oh he’s under 30 [years old]. Wow this is great.’ It really changed my life and I was able to get on all these other lists, umm, per se. But I would say I think it’s the dream. It’s like your dream. You’re under 30 years old and your like if I had to be on one list what list would I be on? You’d want to be on the Forbes.

aj: Yeah who wouldn’t want to be on the Forbes list?

JJ: Right. Because it’s not just about food its like you are a game changer. So you’re doing something in the industry you’re picked for and you’re changing the game so you’re innovative. So when people look at it their like ‘oh JJ you’re on the Forbes list right’? They don’t care about Zagat they don’t care about this. They’re like ‘oh Forbes.’

aj: Forbes has that name and notoriety behind it so when you get that it kind of travels right with it. That’s awesome. I was going to ask another question but you answered that in the first question; I love when that happens. 

JJ: [Laughs].

aj: Lets go to actually my last question. As a kid we all have foods that we can’t stand. As a chef are there any foods that you still refuse to eat from your childhood?

JJ: No actually all the vegetables I hated as a kid I love as a chef. They’re actually tattooed on my arm.

aj: Oh Wow! Now that’s actually building a love for it [laughs].  

JJ: The only thing I really don’t eat today is salmon. I’m just not a fan of it. I just don’t buy salmon, especially not farm raised salmon. I don’t eat any thing [or] basically fish that’s farm raised. That would be the only thing but I’m a conscious eater. But I did hate a lot of vegetables like brussels sprouts.

aj: Peas are mine. 

JJ: Can’t do peas?

aj: Can’t do peas. I cannot do peas.

JJ: I can do peas now like puree; I like green stuff.

aj: My mother always had to mix them into something. Because if I saw them it was no [laughs]. Potpies are something she’d always make because I could not deal with it. Cool man that was awesome and I’m excited. I definitely would love to stay in contact with you guys. 

To find out more about Joseph”JJ” Johnson, go to www.thececilharlem.com

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