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Q&A with JJ Johnson of the Cecil

Maggie Borden

July 13, 2015

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New Yorkers across the five boroughs have been singing the praises of the Cecil’s unique blend of Afro-Asian-American cooking. No small part of that is due to its chef, JJ Johnson, a 2015 semifinalist for JBF’s Rising Star Chef of the Year and 2014 entrant in Forbes's “30 under 30.” After wowing Beard House diners back in January, Johnson returns to the Beard Foundation our 25th-anniversary Chefs & Champagne®​ tasting party in the Hamptons. We spoke to Johnson about finding inspiration through travel, the importance of family, and what technique he thinks deserves a little more love from American chefs and gourmands.

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JBF: What is the inspiration behind your dish for Chefs & Champagne?

JJ: I was inspired by an amazing trip that I took to Skuna Bay in Campbell River, British Columbia. I love slicing the salmon super thin and pairing it with fresh summer ingredients infused with my Afro-Asian cooking flare.

 

JBF: What about C&C are you most looking forward to?

JJ: Cooking outside! And being in great company with the other chefs. 

JBF: You spent time cooking and studying in Ghana, and have credited your grandmother’s cooking as an inspiration for being a chef. How have these experiences informed your work at the Cecil?

JJ: I was inspired at a really young age by my grandmother, and I learned so much growing up in her kitchen. She cooked with amazing spices, herbs, and a certain type of cooking love! This experience has shaped me until today. The time I spent cooking in Ghana was just an amazing journey of flavors, combined with my love for cooking. It's now engraved in my DNA and I bring it into the kitchen every day.    

JBF: Is there an ingredient or cooking method that you think is underappreciated by the current American dining scene?

JJ: Slow cooking.

JBF: What’s your go-to dish for summer cookouts?

JJ: Slow-roasted ribs that are then grilled with a sticky barbecue sauce.

 
JBF: What was your favorite thing to eat as a kid during the summer?

JJ: Watermelon.

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The James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne will take place Saturday, July 25, at Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack, New York. Learn more about the James Beard Foundation's Chefs & Champagne.