Serving up Stories: Chef JJ Johnson Celebrates Culture Through Food

Photo © Courtesy of Chef JJ

“I’ve always wanted to have some type of impact. My dad runs a nonprofit basketball program that we grew up with. When I got on the restaurant scene, I saw that food insecurity was so big in the community I was cooking in, right in Harlem and upper Manhattan, and I got creative with ideas for what to do to really help.”

The award-winning chef and founder of New York’s FIELDTRIP, a fast-casual rice bowl eatery, has created a community-based dining experience that celebrates culture through the shared experience of rice. His mantra, “Rice is Culture,” was born out of the realization that rice connects us in one of the most important ways there is—through food! Each of the restaurant’s multicultural rice bowls features one of five different iterations of rice, all from different origins.

JJ is drawn to not just the New York food scene but all the good that can come from it, and his diligent efforts toward the food industry have amounted to an impressive impact.

“I’ve helped with the James Beard Impact Foundation, culativating programming with the foundation to make sure the culinary world is a better place. I worked with the New York City Food Bank at one point, and now with Rethink Food. They’re amazing, really utilizing chefs and restaurants to end this hunger crisis—it’s something we should’ve been doing a long time ago, and we hope to be feeding more and more people through Rethink and FIELDTRIP as we grow.”

002NY Fieldtrip Chef JJ
Photo © Courtesy of Chef JJ

With Chef JJ at the helm, FIELDTRIP is an environment for connection through food that transcends people, memories, and generations. His unique cooking style fuses different cultural flavors, including the Caribbean flavors that he grew up with and the multitude of flavors he has explored in his travels, a journey shared through mouth-watering recipes in his cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven.

“Cooking in Ghana really paved the way for me. I’m cooking who I am; I’m expressing myself on the plate. It might feel unique to people because they’ve never had those flavors before or traveled to those places, but to many, it’s the food of who they are.

“When I wrote Between Harlem and Heaven with Alexander Smalls and Veronica Chambers, it was a book that we wanted to have an impact on the table, and help people understand the food of the African diaspora to realize that it’s more than just soulfood; it stems from culinary traditions. In that book, we told stories, we wrote recipes, we really leaned on each other to encompass that.”

“I’m very fortunate to be able to tell stories through cooking. I try to tell young chefs, or any chef who’s trying to find themself in the culinary industry, to lean back on your culture and your culture will help express the best parts of your food, because who knows you and your family better than you?”

Watch Chef JJ on his TV show, Just Eats, airing on Cleo TV, and learn more at

002NY Fieldtrip Chef JJ
Photo © Courtesy of Chef JJ

Chef JJ Johnson’s Tamarind Glazed Oxtails

Food and sustainability are intrinsically linked. Eating and cooking sustainably are not just important for the environment, but also vital for our physical and mental health.

Chef JJ Johnson, the owner of FIELDTRIP, wants to change how we think about healthy and sustainable food—giving people a conscious decision to be better and choose foods that are just as good for the planet as they are for our bodies. These tamarind glazed oxtails, as featured in Chef JJ’s cookbook, Between Harlem and Heaven, Afro-Asian-American flavors in a way that will impress the whole table.

  • 1⁄4 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 pounds oxtail, prepped from the butcher kosher salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 cups red wine
  • 1 quart veal or beef stock
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 3 oranges, quartered
  • 1 bunch thyme
  • 1 bunch parsley
  • 1 jalapeño, chopped with seeds
  • 1⁄2 cup tamarind paste
  • 1 cup ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1⁄4 cup apple cider vinegar
  • 1⁄4 teaspoon ground five-spice powder
  • 1⁄4 cup dark brown sugar
  1. Preheat your oven to 325°F.
  2. Heat a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat and add 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Once the oil begins to shimmer, add the oxtail in a single layer and season with salt and pepper. Sear the meat until lightly browned on all sides, turning with long tongs, about 2 minutes per side. Remove pieces to a plate as they brown.
  3. Deglaze the pot with the red wine, making sure to bring up the brown bits of fond from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. Bring wine to a full boil, then lower the heat to medium and add in the veal stock, 3 cups of water, cinnamon sticks, bay leaves, oranges, thyme, parsley, and jalapeño.
  4. Season generously with pepper.
  5. Cover and braise in the oven for 3 to 4 hours until the meat is tender and falling off the bone. Check periodically to make sure there’s a sufficient liquid level, and stir the braise to make sure the bottom doesn’t stick. Let the meat cool, and then remove it from the liquid and shred it by hand. Strain the braising liquid, discarding solids in the strainer.
  6. Combine the tamarind, ketchup, mustard, vinegar, five-spice powder, and brown sugar in a small pot over medium heat. Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes, stirring often until it thickens slightly. Pour through a fine strainer and let cool.
  7. Preheat the broiler to medium.
  8. Place the braised oxtail on a foil-lined baking sheet and coat with the tamarind glaze. Broil for 5 to 10 minutes until the glaze is slightly caramelized.

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