JJ Johnson Spreads Afro-Asian Cuisine at Chef's Club Residency
"I'm representing the melting pots of the world."
Sometimes buried by concepts like "fusion food," which is a relatively recent term, is the fact that the melding of cuisines from disparate parts is nearly as old as the cultures that created them. Take the Afro-Asian food that James Beard Award-nominated chef JJ Johnson, has been working on. The term "Afro-Asian," he says, describes a world of food that's been around for centuries. "Everything you get from me will be from the African Diaspora," he tells Food & Wine of his residency at New York City's Chefs Club—it's just that the African Diaspora is more diverse than most Americans think.
For comparison, Johnson says, take Singapore. The huge city is a combination of people from China, Malaysia, India, and others countries that, together, create the unique culture of food. The same thing is true of Africa and its Diaspora: he points out how "in Ghana there's tons of Chinese, in Senegal there's tons of Vietnamese," and that there are "a ton of Chinese Jamaicans." If you take a real look these regions then, Afro-Asian dishes like Johnson's Short Rib for Two with Carolina gold rice, hoisin, and house-made roti aren't a novelty, but a simple fact of life.
Given the amount of food and people Johnson's cooking represents, then, Afro-Asian cuisine should be given all the time and exposure it deserves. Since its opening in 2014, Chefs Club has hosted nearly 200 of the world's top chefs, who would spend 1-3 nights cooking for the intimate, 24-person setting, but fortunately, Johnson's, which runs October 2 to 31, is its first long-term residency.
"In this menu, I'm representing the melting pots of the world," says the chef, who rose to food fame cooking Afro-Asian cuisine as executive chef at Minton's and the Cecil in Harlem, "and the places that people are really turning their back on." But while he's building on hundreds of years of culture, tradition, and migration (both forced and chosen, he specifies), Johnson isn't just refining dishes that are already there—he's making new fusions of his own.
His Udon Noodles with braised goat and West African peanut sauce, for example, came out of studying Brazil, "a coastal area that eats a lot of braised meats and noodles." He took goat, a popular protein in West Africa, along with their "mother sauce," and combined with bok choy leaves, scallions, and edamame beans to create a dish that's both rooted in Brazil's combination of African and Asian cultures and his own expression.
"I'm cooking my culture," Johnson says of his food philosophy; "I'm cooking who I am." Which extends beyond what's on the plate, too, as Johnson promises his Chefs Club residency will be "super high-end casual," with his favorite '90s hip-hop and R&B hits playing through the "super soigne restaurant." You don't even need a table, he adds. You can just sit at the bar while still getting a full menu experience. With everything from Short Rib for Two with house-made roti to House Dumplings with braised oxtail and Harlem Curry, though, just make sure you leave some room to try it all.
JJ Johnson, Chef Residency runs from October 2 to October 31 at Chefs Club, 275 Mulberry Street, New York, NY.