JJ Johnson is currently executive chef at the acclaimed restaurant and jazz club Minton’s in Harlem, and he’s dripping with accolades: as a 2014 Eater Young Gun, and both a Forbes and Zagat 30 Under 30 winner, the chef has helped make Minton’s (and its partner restaurant the Cecil) the place to eat in New York.
But his path to this prominent place in the restaurant world took some interesting turns, including a month spent cooking in Ghana and three years in the executive kitchen at Morgan Stanley — the financial services firm — as Johnson says during a recent taping of the Eater Upsell. As it turns out, cooking for Wall Street high rollers is much akin to running a high-end restaurant.
With about 15 people working in the kitchen at 1585 Broadway, Morgan Stanley’s executive kitchen had a larger staff than most restaurants, Johnson says, a prototype for today’s infamous tech-giant corporate dining halls. Following the recession years of the late 2000s, Johnson worked there with executive chef Zach Friedman, and they were able to run free with creativity. “We changed our menu every day. It’s like a secret kitchen,” he says, where “the stainless steel shines like no other stainless steel shines.”
The freedom of a flexible menu allowed Johnson to dive into different territory, including cooking with Iberico pork, foie gras, truffles, and whole animals, breaking them down and using each part while focusing on serving anywhere from 30-50 people each meal. Johnson says that after 9/11, the company cut down on out-of-office lunches and brought in expert chefs to run the in-house dining. “They went after these big time-chefs who worked at these amazing places that projected the food that they wanted,” Johnson says. “I would never think that I would work at Morgan Stanley, but [it] also helped me understand the business side of the culinary world.”
At Morgan Stanley, Johnson had to make sure his budgets were accurate and paid close attention to his food and labor costs because, as he says, “this was the way of life ... You needed to make sure, yeah you got 50 parties this week, but you can’t spend more than this amount of money ‘cause that’s all that’s budgeted for. You have to be able to make that work.”
It was like a “super small, high-end restaurant,” he says, and “nobody left tips.” When Johnson left the corporate kitchen world, he appeared on and won an episode of Rocco’s Dinner Party, which attracted the attention of Alexander Smalls, an opera singer and chef who then brought Johnson on board to create the Cecil, which recently merged into Minton’s.
Hear the full interview with JJ Johnson below, as he talks with Upsell hosts Greg and Helen about the food of the African diaspora and the importance of having a diverse kitchen. Subscribe to the Eater Upsell on iTunes, or listen on Soundcloud. You can also get the entire archive of episodes right here on Eater.