James Beard Award-winning chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson helms FieldTrip, a community-based eatery in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood that “celebrates culture through the shared experience of rice.” He has experienced police brutality firsthand and, as part of the James Beard Impact Programs Advisory Committee and the Food Bank For New York City, Johnson strives to take concrete steps to end hunger. Here, as part of our Voices in Food series, he talks to Anna Rahmanan about the changes he wishes to see in the food industry as a whole, with regards to diversity — not just in kitchens, but across media platforms as well — and his advice for up-and-coming chefs trying to break into the business.
There was a protest that came down Malcolm X Boulevard ― I think it was a great moment. Everybody in the restaurant that was waiting for their orders went outside and, at that moment, we all stopped and went outside and cheered on the protesters. The greatest thing that I saw was when the cops were starting to come down in their white gear with the batons and the hood of Harlem — the people that have lived there all their lives — came out and started to cheer on the protesters to let police officers know that this is a silent protest. Nothing’s going to go down here in our community, because in this corridor there is too much history and we know what you’ve done to us in the past.
There is a lot unfolding in the food industry right now. Black people have been cooking in restaurants their whole lives, before there was media. Black chefs were in hotels, before that they were cooking for white people as slaves. No white person wanted to cook. Then it became glamorous and people started cooking.
“Nobody is looking for charity. We are just hoping for one day to say, ‘All lives matter and everyone is equal,’ and that when we say ‘all lives matter,’ Black lives are included. Right now, Black lives aren’t included in ‘all lives matter.’”
As a chef, we know our white male chefs, but their sous chefs are Black or Latino. And then, when those guys or girls want to leave, they don’t give them any support. It’s a different lineage than it is for a white male chef, who would have access to [the head chef] all the time. I just hope that changes. I hope that people’s hiring practices really change. I hope they actually hire the best person for the job. If they did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Imagine being the only Black cook in the kitchen. The one Black cook is fighting with the other 50 or 100 Black cooks that are trying to get in there, but there’s only room for one. And [you’re made to feel that] if you’re in there, you should be thankful. They’re creating that culture of, “There is only one of you.” So I really hope to see it change. I hope to see the voices change and I hope to see it change in an authentic way, not a forced way or a charity way, like what we’re seeing. Nobody is looking for charity. We are just hoping for one day to say, “All lives matter and everyone is equal,” and that when we say “all lives matter,” Black lives are included. Right now, Black lives aren’t included in “all lives matter.”
On The Coronavirus’s Effect On The Food Industry
It’s a different business now. Restaurants are not the same: the glorified restaurants that you wanted to work in before the pandemic, the pandemic has reset that. I have always believed that if you are a Black chef, whatever chef you admire and respect, that is who you should work for and learn from. Once you’ve got all their knowledge, then you should be going to the next chef until it’s time for you to go do what you want to do.
I think the biggest thing that we’re seeing in food right now is how our farming industry is just collapsing and that is because of the way that the country built it after slavery. All of our Black slaves that were farming; that land should have been theirs and we would have actually had the strongest farming industry in the world because they know how to farm.
“Imagine being the only Black cook in the kitchen. The one Black cook is fighting with the other 50 or 100 Black cooks that are trying to get in there, but there’s only room for one. And [you’re made to feel that] if you’re in there, you should be thankful.”
Another thing that nobody talks about is how our government classified COVID-19 as a pandemic, and they knew that by doing so, no insurance company would cover any business because nobody has pandemic insurance. It would have bankrupted the insurance world. They could have classified it as a national disaster, a state of emergency, and we would have gotten our insurance money and nobody would have had to worry about the Paycheck Protection Program because that money would have already been there. I wish they would have bailed out the insurance companies and then they, in turn, would have just thrown the money into the business and everybody would have been OK.
I think a lot of people also forget about equal opportunity employment. That’s because Black people weren’t getting hired in certain spaces. They put affirmative action into place so that Black kids could go to white Ivy League schools. Ivy League schools are like kitchens: there are a couple of Black people in there, but not a lot.