Joining the growing collection of contemporary restaurants opening in the famed neighborhood over recent years, The Cecil Harlem–former Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons' recent launch–made its debut in September. With its global twist on traditional comfort food, this charming retreat is sure to win over even the most discerning of palates. Culinary legend Alexander Smalls, lauded for his "southern revival" cuisine, signed on as Executive Chef, recruiting Chef de Cuisine Joseph Johnson to help create a unique menu infusing African, Asian and American flavors. Guests are challenged to enjoy something new and exciting in every dish, resulting in a dynamic dining experience. We caught up with Johnson to discuss the restaurant's unique menu, how he's overcome challenges and why this latest venture is sure to make its mark.
EBONY: Let me start by saying congratulations on the opening of the restaurant. How has everything been so far?
JJ: A bit crazy. Very busy, a lot of people coming in, but things are great.
EBONY: Tell us a little bit about your background and what inspired you to take this career path.
JJ: I always wanted to be in New York City. I ended up being on a cooking competition on Bravo! called Rocco’s Dinner Party. I won the competition, and maybe like 2 or 3 days after it aired I received an email from Alexander Smalls. He said “I saw you on TV, I liked your personality” and that was about 2 years ago. Alexander kind of stayed in my life as a mentor and friend. Then about a year ago he invited me to do American themed dinners in Ghana. During that trip I ended up cooking side by side with Ghanaian cooks, learning about their cuisine, and how to merge their flavors with the American cuisine we were preparing. The Chinese in Ghana also influenced me greatly, seeing the noodles and sesame oil and the fresh fish markets. I took a lot of notes. These experiences became the origin for the menu that we created at The Cecil Harlem.
EBONY: What specifically did you bring back from there in terms of how you approached the food and menu at The Cecil Harlem?
JJ: What I loved most is the foundation of the cooking. So using chili, onions, ginger and garlic as a foundation for a lot of our dishes and building from that foundation of West African cooking.
EBONY: So what would you say are some of the most popular dishes at the restaurant?
JJ: I’d say the most popular dishes are the oxtail dumplings, spicy grilled Prawns, citrus jerk wild Bass, and gumbo.
EBONY: Do you have a favorite dish on the menu?
JJ: I think the burgers are really good. But my favorite would have to be the oxtail dumplings with the green apple curry sauce.
EBONY: The New York market is a very different kind of market in terms of competitiveness and diversity. Was there anything that you learned from your time working at other restaurants in New York like Jane and Tribeca Grill, that you brought with you to The Cecil Harlem?
JJ: Yeah definitely, when I worked at Jane it was all about really paying attention to local ingredients, paying close attention to the quality of fish and meat. I think I bring that up here to The Cecil because we use the same purveyors that all the big restaurants use if you dine in Soho or Tribeca. I learned that the chef has to really control a kitchen that does big numbers and bring out the same quality food on each plate. At The Cecil Harlem it’s really busy, but my goal is consistency, consistency, consistency.
EBONY: What is the most interesting feedback you’ve gotten so far during your time at the restaurant?
JJ: In general, a lot of feedback has been positive. I try to speak with a lot of tables. It’s all about trying to educate people through food so that they can really have a unique experience.
EBONY: Can you talk a little bit about on your personal experience as an African-American chef?
JJ: Well yes…. you go to a school that’s predominantly Anglo Saxon, with everybody striving for this same things and have people around you saying you could be just like Patrick Clark. Don’t get me wrong; Patrick Clark is one of the most successful black chefs, so that was an amazing compliment. However, as I got older I began wondering why the chefs never said, "You can be like Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller." Why did I have to be just like Patrick Clark? So when you’re starting out they kind of always put you in that box.
EBONY: What advice would you give to all of the Black aspiring chefs out there?
JJ: I’d say stick together and don’t forget about each other. Work hard, push yourself and don’t let anyone hold you back. You control your own destiny.
EBONY: Who inspired you most as a chef?
JJ: My first inspiration would have to be my grandmother. The things I hated eating as a kid, like beets, collard greens, cabbage and cauliflower I love making today. She first introduced me to all of those foods and they are all staples for me now. In the industry, Brian Ellis who is an executive chef, at The Smith, is definitely a mentor of mine. He always emails me, making sure I’m good and that I’m keeping up with the trends to look out for.
EBONY: One last question for you. We’re hearing a lot about the explosion of all of these new restaurants Harlem—a "culinary rebirth" for the area. How do you feel about the restaurant scene in Harlem and all the new competitors popping up?
JJ: You want the truth?
EBONY: Yes (laughing)
JJ: Well, what I see too much of now is people just opening restaurants and not putting much thought into the type of food they’re producing, or where they’re buying the ingredients from and things like that. I hope that changes for the better and that better restaurants start to come as well as better chefs. Right now I just feel like people have money and they’re just going to open up a restaurant without much thought behind it, and that’s what happening.