While some chefs dream of attaining Michelin stars or James Beard Awards, Joseph “JJ” Johnson, of Harlem destination Minton’s, has set his sights a bit higher. “I would love to be the Jordan of the culinary world,” Johnson explains. Although his name is not widely known outside of New York City, Johnson’s already on a path to food-world stardom. After working the line at a handful of New York hot spots and in the private kitchen at Morgan Stanley, the chef dazzled critics at Minton’s and the Cecil in Harlem by serving a menu inspired by the foodways of the African diaspora. His work helped the Cecil earn the 2014 Best New Restaurant accolade from Esquire, and the same year, Johnson was named an Eater Young Gun.
Johnson recently joined Helen and Greg to talk about the pros and cons of culinary school, finding his inspiration while cooking abroad, and the importance of having (and becoming) a mentor in the kitchen. He’s carving out his own path through the restaurant world while also inspiring a younger generation of chefs along the way — and he’s just getting started.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 3, Episode 3: JJ Johnson, slightly edited for clarity, right here.
Greg Morabito: Now in the Eater Upsell Studios, we have JJ Johnson, the chef at Minton's, a very acclaimed and cool restaurant/jazz club in Harlem in New York City. JJ, welcome to the Eater Upsell.
JJ: What's up, what's up? Thanks for having me.
Helen Rosner: It's super exciting having you here, for many reasons, one of which is that before your only job title was executive chef at Minton's, you were also executive chef at the Cecil.
Helen: Which is now also Minton's.
Helen : It's a slightly complicated relationship, but the Cecil is/was one of the most exciting restaurants in New York.
JJ: Yeah, I'm gonna agree with you. [One of the most] exciting restaurants in New York, one of the most exciting restaurants in the world. People would come from, I mean, everywhere — ambassadors were coming from West Africa to dine with 10 to 15 people. I would go cook in Israel, and then I would be in the Israel newspaper, and people flying in from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem would come and dine at the restaurant. So, you know, it was exciting. And when you wanted to come uptown to Harlem, that was your place to go, but we just merged it now into Minton's to give you both amazing feelings — this amazing jazz and what Harlem was in that room, and the amazing food of the Cecil, to give you both of those experience in one.
Greg: How has the transition been? Has, how has the guest response been?
JJ: Guest response has been good. Weekends are really busy. Cecil regulars are coming over to dine and it's fun, you know. I get to play with new flavors. I get to cook in a smaller dining room. I get to be able to really touch every table and see everybody that's coming in.
Greg: Were both restaurants sharing the same kitchen? Were you, like, cooking for two restaurants out of one kitchen? Was that the setup?
JJ: Yeah. I was definitely cooking out of two restaurants with one kitchen. But Minton's menu was really small. It was really focused on the jazz. It was never focused on being a restaurant. It was like a place where you went to the Cecil or you went there first and then you came in to see music afterwards and kinda hung out and drank these amazing cocktails and were able to eat some things.
Greg: Minton's is hot and it stayed hot, you know, several years after it opened, which is an unusual thing in New York City. I mean, I remember the opening of the Cecil was a very big deal — it's probably, definitely one of the biggest openings, I'd say, above 59th Street of the last decade. But it was the kind of restaurant where you kept hearing word-of-mouth. It kept growing and people kept going and talking about it, and I'm just really happy that you guys are still rocking and rolling and —
Helen: Well, it wasn't just word of mouth. Like, the Cecil was Esquire's best restaurant of the year, it was getting tons of accolades under that name, and it felt like a lot of the excitement really centered on your menu, and the storytelling that you did with the menu.
JJ: Yeah, I mean, you know, I went to Ghana and cooked there with Alexander Smalls in Accra, and was able to come back and translate that menu, or that experience. But from that, I was really able to find myself as a person. Like, you go to culinary school, you're told what to cook, and then you go into the field and you start cooking. and you're like, "I’m going to cook Italian, I'm going to cook French, I'm gonna work at Daniel, I'm gonna work at Jean-Georges." At the CIA, like, you're brainwashed —
Helen: At the CIA you're brainwashed!
JJ: At the CIA you're brainwashed.
Helen: Different CIA.
JJ: Yes, the Culinary Institute of America. And you kind of forget who you are as a person, like where you came from — what your grandmother cooked or what your auntie cooked. And when I went to Ghana, I really found myself. That lightbulb went off to say, "Okay, now I know what I'm supposed to cook in my life. Now I'm supposed to go back and do research. Now I'm gonna go grab my grandmother's cookbooks that are written in Spanish and Google Translate them. I'm gonna sit down with my 95-year-old grandfather and talk about my childhood days and when we went to Barbados together and really pull from this diaspora to really tell these stories of these dishes from the start point of West Africa and how that migration, that forced migration, really impacted food."
So the Cecil means a lot to me. And I was really able to express myself and I was able to also take that on the road and relate that to other cities, to other people, to younger kids cooking. I mean, I get emails all the time from kids that are just like, "I don't know what to do. Should I go? I'm Korean." Or, my old sous chef [ was] like, "I'm Korean, I'm from Connecticut, I've never been to South Korea. Do you think I should go back to Korea and like, find myself?" And I'm like, "If you have the opportunity and the money saved, do it." And he went this summer, and now he's back and he's just like, "I'm like, a new person. Yeah, I work at Aquavit now, but I kinda know the flavors of who I am. I kinda know where I'm supposed to be, and now I can express myself though this traditional technique, but these flavors that nobody else really understands but myself because that's who I am."
Helen: That's a really interesting way of crystallizing what I think is a fundamental tension with the world of culinary school versus the world of restaurants... The culinary school experience, I haven't been to culinary school, but like, in my understanding of it, it is like, you know, it's boot camp, you know? It's this received wisdom, like, you are learning how to hold your knife this one particular way. And you're not learning how to hold all sorts of knives, you're learning how to hold like, a specific French-style chef's knife, and there's a very focused, regimented set of skills and techniques. When you were in culinary school, when you were at the CIA, were you taught how to make your own recipes, like were you ever taught —
Helen: How to find yourself in that cooking?
JJ: No, I mean, I was the worst guy in my culinary school. Like, in my class was Carlton McCoy, who's a Master Sommelier, like, he was supposed to be...we laugh about it. He was supposed to be like me cooking, and I was probably supposed to be him tasting wine, because I wasn't good. And yes, you're going to classroom, and this is small dice, this is medium dice, this is the way you hold a knife, this is how you make chicken stock, this is how you make veal stock, this is how you make an egg in a cast iron pan. And you need that, because if you don't have that foundation, you can never create the next recipe. Like, you would never know how to take, like, my oxtail braising liquid and say, "Okay, I know this is how I make chicken and veal stock, but now I can fortify it with these flavors because I know how to fortify. But now I know I can fortify with cinnamon sticks or pink peppercorns, or these other flavors." So yeah, you do need that foundation and I think I would not be where I am today without going to Culinary Institute of America.
Helen: But you also wouldn't be where you are without having that experience in Ghana-
Helen: Which is not to, I think, devalue the culinary school experience, but maybe just, it seems to me like increasingly, and this isn't a new trend, but increasingly, chefs are looking for more than just a robotic life working the line, right? Like, you want to tell your stories, you want to express yourself, and cook things that are meaningful.
JJ: Yeah, I mean, today, I believe in these next... Let's take for example, like, Israeli food at one point was considered Mediterranean cooking. Food from Israel. You cringed. You're like, "No, I know we border the Mediterranean Sea." But nobody understood what, you know, coming from Israel and that style of food was like and that it was a melting pot and there's all this flavor and culture, until one guy really got behind it and said, "I'm gonna push really hard at Zahav, and make this impactful.” And now Israeli food is looked at as its own cuisine. So I feel like that's what I'm trying to do or I am doing with the food of the African diaspora.
Greg: I'm just curious how you went from culinary school to connecting with Alexander Smalls, who is this very well renowned chef and this sort of worldly guy and an opera singer. What did you do after leaving culinary school, how did you find him?
JJ: Thank you for making me feel that young. I really appreciate that. (laughs) After culinary school I worked at Tribeca Grill. Um, I worked at Centro Vinoteca under Leah Cohen. I worked at Jane, opened up The Smith. I worked at uh, a resort in the Poconos, where I'm from in, called Skytop Lodge. Um, and then I left Centro Vinoteca, worked at Morgan Stanley executive dining room.
Helen: That must have been fun.
JJ: Yeah, it was super fun. We changed our menu every day. It's like a secret kitchen there.
Helen: What years were you there?
JJ: I was at Morgan Stanley for three years. It's 2017...so 2010 to 2013?
Helen: So post-crash.
JJ: Post-crash, yeah.
Helen: And it was still like, an amazing secret restaurant.
JJ: Oh, it's insane, like, the stainless steel shines like no other stainless steel shines in anybody's kitchen.
Helen: So it's in the Morgan Stanley headquarters?
JJ: 1585 [Broadway], 41st floor. You have an amazing view.
Helen: And how many folks are working in the kitchen there?
Helen: Wow! That is a bigger staff than a lot of restaurants.
JJ: Zach Friedman, at that time, was the executive chef of that kitchen. He worked at Chanterelle, he worked at Eleven Madison Park, he was like, real deal. I worked underneath him.
Helen: I'm totally fascinated by this sort of alternate world of corporate cooking. We talked to Preeti Mistry on the last season, and she used to work in Google's cafeteria, which is famous. I mean, Google's sort of built a lot of their "you should come work here" brand on the idea of you get to have this amazing free lunch, whichever of our offices you work in, but it would never have occurred to me that Morgan Stanley had a 15 person kitchen churning out extraordinary food.
JJ: Yeah, because back then, like post-9/11, they were going out to eat at all these restaurants. Then after 9/11, they said, "Let's just keep it all in house." So they went after these like, really big time chefs who worked at these amazing places that projected the food that they wanted. I would never think that I would work at Morgan Stanley, but working at Morgan Stanley also helped me understand the business side of the culinary world. So like, making sure my budgets were in place, because you're gonna be really held accountable for that, because it's a budget account. Your food costs, your labor costs, all these things that yeah, you were taught, but 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, and then you have to be able to make that work.
Greg: Wow. Did you have any sort of creative freedom in that job or was it like, "Okay, this is what the people want to eat. I have to make this New American food or whatever."
JJ: We definitely, I definitely had creativity there. We changed our menu every day, so I, you know, I worked with Iberico pork, I worked with foie gras, I worked with truffles.
Helen: Morgan Stanley food.
JJ: We would do, like, you know, whole animals, and use each part, because you know you weren't feeding, like, 100 people. So you know, you were able to do 30 people for lunch, 30 to 50 people for dinner. So you were able to, like, really work with like, D'artagnan, DeBragga, the farms within their program, to like —
Helen: You were running a small restaurant.
Helen: A small, high end restaurant.
JJ: Super small, high-end restaurant.
Helen: Where nobody left tips (laughs).
JJ: Nobody left tips.
Helen: So the path from corporate cooking for Morgan Stanley to spending a month cooking in Ghana to open the Cecil —
JJ: So when I was at Morgan Stanley, my time was running out and I would speak to, you know, Zack Friedman, saying, "What can I do next?" He's like, "Go out and apply, try to get a chef de Cuisine position, that's where you need to be." And I would apply, I would apply, I would apply, I would apply. I would do tastings. I would get called back for interviews. And I'd get, "I'm sorry, we're going in a different direction." And I kept saying, "Why? Why are you not hiring me? What do I need to do? Do I need to leave, like, corporate America and then go back and take a sous chef position? Like, help me, just help me out." And I would say this to chefs all the time in restaurants and I was like, and I would get no answer, and then —
Greg: Why was that? Why do you think it was? There's a stigma against corporate cooking?
JJ: I mean, it could have been a stigma against corporate cooking, I'm not 100 percent sure. It's only an assumption of kinda how I felt. I just was not getting the opportunity. You know, I went to Culinary Institute of America, I worked for Drew Nieporent, I helped open The Smith and Jane. The Smith has, what? Seven Smiths now in New York City?
Helen: Yeah. You had the resume.
JJ: So I had the resume, but I just was not getting opportunities. So I said, "How can I create the opportunity for myself?" I applied to Chopped, that's when Chopped was like, everybody was watching, and —
Greg: Everyone still watches that show.
JJ: Everybody still watches that show, yup. And a young lady, a producer on that show, said, "JJ there's this new show coming out called Rocco's Dinner Party. You should apply. You'll be able to really, like, showcase yourself; your talent." So I applied to Rocco's Dinner Party, I got on Rocco's Dinner Party. I won my episode, and that's how Alexander found me. He saw my episode — I cooked shrimp and grits. The theme of my episode was around Harlem. The way I cooked the grits, he said it reminded him of his father as a kid. And the judges on that show were Rocco [DiSpirito]. Marcus [Samuelsson] was a judge, Kelly Choi was a judge. So it was like a really heavy hitter, foodie-chef-judge episode that I won. So it wasn't like it was just these stars eating dinner.
Helen: You had legit people sort of validating your ability to cook these grits.
JJ: So then I get this random email from this man, Alexander Smalls. When I was Googling, you just see an opera singer, but he was saying he was a chef. And he, like, won all these awards as an opera singer and he actually lived 10 blocks from where I lived in Harlem. And we had breakfast, we chatted, and then he became more of like a mentor for me in the beginning, and then turned into my boss. And we went to Ghana and the next thing you know, we came back and created the Cecil.
Helen: So the menu at the Cecil got a lot of attention. I think almost everywhere it was covered, people would talk about it as sort of Afro-American-Asian, or Afro-Asian-American, or Afro-Asian. And one of the things I found super fascinating about the approach that you took to that menu was the Asian component. That the storytelling around the food of the African diaspora, which I think often, particularly in America, is focused on the American aspect of the African diaspora, you were referencing things from the eastern slave trade. You were talking about, like, the progression of forced migration of Africans into India and into Southeast Asia, which is so rare.
JJ: Well yeah, okay, so you know, history has these two story sides to the book. You don't even know what you have. So when we went to Ghana, there was a lot of Chinese that lived there. And my mom's a schoolteacher, and I would say to my mom, like, "I don't understand this. Like, there's all these Chinese people living in West Africa that nobody talks about." And you would see Africans making fried rice on the street. You would see them using soy sauce. You would see them using dried shrimp. You'd see them using all these components that you would see in Chinese cookery. Mom said, "Pick up the encyclopedia. The encyclopedia is a lie." So when I would go back, you would see that there was a migration of Chinese immigrants into West Africa.
There's also a migration of Southeast Asians into Senegal. Like, also in the northern part of West Africa. So if you're in Senegal and you look at the food that they eat and you look at Vietnam, the stomach is the same — like they use glass noodles, they use spring rolls. Technique might be slightly different, but the overall path of food is the same. aAnd then they all migrated together through forced migration. So then, when you go to Jamaica, you see Chinese, and that's where the conversation started.As a kid I was going to Barbados, you would see a lot of Indians, and I would say, "Where is this coming from?" Where you have roti, you have curries, you have all this.
So that's the stories that I was telling. I wasn't potentially going backwards even though Africans, West Africans were going into other parts of the world into countries. I started researching these hubs of the Africans in certain areas, like in Brazil and Peru and how Africans impacted Portugal, and that's what I was doing and that was the storytelling that I was telling through the menu or that I still try to tell through today. And letting people know, like, the word "fusion," we use it, but if you go to certain places in the world, these cultures have lived together for hundreds of years, but nobody understands them. Like, you go to Singapore and you have the Malay, the Indians, and the Chinese. Yes, you're not gonna get traditional dishes that you think you would get in Southeast Asia, because these cultures have been living together, and they've created their own style of cooking. And I think that's where people start getting confused.
Helen: Something we've touched on a couple of times in the course of this show is that idea of co-mingling of cultures, and exactly what you just said — that we tend to think of "fusion" as like, a new thing, but in fact people have been living together and migrating and cross-migrating and immigrating and moving voluntarily or involuntarily for the entirety of humanity. And in fact, the much harder thing to find — maybe even it's just a false concept — is like, a truly pure cultural identity. Like, you know, even in Korean cooking, there's Chinese influences. In Japanese cooking, there are influences from all over. Like, wherever people move, they bring their food with them, and they bring their techniques with them. And so for us to sort of obsess over this idea of like, what is pure Caribbean food? Well, there's no such thing as pure Caribbean food anymore. Or maybe there never was.
JJ: Well, you have these stems of Caribbean food — like we know jerk stemmed from Jamaica. But if you take a place like Haiti, they have Creole, then you can connect Haiti to New Orleans. Then you can connect, you connect Haiti to Guinea Faso, like, there's these connections and then you can put the food and the techniques and the spices that have migrated through those places and you can see it. It's like gumbo. Like, everybody believes gumbo is only in New Orleans, but if you go back, there's a Senegalese-style gumbo. That's where it started from, and I've had that in Ghana, a variation of it, but they just use a lot of dried shrimp and a lot of dried fish to execute that dish. And then as time goes on, you're like, "Oh my god, I can get my hands on this. I can get my hands on this." And then you have all these variations of the dish, but there is an origin of a dish. You've just gotta really kinda really search hard for it.
Helen: So do you still do a lot of research?
JJ: Yeah, you know, I've been really thankful over the last three years after Ghana. I've been to Israel, cooked in Jerusalem, and kinda saw that melting pot of food. I was in Singapore, really saw that melting pot of food. I just left India and Delhi, and really saw that melting pot of food. I think the difference with me and many other people, is that when I travel, I'm looking through food through the West African lens, so I see this connection of West Africa in a lot of places, and see a spice or see a chile or see this and say, "Oh, wow, I get this. I understand this now. Now I understand why this works, or this doesn't work." So, I feel like as I'm progressing as a chef, I'm starting to represent these melting pots of the world and these flavors that people don't understand that I can kind of translate through food.
Greg: So when you're building a dish, how do you put it together? Are there things that every JJ Johnson dish has to have?
Greg: I mean, you know, points that it has to hit?
JJ: Uh, yes. I feel like I have my own mirepoix. So my mirepoix, the base dish is garlic, shallots, ginger, bird's eye chile. That's how we build a dish, from that standpoint.
Helen: And a classic mirepoix is like, carrots, celery, and onion?
JJ: Carrots, celery, and onions, yeah. So —
Helen: That's a pretty significant variation.
JJ: Variation, right?
JJ: So that’s like my foundation — you’ll find that in any of my dishes. And then I think the biggest thing that I've learned through traveling to these countries and these grandmothers' kitchens are the scents, the smell that comes out — the aroma, when it [is presented] to you, that you don't really get in a United States restaurant. You get this dish, it's super clean, it's could be flavorful, but there's no aroma that draws you in that says, "Oh, my God, I want this." So, like, if you'd come and eat the feijoada, you can smell like, the cumin, the coriander, and the cinnamon sticks that are in that dish with the oxtail meat. And before you eat it, that aroma's in your face, or while my runners are walking by and you're about to order your food, you're smelling this dish, and you're like, "Oh, my God, I want that." So I would say that's like a JJ part of my mirepoix, that there's this aroma of flavor that comes through the dining room.
Greg: Do you have any dishes that you just can’t take 'em off the menu?
JJ: Yeah, feijoada's not coming off the menu.
Helen: Do you make, like, a classic Brazilian feijoada or do you —
JJ: Yeah, so a classic Brazilian feijoada has three meats in it. This has two. It has lamb merguez and then oxtail meat. So, oxtail meats are braised and then pulled off the bone into it, and we also give you a piece of oxtail meat to like kind of pick up and eat like ribs, and then we use the braising liquid to cook the beans. So you still get kind of like, that smokiness from the merguez sausage, but it's not super classic, no. Nothing is like, classic. It's my interpretation on the food. The gumbo's still on the menu, which is Afro-Asian style gumbo, so it has soy sauce, and it has dried shrimp in it, to give you, like, that ocean-y feel from when I had it at a grandmother's kitchen in Ghana. And then the oxtail dumplings. I feel like over the last three or four years, people really love the way I cook dumplings with these unique styles of flavors that you don't get in a traditional dumpling. And then the way I kind of play around with these origins of rice.
Helen: Rice is a hot button ingredient. I feel like people get very passionate about rice.
JJ: (laughs) Well we all grew up with it, right? It doesn't matter where you are in the world, rice is the center of the plate. So if you're Italian, you had rice. If you were in India, you had basmati rice. If you grew up in America, you had Uncle Ben's — which I hated, right? My mom made Uncle Ben's. Terrible.
Helen: But in the last year in particular there was, I don't know if I'd call it a full controversy, but there was like a minor flare particularly talking about the food of the African diaspora, over the fact that Anson Mills was producing Carolina Gold rice. They brought it back and they were working with Sean Brock and sort of helping reestablish Carolina Gold and they came under some fire for how expensive it was.
JJ: Well, I think this is where we get confused. So we all buy rice in the store, right? Which is like, long grain rice, and it's enriched. It's an enriched grain. It has bleach, and it has all this stuff in it, right? Glenn Roberts is producing rice that's freshly milled and sent to you, and you have to store it in a refrigerator or freezer, or it will go bad. So —
Greg: It's perishable.
JJ: Right, so that's the difference, and that's the $1.25, $1.50 that you're paying, and you can taste it in the rice. It's like getting, you know, the best possible beef or the best possible chicken — it's the same thing. You're gonna spend a couple extra bucks on it, and it's just a stigma, right? Rice has always been super cheap and I work closely with Glenn on sourcing like African popping sorghum, or using Carolina Gold or Tribune Carolina, all these heirloom grains that he produces that I support. But yeah, I mean, you pay $5.65 a pound for Carolina Gold. Or maybe that's what I do. I'm sorry, Glenn.
Helen: Secret shop price.
JJ: But when you get it and you put it on the plate and somebody has it, it's one of the best rices you can have. And I think when more people start buying it, the price will drop down.
Greg: What I'm curious about, JJ, is, you know, you guys are in your groove at Minton's, people are still super excited about that restaurant. I know that you travel a lot, you're kind of a fixture on like, the food festivals, and, I'm just kind of curious: Do you have an idea of what you want to do next? Are you thinking about, like, a book or another restaurant? Or are you just locked into Minton's right now?
JJ: Oh man, I'm always trying to progress, I'm always on the grind. I mean, that's why you see me pushing. So me and Alexander have done a book. It's called uh, Between Harlem and Heaven.
Helen: Ugh, that's so good.
JJ: Yeah, so great Afro-Asian-American cookery with me and Alexander. So it's gonna be like fun, and Alexander's the narrative of that book, you know, his big, bold voice. And then for me, two of my goals in my life: I would love to be the Jordan of the culinary world.
Helen: Aim, aim low, man, like —
JJ: Can't, can't aim low. So, like, you know how kids are coming up in the world and they looked at Jordan and they were like, "I gotta put Jordans on my feet and I'll play just like Michael." I want young African-American kids to grow up and say, "I want to be like JJ. I want to get in a kitchen. I can do this. I can do the same way JJ can do it."
And then I just want to have an impact on the culinary world. Like, 10 years from now, or five years from now, I want to be able to look back and say, "Oh, oh shit. JJ impacted the culinary world. He really changed the landscape," the same way David Chang did with ramen noodles. The same way April [Bloomfield] did with gastropubs. The same way Sean Brock did with Southern American cooking. So that's the goal, and that's why you really see me push really hard.
Even though I might be throwing a pool party in Miami, having fun with my culinary friends, I'm still cooking. Or if I'm able to go to another city and express my food on a plate in front of people that have never had my food or read about me, you know, I'm, I'm thankful to be able to do that. I'm also thankful for my team, you know, like 90 percent of my staff has been with me from day one. So they know how to execute my lead. My prep guys are the same prep guys. My chef de cuisine, Tiffany, is the same chef de cuisine — or sous chef, and then became chef de cuisine —from day one when we opened up the restaurant. I'm very thankful for them, or I wouldn't be able to do any of the things that I do.
But no, Minton's will not be the only place you see me, and hopefully I'll be somewhere else, alongside Minton's, expressing my culinary vision in another place. You can catch me in both places.
Helen: How do you build an, an amazing team that you want to have around you for years? This seems like something a lot of chefs struggle with.
JJ: Struggle with, yeah, I get these emails. I look for good people. So number one is like, good people. I want to hire a good person, because if you already know how to cook, I can train you the way I want you to execute. I might ride you, you might hear me scream. I might be on you a lot, but I can train you on the flavors and get you there. And if I know you're a good person — you're not gonna steal from me, you're gonna come to work every day, when you do call out it is a real issue. So that's, like, my main focus — arms around, hugging my employees. And then I just build with them. Like, I give all my guys holiday presents. We do a holiday party. I'm respectful to their families. I tell them, "Listen, I'm gonna give you two days off, and you spend that time with your family, and then when you're here, I really need you here." And I tell all of them this when I hire them, like —
Helen: Five-day work week?
JJ: Five-day work week.
Helen: That's magical in the restaurant world. That's unheard of.
JJ: Two days off, back to back.
Helen: Oh my God. You must have lines like, around the block of people who want to come work for you.
JJ: Wow, consecutive. Yeah, I mean, or there's really no space to hire, you know? So, you know, that's what we really do. Yeah, sometimes there's six day work weeks, sometimes we work 12 hour days, you know, but I tell them those are times that you put extra money in your pocket.
JJ: But I really respect the balance of both, right, it's just not like, if you have a great personal life you're gonna cook better in the kitchen. And I'm also just hiring people that potentially would never get hired in other people's restaurants.
Helen: What does that mean?
JJ: My kitchen is by far the most diverse kitchen in the country. We speak 10 languages. They're from all around the world. And, you know, cooking Afro-Asian cookery attracted cooks and chefs that felt like they could relate to it. So I have guys in my kitchen that are from India, Tibet, China, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, African American, Grenada. Everybody speaks at least two languages, even if they speak Patois, but they speak two languages, and some of them speak four or five.
Helen: The implication here is that the restaurant world is still pretty racist in its hiring practices.
JJ: No, we're not gonna say that. Not on this podcast.
Helen: No, no, we would, we would never —
JJ: I tell guys all the time, "You gotta really know what you want." So if you do brunch, yeah, you might hire like Miss Brown to do your brunches part time, but I guarantee she'll poach your eggs perfect every time, she'll be here every morning, she gonna set it up. Yeah, she might talk a little bit, she might push her personal problems on you. But if that's all you have to worry about to get perfect poached eggs, to make sure your station's set up, you don't have hangover cooks...you’re gonna have to deal with one or the other. So you deal with the hangover guys, somebody calling out, or you deal with the lady that has a little bit of personal issues, and she just wants somebody to talk to. You figure it out, but I'll take her over the calling-outs or the hangovers any day.
Helen: Yeah, it does seem like the overall shift in kitchen culture from the kinda like pirate ship full of lost boys era that everyone lionizes of 20 or 30 years ago to like, this is a real workplace with human beings who you know, we need to respect and treat like people has allowed for a lot more room for people who are not hungover asshole white dudes.
JJ: I mean, like, the badass cook is becoming a sous chef out of culinary school now. He's not, or she's not on the line. She's your junior sous or low entry-level sous that has their stuff together, and you, you need that. Because before there was no Charleston, there was no North Carolina, there was no Nashville — kids weren't going there to cook. They weren't going back home. They were going to Chicago and New Orleans, New York City. So there was a bigger crop. Now you have to figure out what you can reach into. I mean, I also hire from the IRC, which is the International Rescue [Committee] that the United States puts together for people that claim asylum, that come from these countries, and they need their work.
Helen: Hiring refugees. Very political act these days.
JJ: But if you're in a restaurant where you have woks and you need guys that work on woks and it's hard to find, you got guys coming in from Tibet ... this is their lifestyle. Now, in their country, they might have been a doctor and they don't want to do it, but they know they need to pay back the government because they got them here. And two, they need to make a living, so then they become your wok guys or make dumplings for you — whatever it might be. So there are these sources of places to hire from for your restaurant. You might just have to step out of the box a little bit and be a little bit uncomfortable in the beginning.
Helen: But we seem to have naturally segued into talking about politics, which I always get very excited about. It's a hard time right now in America to be an immigrant or be a refugee or to, in some environments, be a person who is very excited to employ immigrants or refugees. How do you feel about the way the world might be taking us.
JJ: I think as a chef, or chef-to-restaurateur, we've been hiring immigrants or refugees our whole lives. We've worked with them in our kitchens and those times aren't gonna change. That who's still in the kitchen now and who's still gonna be in the kitchen. And I just go to work every day still doing the same thing unless somebody tells me I can't do it. But all my guys have I9s and fill out paperwork and are legit and have identifications. They might be an immigrant or a refugee, but that doesn't change the landscape of the culinary world, and I think everything will be okay.
Helen: I appreciate your optimism.
JJ: Because I know, and the reason why I say that [is] because nobody wants to see... We as in Millennials, 30 to 45 really, we don't want to see what our parents or our grandparents have talked about, right? My grandfather's 95 years old. Still going strong, and, you know, when I get the chances to talk to him, he'll break down some things that you're just like...he's seen it all. Nobody wants to go through that. That's the only kind of statement I could kind of say.
And, you know, all my chef friends that I talk to, we're all gonna be good. Because at the end of the day, the bottom line affects a lot of people. And when the bottom line starts affecting the people at the top, they have to shift to make sure that they make money, or they won't make any. They won't be able to do anything.
So if we're not being able to farm, agriculture goes out of business, right? And then you're importing. So then you lose 50,000 jobs, right? So I sit on the James Beard impact board. So like, these things matter. Those programs are set up, they're good. They might need a tweak a little bit, but it's all gonna be good. If you don't know Joseph "JJ" Johnson, that's coming from an African-American chef. Like, we’re gonna be good.
Helen: All right. (laughs)
JJ: Like, you gonna' be all right. It's gonna be some fucked up shit, but I think, we're gonna be fine.
Helen: I really do appreciate your optimism.
JJ: And I'm from Pennsylvania.
Helen: Yeah. (laughs)
JJ: I'm from Pennsylvania. I'm from one of the counties that went red.
JJ: So, we're gonna be, we're gonna be good.
Helen: Yeah. We'll go through, like, a brief economic and human rights disaster and then we'll realize it was a bad idea.
JJ: No, four years will come quicker than that, guys.
Helen: (laughs) Oh, okay.
JJ: We're 25 days in.
Greg: I'm gonna take a little loop with that last bit you just said, and just kind of play it over and over again when I read the news.
Helen: I know. I'm gonna make it my phone ringer.
Greg: Optimism. Yeah, I'll make it. Yeah, we'll make it into a ringtone.
Helen: JJ Johnson saying "It's gonna be okay."
JJ: It's gonna be all right. It's gonna be okay.
Greg: JJ says it's gonna be okay.
Helen: Trust you. (laughs)
Greg: Um, on that note, do we have any lightning round questions?
Helen: Today our questions are going to be asked by Maureen Giannone who is our executive producer and basically keeps all the trains running on time.
JJ: You know I love Maureen. She found me.
Helen: Like, she made you?
JJ: Like, literally, like, made me.
Helen: Maureen made you?
JJ: Like, she worked at New York 1, she tasted my food when I wasn't looking, and the next thing I know she was like, in the restaurant every week with like, somebody else, and I really appreciate her support. So I'm really nervous to hear her lightning round questions here.
Helen: Okay, Maureen, the lightning round is all yours. Take it away.
Maureen Giannone: JJ! It's Maureen. Love you, love everything you do, excited that you're here. So I have some lightning round questions for you. First question: who is your dream musical guest at Minton's?
JJ : Wow. Shoot. Guest band musician player: Wynton Marsalis.
Helen: Has he been in?
JJ: He's been in, but I'd love for him to come back and like...I don't care if he just sat there on the stage. Like, just come back and rock it out.
Helen: Wynton, if you're listening go hang out at Minton's again. What about, no longer living?
JJ: No longer living, Billie Holiday. JJ Johnson. The famous trombone player.
Helen: Not you. (laughs)
JJ: Not me. People think it's me. People bring me, like, a record. Like Bryce Shuman came and he brought me a JJ Johnson record.
Helen: Like, to sign?
JJ: He was like, "Listen, this is my present you, man. I love jazz. Rock it out at home."
JJ: "Do you have a record player?"
Helen: That's so cool!
JJ: Yeah, so Bryce brought that up. Bryce brought that to me when he came up to hang out, so that was like really cool.
Helen: That is really awesome.
JJ: So it's in my house.
Helen: I feel like no one can argue with Billie Holiday. That's like, that's the correct answer. Like, this is an opinion question, but it's the correct answer.
JJ: Well I mean, she made Minton's. The famous mural that's in the back has Billie Holiday, you have your assumption of what you think she's doing, so.
Helen: We will leave that to our listeners who dive into the details. Maureen, what's your next question?
Maureen: What's your favorite late night post-service meal?
JJ: Late night post-service meal's like a burger. Local bar on 108th and Amsterdam. Really cheap. They use Pat LaFrieda, do a really good job. I can't think of the bar's name right now because you just caught me off guard, but yeah. You know, a burger's like really good. Or just sometimes like really good Harlem fried chicken at like a really small nook spot.
Helen: What's your favorite piece of chicken?
JJ: We were debating this the other day. It's either leg or thigh.
Helen: Those are the only appropriate answers.
JJ: Yeah, I ate a leg the other day, I was like, “This is amazing.”
Maureen: If you could redesign the culinary school curriculum, what would you teach first?
JJ: I would just add in culture. I would add in a lesson that teaches everybody about culture. Where food has been and where it's come from. Just so they can understand it a little bit more and it's not just made up of three places or four places around the world.
Maureen: All right, here's the next one. What's your secret weapon ingredient?
JJ: Secret weapon ingredient? Love. JJ love.
JJ: Just like, the way I stir the pot.
Helen: The secret ingredient is love!
JJ: It's love.
Helen: It's always love. I always just assume that love was code for extra butter.
JJ: No, like, I talk to food. I sing. I hum. I have my own, like technique for that.
Helen: Do you make up little songs for each dish?
JJ: I don't know if I make up...,you going a little far.
Helen: What do you sing to them?
JJ: I don't know, whatever pops in my mind.
Helen: So you do make up little songs for each dish. No, I love this! I'm totally picturing you, like, stirring your gumbo, being like, “Little pot of gumbo, you’re pretty awesome, everybody likes you.”
Greg: Helen, it sounds like you have occasionally sung to your food.
Helen: I sing to literally everything. I have a terrible singing voice, and I sing to every inanimate object in my life. Pretty much at all times.
Greg: I'm gonna take a cue from you guys and start this. It sounds like it's a pretty essential key to cooking good food.
JJ: You gotta do it.
Helen: Maureen, sorry. Do you have any more questions for JJ?
Maureen: If you could cook for one living person, who would it be?
JJ: Oh, come on. Barack Obama. That's like a dream. Barack and Michelle. Like, hey, they appreciate food. They have real love for it. When she was doing the Let's Move; where he dines.
Helen: I feel like you've got a pretty high likelihood of cooking for them at some point, if you haven't already.
JJ: I have not, never.
Helen: Yeah, if I had money on my person right now, I would put money on the table that you will —
JJ: I've had both Attorney Generals.
Helen: There you go! But I will predict that you will cook for Barack and/or Michelle Obama in the next 18 months.
JJ: I will call you. First.
Helen: I'm putting this on the table.
JJ: Thank you.
Helen: If you don't, I don't know what I'll do.
JJ: That's so weird. We'll keep pushing, we'll keep pushing for it.
Helen: But (laughs) yeah, it's gonna happen. All right. Cool.
Maureen: If you were to open a restaurant on your own, what would the concept be?
JJ: Ooh, you trying to just take everything now! You know, people be copying these days, guys.
Helen: We'll bleep out all of the important words.
JJ: People be copying. I mean, for me right now, I'm really focused on grains and the origins, and then relating that to the places I've been and my food and my expression. If you look at dinners I'm doing, you'll see a lot of grains and rices on there and that's the focus for me right now — like I'm really obsessed with rice and the heirloom, and working with Glenn Roberts and other rice brands. I went to a rice farm in India. You will see more of that coming from me.
Helen: JJ's House of Rice.
JJ: Maybe JJ's House of Rice. I like that.
Helen: Super catchy.
Helen: It's your fast-casual lunch brand.
JJ: Hey! JJ's House of Rice! Hey, let's, listen, I'm gonna have you work on marketing next!
Helen: Totally cool. Does not violate my journalistic ethics. Awesome! Cool. Maureen, what's your next lightning round question for us?
Maureen: If you could transplant your restaurant to somewhere else in the world, where would that be?
Helen: Oh, I love this question.
JJ: That's a good question. I mean, Maureen, to really be honest, the next restaurant for me could be anywhere. You know, I just love to cook and express myself, so if I could transport myself out, I would cook anywhere next. I wouldn't potentially pick up Minton's and go somewhere 'cause it has so much history there and it's a Harlem place, and you would have to reinvent that. So, I would pick up myself and go cook somewhere else if it's down the block, or if it's in another city or state.
Helen: Are there any cities you're particularly excited about right now?
JJ: I get excited about Charlotte, Oakland, I'm always excited about Miami — I think it's just warm. I'm excited about like, Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Helen: That's where I live.
JJ: So you know, all those places that just have so much culture and I can relate to and they can relate to me, really make sense.
Helen: Well, the world is your oyster, I guess.
JJ: The world is my oyster.
Helen: Awesome. Well, JJ, thank you so much for joining us here on the Eater Upsell.
Greg: Thank you for joining us, man.
Helen: If our listeners want to eat your food, they can find you at Minton's in Harlem. And probably in lots of other cities, and they can sit tight for a year or two years and wait for your cookbook.
Greg: JJ, are you a social media guy? Should we be following?
JJ: Oh yeah, so you, you can, you can find me um, on Instagram @chefjj. You can find me on Twitter @chefjoejohnson. You can call the restaurant, ask for me. Could shoot me an email.
Helen: Do people just ever call and want to talk?
JJ: People do.
Helen: And you're like, "Hey, what's up, man?"
JJ: I talk to them sometimes. “Yeah, what's up? What do you need? Come by. Let's chat.”
Helen: That's so beautiful.
JJ: Well you know, the reason why I do that is because I don't feel that in my time, nobody ever kind of just like said, "I got you. I'm gonna mentor you. You're gonna be my guy." Brian Ellis, the executive chef of The Smith Group did that, but as he started opening up more Smiths, he couldn't do that as much. So I make sure that I'm able to do that for young kids, old guys — like I have an apprentice in my kitchen right now that might become a career changer because he can retire early. So he comes in once a week and just hangs out. He's over 40. So, you know, I just try to help everybody out that I can help out.
Helen: That's awesome. That's really great. I love the way you keep your door open, both literally and metaphorically.
JJ: Thank you.
Helen: Well, JJ Johnson, thank you so much for joining us here on the Eater Upsell.
Greg: Thanks for stopping by.
Helen: Folks, if you're listening and you're not subscribed to the show, hit the subscribe button or we will come to your home and do awful things to you. That's not actually true. We don't know where you live, but we might. Who knows? Anyway, subscribe to The Eater Upsell, follow JJ Johnson on all of his social media channels, and eat at his restaurants, and Greg and I will love you forever. Thanks for listening.
Greg: And sing to your food.
Helen: And sing to your food. Always sing to your food.
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The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producers: Patrick Bulger and Maureen Giannone
Associate Producer/Editor: Daniel Geneen
Associate Producer: Kendra Vaculin
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