Chef JJ Johnson is a busy man.
Between working at his restaurant “The Henry by JJ,” overseeing the opening of his new spot in Harlem, keeping up with his loving wife and twin babies, it’s a wonder that the man has any time to breathe. But lo and behold, the celebrity chef has added a new title to his seemingly never-ending roster: television host.
“Just Eats With Chef JJ” is a 30-minute cooking show premiering on CLEO TV, in which viewers will get to hang with one of Harlem’s finest and his celebrity friends. Every week he’ll be treating his guests to cocktails, conversation and of course—a bomb meal. Some of the celebrity guests lined up for the first season include TV personality Yandy Smith, actor Laz Alonso, activist Tamika Mallory, and more.
For potential future guests, he tells CASSIUS he’s aiming for some of his favorite celebrity couples such as Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and the Obamas. While it might be easy for some people to get lost in the celebrity status, the chef tells CASSIUS he stays humble and genuine by remembering his father’s wise words to him when he was a kid.
“My dad always told me when I was a kid ‘don’t live life like you coulda shoulda woulda,'” he said. “I go through that every day, asking myself, ‘Is this the right opportunity? Should I push myself more?’ I’ve been really blessed and lucky that I’m able to do what I love to do and that people believe in me.”
But when it comes to his biggest inspirations in the kitchen, he lists his Puerto Rican grandmother at the top of his list. He said one of the greatest things she taught him was how to make cooking fun and authentic.
“If you really care about food, you’ll have those key ingredients in your kitchen.”
“She used to play really loud music in the kitchen so cooking was this great place of gathering,” he said. “These were the best moments of our lives. Your kitchen reflects who you are and she was serious about having a well-curated spice rack and making her own stocks. Even today in my grandfather’s house, he has those spice racks. If you really care about food, you’ll have those key ingredients in your kitchen.”
As a chef who incorporates ingredients and recipes from all across the African diaspora, Chef JJ brings his whole self to the table while also melding these cultures and their people. He described how when he worked in Ghana in 2011, he’d smell and taste ingredients that held so much weight for him growing up as the child of a West Indian and Puerto Rican mother and African American father.
Where did these slaves go and how did they create these communities? Nobody ever wanted to talk about that, but I’m showing it through the food.
“I always grew up as a Black kid, but now people are starting to question where your blackness comes from,” he said. “I started to notice the different facets of my nationality actually helped define the food I should be cooking. I started looking through a whole map of the slave trade—where did these slaves go and how did they create these communities? Nobody ever wanted to talk about that, but I’m showing it through the food. People believe the collard green comes from Africa, but it actually comes from Brazil and you’ll see it because there’s a lot of West Africans in Brazil. So there’s a Brazilian collard green and an American collard green. But also taking rice and showing that rice is from all these different parts of the world but all rice came through the west indies, the Caribbean, South America, West Africa, I’m just using food as the connector because we all eat it.”
You can check out the premiere of Just Eats With Chef JJ this Saturday, January 19 at 12 n/11c.