Chefing Up Afro-Asian Fare — in Harlem

Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson’s journey to Executive Chef at NYC’s Minton’s.

Any mention of Harlem, NYC conjures up thoughts of music, soul food, art, and an iconic history & culture. Woven into this fabric is Minton’s. Originally opened up in 1938 as a nightclub, it’s lauded as the birthplace of Bebop, as well as the setting for a revolution in jazz, having since seen the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald grace its stage.

Today, Minton’s thrives from its original spot on 118th street, now a historical landmark, having weathered ownership changes, closures, and a devastating fire. James Beard nominated Executive Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson sits at the helm of the kitchen, serving up Afro-Asian fare with the help of his team, while musicians continue to take to the stage five days a week. We sat down with Chef JJ to learn about his unique path in the culinary space, and his work at Minton’s.

Chef JJ first decided that he wanted to become a chef at age seven after seeing a commercial for his alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America. That interest was only piqued as he grew up watching his Puerto Rican grandmother serve up dishes such as butternut squash soup. He’s come a long way since then, garnering recognition across Forbes’ 30 Under 30, Zagat’s 30 Under 30, and Eater’s Young Guns.

Chef JJ’s journey is unique in that he credits much of his success to his experience cooking abroad. His travels have taken him to Ghana, Jerusalem, the Caribbean, and India, where he built knowledge around cooking and culture along the way. His 2012 trip to Ghana was actually when he first started to feel like a chef.

“Cooking in Ghana allowed me to express myself through food. It was the first time that I was able to connect the dishes I was cooking, with the food that I enjoyed as a child. That connection made cooking a more meaningful experience.”

His travels have also influenced his outlook on the culinary industry. Asked about his advice for aspiring chefs, he stressed the importance of travel and the exploration of other cultures, particularly for individuals who don’t see their own cultures heavily represented in the culinary world.

“If you’re going to do it, you should do it. Work for a chef you admire, no matter where in the world. Spend at least a year abroad, and study a different style than what is typically available. Push yourself and let the food speak for you.”

Chef JJ’s exposure to new cultures served to improve more than his cooking skills. A picky eater growing up, he also credits his travels with opening up his palette. On advice for those looking to do the same, he says:

“Growing up eating American dishes made me picky. As I got older and was exposed to foods from other cultures, I became more open minded about my tastes, and trying new things.”

That taste is heavily reflected in the Minton’s menu, boasting everything from a grilled Wagyu Burger to Afro-Asian-American Gumbo. In regards to his favorite dish to cook at Minton’s, Chef JJ couldn’t choose one.

“Every dish is my favorite dish to make, I want to give everyone a great experience.”

Check out the Minton’s delivery menu on Caviar.