Interview with Executive Chef JJ Johnson ’04, of Mintons in New York

Joseph ‘JJ’ Johnson ’04 is an award-winning chef at Minton’s in Harlem. He was born in 1984 in Long Island, New York, but spent his youth in the Poconos, where at the age of seven he was inspired to become a chef. After seeing a commercial for The Culinary Institute of America, JJ told his mother that he wanted to become a chef. But, it was only after watching his Puerto Rican grandmother serve up butternut squash soup and other ethnic dishes that he knew he had to. After graduating from the CIA, JJ spent time in Ghana studying West African cuisine, before returning to cook at several New York City restaurants, including Tropico, Jane, Tribeca Grill, and Centro Vinoteca. In 2011, JJ competed and won Bravo’s Rocco’s Dinner Party cooking competition, quickly catching the eye of restaurateur Alexander Smalls. Smalls invited JJ to breakfast to introduce the concept of Afro-Asian cooking to him. A year later, JJ joined Smalls on a 16-day trip to Ghana, where they prepared a series of American-themed dinners. Upon their return, they developed 36 different menus that would ultimately be narrowed down to one Afro-Asian inspired menu for The Cecil in 2013. Since its opening, the restaurant has garnered several awards, including Best New Restaurant in America from Esquire. JJ himself was ranked among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in the food & wine category, Zagat’s 30 Under 30, and Eater’s Young Guns.