BILL VAUGHAN’S TASTY CLIPS: Chef JJ Johnson: ‘Between Harlem and Heaven’ (and L.A.)

By Bill Vaughan

Entertainment Writer

With celebrities like Ayesha and Steph Curry, Jennifer Hudson, Bryant Gumbel and Ashley Graham loving his food and a best-selling cookbook under his belt, you might think Chef JJ Johnson’s plate would be full.

Not so for the James Beard award nominee, whose rise to fame at uptown New York eateries The Cecil and Minton’s landed him on Forbes 30 Under 30 list. He is busy raising money for his own quick service restaurant in Manhattan and coming to Los Angeles this week to cook for the Grammys committee.

Should you wonder about the connection, know that during his recent residency at Greenwich Village’s Chef’s Club, Johnson gained traction for his inventive dishes as well as his hip playlist.

“People were coming in and it was relatable,” said the huge Nas fan who is currently enjoying Cardi B and the new Jay Z/Beyoncé joint album. “[They thought] JJ plays his music that we all know. Then there’s this food that we kind of don’t know but want to get to know. That was truly special for me.”

For a primer on Johnson’s culinary vision, there’s “Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights and Every Day,” co-authored by his mentor, Alexander Smalls, with Veronica Chambers from Flatiron Books.

Within its refined pages are personal references leading to preparation tips for some of his many popular dishes including Citrus Jerk Bass, Pineapple Black Fried Rice, Collard Green Salad with Coconut Dressing and Black Bottom Bean Cake.

Johnson’s African influences venture beyond the customary Ethiopian and Moroccan trends.

“East African food has had its moment and has been able to survive,” Johnson said. “South African has come and gone but you see it more now through their wines and [because] Americans travel more there. Nobody was really telling the story of West African ingredients and culture which was truly the makeup of America and the west. I’ve been staying true to that.”

Johnson has a cabinet full of smoked sea salts, turmeric, cumin, coriander and pink peppercorns among his repertoire. “I love tellicherry as my new black pepper,” he added. Also grains of paradise, which is a West African blend.”

He spoke of his meeting with another champion of the planet’s cuisines: Anthony Bourdain.

“It was like my first year and a half at The Cecil,” Johnson recalled. “I ran over to him with my little tasting plate of food, let him know I was a big fan and asked what he thought of it because he’d traveled the world. He laughed and said, ‘JJ, You’re doing great things. You never need anybody to justify if you’re doing food well. You believe in it, other people will believe in it.’ That was that moment I felt like I was truly touched by a legend.”

“If you really look at it, Bourdain was the pinnacle of what you dreamed you could be in the restaurant industry. Nobody would ever think a chef turned food writer turned bad boy would be dictating how people would be eating around the world. He was a true mega star. He could sell out arenas like Bruce Springsteen. He could touch crowds like Michael Jackson. People in communities across the world from large to small knew who he was. He also made people eat in places that you would have never gone to.”

Despite the success on television that peers like Marcus Samuelsson and Bobby Flay have enjoyed, the charismatic Johnson hasn’t considered going that way.

“It definitely helps in getting butts in the seats of your restaurants,” he said, “but I am sensitive to what I’m doing on TV and how I’m doing it. There’s a need for a new generation of chefs that are expressing food in a different manner. I’m not doing any competition shows. I’ve been able to really do it on my own. I’ll go or ‘Top Chef’ and be a judge on ‘Top Chef Masters’ to win money for my charity, but to come up, I’ll just keep grinding on these streets.”

CLIPPETTES: The Rippingtons and Spyro Gyra co-headline the jazz bill at the Newport Beach Hyatt Regency July 13

Nicki Minaj has awarded 37 college scholarships this year as part of her Student Of The Game initiative. It marks the second time the rapper has done so since its founding in 2017 …

Paul Thorn & The Blind Boys of Alabama perform at a free concert July 14 at MacArthur Park’s Levitt Pavillion

Ava DuVernay is putting together quite an impressive cast for her Netflix four-part dramatization of NYC’s falsely convicted “Central Park Five.” First to sign on: Michael K Williams, Vera Farmiga and John Lequizamo …

Towne Street Theatre performs a staged reading of Tananarive Due’s supernatural suspense tale “My Soul to Keep” at 2 p.m. July 15 at the Museum of African American Art at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza

Later that evening, The Diplomats Forever Reunion Tour with Jim Jones, Cam’ron, Juelz Santana and Freekey Zekey arrives at The Regent Theater

Billy Dee Williams will return as Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars: Episode IX” to begin shooting at the end of the month for release in December 2019

Arrive by 4:30 p.m. for a peek at Denzel Washington and the principles of “The Equalizer 2” for the film’s premiere July 17 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Likely Story has acquired the feature film rights to former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes’ best-selling memoir “The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” with the intentions of filming next year for a 2020 release

Seal sings with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra at their home venue July 18 with Corinne Bailey Rae opening.

TC ON TV: July 13 – “How It Ends” (Netflix): Forest Whitaker, Kat Graham and Theo James are leads in this original apocalyptic thriller.

July 15 – “Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter” (Sundance): Angela Bassett, Thandie Newton, Sandra Oh and Elisabeth Moss sit on the Drama Actress Roundtable. “Running Wild With Bear Grylls” (NBC): Uzo Aduba takes a harrowing journey to Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains. “Unsung” (TV1): Michel’le. “Sharp Objects” (HBO): How surprising it was to find veteran actress Emily Yancy (“Cotton Comes To Harlem” “Blacula”) in a recurring role

July 17 – “No Passport Required” (PBS): New Orleans “Hip-Hop Houdini” (Fuse): Master magician and online sensation Tomas B. De la Cruz, Jr. (a.k.a. Smoothini) tricks music stars A$AP Ferg, Fat Joe, Iggy Azalea, Lil Jon and Waka Flocka Flame in this new series.

July 18 – “Gordon Ramsay’s 24 Hours To Hell And Back” (Fox): La Serenata, a L.A. family-owned Mexican restaurant, gets some needed assistance. “Catfish: Trolls” (MTV): Charlamagne Tha God and Raymond Braun bring subjects face-to-face with their aggressors in this new spin to the franchise.

July 19 – “The Grand Hustle” (BET): Tip “T.I.” Harris judges contestants in Atlanta vying for a six-figure job working with one of his companies. “Snowfall” (FX): John Singleton’s telling of L.A.’s crack epidemic in the 1980s returns with the riveting Damson Idris (who Tasty Clips was shocked to find was a Brit) as young street entrepreneur Franklin Saint.

TASTY QUIP: “Everyone teaches you how to get there. No one teaches you how to be there or how to maintain. I remember my pastor in Maryland before I came [to Hollywood saying] ‘Never let your talent and your gifts take you to a place that your character can’t keep you.’” – YVONNE ORJI (of HBO’s “Insecure” to “BET Genius Talks”


As featured in the Los Angeles Wave and Independent, Tasty Clips is one of the leading entertainment newspaper columns on the West Coast, serving nearly one million weekly readers. To reach Bill Vaughan, send email to or via Twitter @tastyclips.


Related posts