World Chefs: Harlem brasserie's Johnson celebrates West African cuisine

Tue Jan 28, 2014 4:03am EST
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By Dorene Internicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Joseph "JJ" Johnson, chef de cuisine at The Cecil, an Afro-Asian-American brasserie in Harlem, was seven years old when he saw a TV commercial for the Culinary Institute of America and announced that he would attend the famous cooking school.

"My mother laughed," said the Pennsylvania-born chef whose love of cooking was fired in the kitchen of his Caribbean grandmother.

"But 10 years later I went to school there," he added.

Stints in trendy New York eateries like Jane and the Tribeca Grill followed graduation. Last year, Johnson traveled to Ghana to study West African cuisine. The Cecil opened in September.

Johnson, 29, spoke to Reuters about the restaurant's cuisine, which integrates the culinary traditions of the African diaspora with traditional Asian and American dishes, taking risks in the kitchen and the future of Harlem as a food destination.

Q: What is Afro-Asian American cuisine?

A: Afro-Asian American cuisine focuses on the migration of Western Africans. It's a bit of a history lesson. The Chinese migrated into Western Africa and influenced the African cuisine with their grains and rices, and the Africans migrated into the Caribbean and into the United States.

Q: What characterizes it?   Continued...