The network’s latest show, “New Soul Kitchen,” to premiere Saturday, March 16.
Think about your fondest memories of spending time with your favorite people. Food is almost always in the picture, right? The same warm vibe created from preparing and sharing meals in our own kitchens comes through on CLEO TV’s new cooking shows, “Just Eats with Chef JJ” and “New Soul Kitchen” with chef Jernard Wells, aka The Love Chef, and Porsche Thomas.
“People are building real friendship through food on the television show. I think that’s something I learned from my grandmother as a little kid,” says JJ Johnson. The award-winning chef and partner of Henry by JJ at Life Hotel in New York City picked up that lesson watching both his mom’s Puerto Rican mother and his dad’s African American mom cook in kitchens vibrant with enticing aromas, interesting conversations and lively music. “They both had that same aura. The only difference was they were playing two different styles of music in their kitchens. But they were still bringing people together.”
Food, family, friends and fun are all essential ingredients in the two cooking shows on CLEO TV, a new aspirational and lifestyle network for women of color.
The co-hosts of “New Soul Kitchen” also grew up surrounded by talented cooks who enjoyed putting delicious food on the table for family and friends. Wells spent a lot of time helping his parents with their catering business. He was 16 when he opened his first restaurant in his mother’s home. He still identifies love as one of the essential ingredients used by every talented chef. “Food is really tied to those significant moments in our lives,” says Wells. “Food is the ultimate unifier of all people.”
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Wells describes his collaboration with Thomas as a perfect match. The daughter of restaurateur and reality TV star Peter Thomas (“The Housewives of Atlanta”) brings her passion for preparing vegan soul food full of flavor, while Wells demonstrates how to make comfort food favorites with fewer calories and less fat. Together, they make cooking a time to learn and laugh. “One of the cool things is because she’s a diehard vegan, she gets to smell all the regular food I’m cooking. The beautiful part of the show is that I get to eat it all. I get to eat mine and hers,” Wells says.
Thomas admits that not tasting the delectable dishes Wells makes is one of the toughest parts of the show, but she still says it is a lot of fun. “It’s watching him and in my vegan brain trying to figure out how I can spin it so I can make it and enjoy it as well.”
By Us and or Us
Another characteristic of the two shows that thrills Johnson, Wells and Thomas is their uniqueness as creations of African-Americans appearing on a black-owned network. “Just Eats with Chef JJ” and “New Soul Kitchen” are concepts produced for CLEO TV by Powerhouse Productions, a company launched by executive producers Rochelle Brown and Sonia Armstead in 2003.
Wells jumped at the chance to do something with the network’s parent company, TV One. “This was like a dream come true to finally have an opportunity to do something with a network that I truly admired and that represented us.” Johnson agrees. “There was really no show out there for us and by us. That’s what made me 100% sign on.”
Something else made “New Soul Kitchen” very appealing to Wells. He had already built a following on television with his numerous appearances on shows that air on the Food Network and Cooking Channel. Yet despite his popularity as a competitor and judge on cooking challenges, Wells had not gotten an opportunity to host a show. “As I grew and learned the business and built relationships, I wanted to be more than a battle chef because I have so much to offer outside just being a competitive chef,” Wells says.
This is his co-host’s first job cooking on television. In a way, Thomas auditioned for the part when she agreed to put on a Thanksgiving feast that included vegan choices for a family friend, Russell Simmons. “It was amazing. We did it for the next five years. It grew every year and I became his personal chef,” says Thomas.
Recipes for Today’s Lifestyles
The recipes presented on both shows come from the many years Thomas, Wells and Johnson have spent cooking what they like to eat and serve. All three have published cookbooks that feature traditional and original dishes. With CLEO TV’s focus on attracting Millennials and Gen Xers, the hosts are also incorporating recipes compatible with today’s lifestyles.
“Everyone is in a rush. They want fresh. They want all natural without all the junk, but they want it fast. That’s what ‘New Soul Kitchen’ is,” Wells says. As a husband of 20 years and a father, the chef is familiar with the demands of satisfying different food preferences at mealtimes. “When I’m cooking for the kids it’s like a smorgasbord,” says the father of nine. “Normally, when I fix dinner, we have three or four different styles of cuisine going on.”
Wells gets inspiration from all the critics sitting at the dinner table. His co-host finds inspiration in cooking vegan meals for her two-year-old twin boys. Thomas decided to go full vegan when they were born. She enjoys taking the mystery and confusion out of cooking without meat or dairy products. “For me, it’s always been a joy to help people and explain it to them. I feel like people over”complicate it,” says Thomas. “The biggest part of it is the mind shift. You’ve got the Impossible burger. You’ve got the Beyond Burger. You’ve got benevolent Bacon. You’ve got a lot of substitutions and a lot of things that are out there and available.”
The healthy-living recipes Thomas and Wells share on “New Soul Kitchen” must still pass their standards for taste and presentation. “My co-host and I create great recipes that are easy to fix. You get the same quality of dish prepared in your home that you would get in a good restaurant,” Wells says.
On “Just Eats with Chef JJ,” Johnson shares some of the dishes he has made at restaurants. This includes favorites such as chicken parmesan. He plans to share creations inspired by the African diaspora, which influences his cooking at Henry by JJ and Field Trip, the restaurant he will open in Harlem this spring. The food cooked with the help of his guests should appeal to CLEO TV’s target audience. “I think Millennials eat out so much this show will help them get back into the kitchen and feel comfortable,” says Johnson. “Gen Xs love cooking at home and this show makes them keep on wanting to cook.”
Sharing and Supporting Each Other
The new shows air on Comcast Xfinity channels and Charter with more providers to be announced in coming months. The first episode of “Just Eats with Chef JJ” premiered Saturday, January 19 at 12 pm. You can catch encore showings or watch Johnson interacting with friends and celebrity guests on CLEO TV’S website. Johnson sees the kitchen in the NYC loft apartment as a fantastic place to meet people. “Some people on the show are hand-selected friends, truly my friends. Some others I don’t know that are superstars in their lane. It’s my first time meeting them and I’m connecting with them over food,” Johnson says.
Many of his conversations with guests are fun, trending topics. They also discuss issues that impact people of color today. For instance, David Banner, a rapper and activist, brought up how Blacks should do better at keeping the dollar from leaving our communities. “In the Anglo-Saxon community, it might go through five times. But in the Black community, it might go through once. We have to figure out ways to try to keep supporting each other,” Johnson says.
Co-hosts Wells and Thomas will share their expertise and insights when “New Soul Kitchen” premieres Saturday, March 16 at 12:30 Eastern Daylight Time. Wells sees the show as an opportunity for him and Thomas to share knowledge with each other and the viewers. “We all long to learn from each other, especially with being chefs. There are different things she learns and sees from me and things that I learn and see from her.”
One of the things Thomas has picked up is elevating some vegan options with barbecue sauce. “It’s really finding new ways to play with food,” says the vegan guru. “I’ve definitely been playing with barbecue sauces. It kind of opened up my whole world.”
Thomas is looking forward to showing off her skills to CLEO TV viewers when she makes her vegan lasagna. Wells wants “New Soul Kitchen” to be a platform for expanding his career and demonstrating to young African American chefs that succeeding on more than one network is possible. “The smart thing is to learn how to cross-pollinate and cross-brand because people are going to follow you no matter what channel you are on if they love you,” Wells says.
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Johnson is getting a kick out of the responses to his show. He enjoys seeing friends and special guests forming new relationships on “Just Eats with Chef JJ,” a show that could also attract patrons to his cooking at Henry by JJ and Field Trip when it opens. “I’m just pushing, and it’s a marathon for me. Hopefully, I’ll be in the game for a really long time, having an impact on the industry and maybe other industries.”
You can check out recipes from the bestselling cookbook Johnson co-authored with Alexander Smalls and Veronica Chambers, “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day.” Follow him on Instagram and Twitter or on Facebook.
Wells has four published cookbooks, including one he co-authored with actress Denise Boutté, “Southern Modified: Southern Inspired Dishes, Modified for Today’s Healthier Lifestyle.” Catch up with Wells on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Try making vegan dishes with the cookbook by Porsche Thomas, “Porsche Cooks Vegan: Recipes for the Soul,” available on Amazon and follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can also go to her website to try her online course guide to a successful vegan journey.
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