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Once a week, chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson and his team at Harlem’s The Cecil (210 West 118th Street, 212-866-1262) feed their upstairs neighbors. It was a deal owner Richard Parsons and chef Alexander Smalls made when they recognized that the tenants got most of their meals from City Harvest and other local organizations. Johnson orders free-range organic chicken and salmon from D’Artagnan and Skuna Bay; the team rolls out sheet pans of vegetables, salad, and starches. “We’re feeding them a complete meal, so they get really good food and know they’re cared about,” Johnson tells the Voice.
This kind of partnership with the community is important to the chef. According to locals, the neighborhood is currently undergoing its second “Harlem renaissance,” with the established arts and hospitality communities merging with new investors to make the area a destination once again. “Harlem is well respected,” Johnson says, “so it’s great to see people investing in this frontier. No one believed Marcus Samuelsson could succeed uptown like he could have downtown, but he did and it worked.”
Johnson’s unsure as to why no other big or up-and-coming chefs have invested in Harlem as they have in Brooklyn, where concentrations of new restaurants get people outside and into businesses, but he’ll keep asking for competition. “I’m 100 percent up for other chefs coming in,” he says. “Harlem needs that support. It’s going to help the community and restaurants like mine prosper.”
With two menus under his command — the bold Afro-Asian-American flavors of The Cecil and the “all–American Dream” comfort dishes next door at the jazz bar Minton’s — Johnson is able to contribute his fair share. He focuses on keeping the menus consistent and distinct, making sure that the contrasting energies of the two spaces are reflected on his plates: “To produce two styles of food and make sure they don’t intertwine is hard,” he says.
It’s a challenge he can handle. “I try not to give you something you’ve seen before,” he says. “I’ve cooked in Ghana and I grew up in an African-diaspora household. I have this full education. So I look to create dishes that express who I am at a really high level. You take a bite, and you have sweet and tangy and crunchy and sour — ingredients you may recognize on a menu but haven’t had together like this before.”
His oxtail dumplings perhaps best encapsulate this personality. “I started with the question, ‘How can I make this fun?’ ” he says. The answer was a coconut milk curry studded with green apples and crisp taro root, flavors that meld and deepen into a dish that has become something of a Cecil signature.
Egg rolls are filled with barbecued brisket, grits, edamame, and cabbage. Udon noodles get braised with goat meat and West African peanut sauce. The daily roast fish combines hominy stew and house-made kimchi. At Minton’s, creamy deviled eggs are laced with trout, the fried chicken comes with an Espelette cane syrup glaze, and the collards are sweet with peanut butter. “Flavors upon flavors upon flavors,” Johnson says.
This work has earned him a lot of attention recently, with a James Beard “Rising Star Chef” nomination (“I fell short, so I’ll always wonder what I could have done differently. I beat myself up”), both Forbes and Zagat “30 Under 30” awards, a StarChefs “Rising Star Community Chef” accolade, and a “Best New Restaurant” win from Esquire magazine. “It’s nice to be recognized for cooking really good food. I like to let the food speak for itself,” he says.
The attention also means that he can reach more cooks. Johnson invests in older employees who have made career switches and come in with little training and a lot to lose. “It’s a lot of work,” he warns, “but you get longevity out of those you train.” It extends to young kids of color, too, who reach out to Johnson because they can relate to him as someone “they can see themselves being in ten years.” Young women see that his two sous-chefs are female — one has been with him since the beginning and “breathes, eats, and talks” the same way he does now, he says — and know they can rise with him just as high as their male counterparts. “My team is in place,” Johnson says. “I don’t have to tell Juan how to plate a special anymore. He shows it to me with, ‘This is how you want it, right, chef?’ It’s like they’re in my brain. I’m blessed.”
This gives him the freedom to devise new dishes or share his work elsewhere, as he will be doing through the James Beard Foundation at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem next month, working with Israel’s North African influence on a potential new menu item for the restaurant there. And it means he can fully join the ranks of other chefs he considers “superheroes”: “They’re not just rockstar chefs; people listen to them about how to eat food, and they’re lobbying for change in the way we eat.”
It gives him the latitude to be fully invested in his Harlem community, with some of those upstairs tenants making requests for their communal Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners downstairs. “Someone threw a brick through our window at four o’clock in the morning once,” Johnson says, “and one of our tenants called the police for us. We look out for each other. We have fun. And we move forward.”