In part 2 of my interview with JJ Johnson, the charismatic chef and co-author of Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day, I had to ask him to explain the book’s lengthy subtitle word by word, and to explain what he and his co-author Alexander Smalls set out to do with it. The book, JJ says, “represents who we are and the food we cook. And there’s nothing really out there that represents the African-American culture…who they are and where they come from and the makeup of the food.”
As for what’s next, JJ has big plans and even bigger dreams. First, he wants to open a rice-centric restaurant: “Everywhere in the world, there’s a mother grain that represents the culture. Everywhere I’ve traveled over the last five years, rice has been the center of the table…and I’ve developed a concept around rice. And you’re going to have four, five different rices prepared a different way. There’ll be a dumpling, there’ll be some roti, two salads. Order from the counter. And it will feel like you’re at a Caribbean beach, but the vibe will give you ’80s and ’90s New York City.”
But that’s not all; JJ has both short-term goals, like starting a brand empire, and more ambitious long-term goals. “Short term goals, my own restaurant like a flagship, where you can come and see me every day. And then I would say a big goal is just developing the JJ brand around the world, where you could eat my food in the bottom of a hotel or in a mall or at a rest stop. Because what I’m doing is just not putting JJ or the name of my restaurant somewhere. For me, it’s bigger than that. Like, I’m creating jobs for people that look like me…I’m giving them a safe place to work. Somewhere where they can create their ideas. Someplace where they get an opportunity and a chance.” And for the long term? Aside from helping the food of the African diaspora enter the mainstream, JJ says his ultimate long-term goal would be to have his own Nike sneaker.
When our producer sent us the final edit of this episode, he wrote, “Wonderful that such an ambitious man could have such an unpretentious relaxed chat… Will make listeners hungry for both justice and ribs.”
I couldn’t agree more. Take a listen, and I bet you will, too.
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