A certain celestial atmosphere surrounds the life of an executive chef and cookbook co-author who rose to new culinary heights in Harlem. His days are jammed with raising money for his own restaurant and promoting his passion for the influences that West African and Asian diasporas had on food enjoyed on every continent. “What were those African slaves doing before they were free? They were cooking food,” says James Beard nominee Joseph “JJ” Johnson. “They were literally laying down the foundation of what American food is, but then got no credit for it.”
Johnson took his global cooking inspired by West African and Asian cultures to the Chef’s Club in New York City after leaving The Cecil and Minton’s last year. He introduced more diners to braised meats, rice dishes and West African peanut sauce during the Club’s first long-term residency for a visiting chef. “That’s truly who I am. As I grow into doing my own stuff, I’ll start categorizing what I cook as Afro Global comfort food,” says Johnson.
The James Beard nomination for “Rising Star Chef” received by Johnson in 2015 was for the style of cuisine he prepared before The Cecil reinvented itself as a steakhouse. Now, other chefs and home cooks can gain a deeper understanding of Johnson’s culinary viewpoint in the new cookbook “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights and Every Day.”
“There’s truly something for everybody, and that’s why I designed the recipes that way. The headnotes make you feel like I am in the kitchen with you,” says Johnson. He and his mentor and Cecil’s co-owner Alexander Smalls collaborated on the cookbook with Veronica Chambers. It is more than 200 pages of stories and recipes from the culinary melting pot created by Africans, Asians, West Indians and other cultures when they came together on different continents before, during and after the slave trade. The dishes celebrate these groups for their contributions to and influence on food around the world.
Recipes such as citrus jerk bass, oxtail dumplings and a collard green salad open doors to the food Johnson became enamored with on his travels with Smalls to Ghana in West Africa and beyond. “When I talk about the melting pot, I talk about it because I’ve actually visited what I feel are the melting pots of the world, like Singapore, India, Israel and Ghana,” says Johnson.
The chef also points out the merging of cultures in America that has created new culinary adventures for the children of immigrants. Johnson’s father is African-American with relatives from the South. His maternal grandfather is from Barbados and “JJ” grew up watching his mother’s Puerto Rican grandmother cook. “Between Harlem and Heaven” represents the trend toward young Americans who grew up around other cultures cooking their own heritage. “Those are the kids that make up the landscape of America, and that’s what people want to eat around the world now,” adds Johnson.
Rave reviews for the cookbook could help Johnson attract investors for InGrained Hospitality Concepts. He developed a love for rice while traveling the world and wants to open restaurants that focus on global rice and grain dishes. His vision also includes diners enjoying Afro-Asian-American cuisine with a soundtrack of 1990s hip-hop and R&B playing in the restaurants.
Chef “JJ” acknowledges that the vision for his culinary future might not have been possible without the invaluable mentoring he received from Smalls. Johnson now wants to provide new opportunities for other young chefs of color as he builds a baby empire for his wife and twin sons with his cookbook as a solid foundation. “When I cooked in Ghana for the first time, I really saw that food is a language. It breaks down barriers,” says Johnson. “I couldn’t think of a better time for this cookbook to come out in America because migration is front and center. I don’t think we’ve ever thought about it more than at this moment.”