Five years ago, in the fall of 2014, this magazine named the Cecil the best new restaurant in America.
Josh Ozersky, the writer who made that pick, raised a toast to the pioneering menu, “primed and loaded with the flavors of the African diaspora—that trail of taste that moved from West Africa to India, the Caribbean to America to China, and then back again.” Meanwhile, Eater, the influential food blog that in recent years has rebooted itself into a bully pulpit for diversity, seemed slightly bewildered that a black-owned restaurant in Harlem might merit the top spot on a national list. JOSH OZERSKY CONFOUNDS EXPECTATIONS, said the Eater headline, while the piece itself quipped that “it sounds like Ozersky is out to stir things up.”
Ozersky is gone now. He died the next year. And the Cecil has abandoned its original vision; now it’s a neighborhood steakhouse. But half a decade on, it’s clear that Esquire’s selection of the Cecil was a prescient one. In the intervening years, chefs like Mashama Bailey, Kwame Onwuachi, Edouardo Jordan, Nina Compton, Pierre Thiam, and Eric Adjepong have drawn national attention (and, in several cases, James Beard awards) for exploring the African diaspora through cooking. The long-overdue rise of black chefs is, without a doubt, the most important story in American restaurants right now.
People in food media are finally talking about it. Five years ago? “Nobody was,” says JJ Johnson, who was running the kitchen at the Cecil back then. “Nobody even knew how to talk about it.” Innovation be damned, Johnson failed to win the Beard Foundation’s Rising Star prize in 2015. “I still think I was robbed,” he says. “I don’t think anyone was cooking better than me.” But vindication arrived this year when Johnson and Alexander Smalls, the chef, food scholar, and former opera singer who’d mentored him, won a Beard award for Between Harlem and Heaven, a cookbook that’s rooted in the menu they created together at the Cecil.
All of which is to say that it would be unwise to bet against JJ Johnson. The man can cook, duh, but at 35 he’s also one of the few young chefs in America with the ability to look forward, beyond the burrata-and-avocado-toast clichés that mire so many stateside menus in dullness. And what Johnson sees on the horizon is rice. FieldTrip, his new globe-trotting temple devoted to the greatest grain, is located in a storefront on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, about five minutes on foot from where Johnson used to cook. The voluminous education that went into Between Harlem and Heaven wound up leading him down a rabbit hole of rice-paddy research, and today he can hold forth on the historical pathways and cooking methods connected to black rice, sticky rice, Texas brown rice, Carolina Gold, aged basmati, you name it; he’s looking to source rice from Brazil, Trinidad, Vermont, wherever he can get the best stuff. The idea came to him while “traveling so much and seeing that rice was at the center of the table.”
The cultural centrality of rice is far from new, of course, but Johnson’s continent-hopping mash-ups (think Texas brown rice with brisket, black beans, and turmeric yogurt) could represent a fast-casual concept that actually has legs. In Harlem he sees his primary competition as Shake Shack and Chipotle. “I don’t want to teach anymore,” he told me when I visited FieldTrip in late spring, before its opening last month. Yet Johnson—whose other restaurant south of midtown, Henry at the Life Hotel, abruptly closed in July—still can’t help but find himself in the position of spreading the gospel.
“Y’all open?” a woman asked him as she passed the front door.
“No,” he said. “Three weeks.”
“It’s a restaurant?” she went on.
“It’s a rice-bowl shop,” he explained. “Global flavors.”
Maybe five years from now, as with the Cecil, he won’t have to explain anymore. “I hope this place can expand into other neighborhoods like this,” he told me. “I look to Wolfgang Puck in terms of trajectory. I’m gonna disturb a bunch of markets in different ways.”
As I said, I wouldn’t bet against him. JJ Johnson has a knack for sensing where everything is going, even when the rest of us don’t.
This article appears in the September ’19 issue of Esquire. Subscribe Now
Source : Esquire