Chef JJ Johnson's Triumphant Solo Debut Centers African Diaspora Cuisine
The Life Hotel is nestled between Madison Square Park and Herald Square, in a neighborhood known as NoMad (North of Madison Avenue.) Inside the former Life Magazine building turned 98-room boutique hotel, among the mid-century wooden trim and golden accents, one will find blush dinner napkins that scream rapper Cam’ron’s 2002 Phat Farm-designed fur coat, a neon double-initialed light hanging in the dining room window, and powerhouse chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson.
This past year, he continued cutting his teeth in New York City’s culinary scene, publishing his Between Harlem and Heaven "Afro-Asian-American" cookbook and wowing diners at lower Manhattan’s Chef's Club and Minton’s. Now, JJ is adding an ultimate champion belt to his arsenal— entrepreneur. The Henry by JJ is chef Joseph Johnson’s solo debut that centers African diaspora cuisine and the conversation around black chefs obtaining equity.
Beatriz da Costa
Take a look at Charleston, Chicago, and Los Angeles restaurants, and one would be hard-pressed to find an African-American chef in partnership with a hotelier.
“After teaming up with two hospitality groups that understood kitchen diversity, I kept some of the old Henry team, added Pam Wiznitzer for our beverage program, Samantha Davis as chef de cuisine and Omar Tate as sous chef,” said Johnson.
The question of “where are the black chefs” has been retired as many advocates shift the tone towards agency and access to ownership opportunities. Johnson’s rise and stake at The Henry is a contemporary model of how to level the playing field.
“This is the ultimate dream come true—being The Cecil’s chef de cuisine, then executive chef, followed by a Chef's Club Counter rice pop-up, and the first person to have a Chef's Club residency to the opening in The Life Hotel," said Johnson. "I was running around looking for the glass slipper. Some glass slippers didn’t fit, but when my partners came to me, I knew I could make this space a place where my peers want to eat and drink.”
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Loyal Johnson diners will recognize menu options like the Fred Flintstone-looking bone-in beef short ribs, tuna tartare atop shiso leaves, shrimp and Portuguese sausage dumplings with “Harlem” curry and lamb suya kebabs. This go around JJ’s grub is coined "Pan-African," a term befuddling or intriguing. The creations spotlight black global foodways sprinkled with an Asian influence. The rice, shellfish, and spices tell the stories of people leaving and living in West Africa, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South.
“Many people are looking for 'culture-eating' while traveling and with this project, I’m bringing it to them,” said Johnson. The house-made roti (finished in the kitchen’s wood-fired oven) with an over-easy egg, eggplant date purée, spinach chutney, and beet hummus is one of JJ’s signature shared starters that has traveled from uptown to downtown and now to 31st Street. The offerings eliminate the trek to the city’s outer boroughs for flavor, with stand-out dishes like collard green salad and Yassa corn.
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Visiting a JJ establishment, you should expect smart cocktails that seamlessly flow with the room’s vibration and the plate. Not to be overlooked are drinks using SeedLip (a non-alcoholic distilled spirit) and a draft "Mar Tiny," inspired by London’s Every Cloud half-sized martinis. A closed-loop practice is employed by Wiznitzer, which means citrus is dehydrated for the draft coconut Thai basil mojito, named "Powell’s Delight," and the thirteen concoctions are explicitly made with seasonality and current dishes in mind.
In the coming weeks, the crew will roll out an all-day menu and downstairs space, and a nitro coffee drink with whiskey and espresso liqueur for wake-ups or lunch meetings. There will be downstairs bar bites, while you wait for a table, including a jollof hot dog, rice chips, a 5-oz. burger, and beef fat shoestring potatoes. In-room service is imagined as guests calling downstairs for take-out packaged in branded containers and single-bottled spirits like Negronis.
Although Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson's shoes are laced, he is just warming up. The ring is ready for him, and we are taking notes.