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?
A: The spices, the merging of flavors and being able to take Asian characteristics and flavors and African spices and merging them together in a dish. It’s the vision of Alexander Small, one of the owners (of The Cecil). We’re using local ingredients and fish that is in season, and we’ll use an African grain, say, and merge these things together.
Q: Did you always want to be a chef?
A: I was always in the kitchen with my grandmother, sometimes eating things like beets and butternut squash that I hated then but love to cook now. What drew me I think was that my grandmother used to make it fun. There was always music playing and smiles.
Q: You’ve worked in some very trendy restaurants. Do you think Harlem is becoming a food destination?
A: I think it should be and I think it is coming along. A few places, like The Cecil, are bringing a lot more awareness to the community ... People dine very early on weekends here. They’ll come in between 5:00 p.m. and 9, finish eating and go downtown, probably to go out or see a show.
Downtown, people would eat mainly between 9 and 11. We get a lot of people from downtown now, but more development needs to happen in the next few years and it will be more of a destination. We have two or three places where people come to eat. Everything else is Mom and Pop, but it’s getting there.
Q: Which ingredients do you always have at hand?
A: The foundation of our cuisine is onion, garlic, ginger, chili, black garlic, really mild curry, pink peppercorns, palm sugar ...
Q: Is it spicy?
A: No. I give you hints of spice but I‘m all about balance. I think you should get some sweet and some spicy flavors in all your dishes.
Q: What’s your best advice to home cooks?
A: Put a little more imagination into it. Experiment with flavors you can merge together. Sometimes it might not work, but try it. If you think things might go well together, they probably will. Sometimes cooking is about taking a risk and not just cooking inside the borders.
1 cup cashews
1 tsp cayenne
4 cups sugar
4 cups oil grape seed
Put cashews in small pot with cold water. Bring to a boil, Strain out water. Add cashews to a bowl with cayenne pepper and sugar. Once coated and well dusted off, place in oil at 350 degrees. Fry until golden brown.
Spicy Coconut Dressing
1 tsp toasted cumin seed
small piece of ginger
1/4 can chipotle
1 small can coconut milk
¼ cup lime juice
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbs champagne vinegar
Toast cumin seeds and place in blender with all ingredients until smooth. Salt to taste.
Collard Green Salad
1 bunch chiffonade collard greens
1/2 sliced red onion
1/4 sliced seedless cucumber
1 cup azuki red beans (in the can)
Place the chiffonade collard greens in bowl, add in the slice onion, cucumber and azuki red beans. Mix with 2 tsps of coconut dressing and six pieces of candied cashews. Season with salt to taste.
Editing by Patricia Reaney and Bernard Orr