Joseph “JJ” Johnson found inspiration for his food on a trip to Ghana, where he saw how the evolution and spread of societies can manifest itself in cuisine. The chef experienced a unique use of ingredients and techniques that would set the wheels in motion for his own culinary success. He recalls seeing Japanese whiskey and a man making piri piri sauce (which is derived from the African bird’s eye chili pepper) for the first time. Scanning an encyclopedia, he learned about African Diaspora, finding that, as African people were dispersed throughout the world during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, they brought their approaches to cuisine with them.
“I came back a changed chef,” Johnson, 30, said. “Nobody wants to talk about how slaves took food and spread it across the world. I realized that I grew up on Diaspora food.”
Johnson hadn’t even heard of the term “Afro-Asian” when Alexander Smalls, a chef, restaurateur and former opera singer, first mentioned it to him. Smalls saw Johnson’s appearance (and victory) on the debut episode of Bravo’s Rocco’s Dinner Party and realized the young chef had potential. He invited Johnson to join him on the trip to Ghana to study West African cuisine and prepare American meals for locals.
Since taking over the Chef du Cuisine spot at The Cecil in Harlem, Johnson has introduced Afro-Asian to New York’s gastronomical lexicon. Dishes like grilled chicken thighs with Hong Kong noodles and collard greens celebrate the culinary melting pot that has evolved from shifting and interacting cultures over centuries.
Like the food he prepares, Johnson’s love of cooking was also passed down from older generations. He grew up in the kitchen with his grandma, relegated to washing vegetables and peeling potatoes at first.
“She used to make it really fun,” Johnson said. “She’d play loud music and cook these grand meals.”