JJ Johnson feels like his Harlem restaurant Fieldtrip is doing the work he's always strived for. While a global pandemic led to widespread job loss in the food industry, this slowdown brought about a certain clarity to the chef. As schools, offices, and construction sites closed down, Johnson noticed his customer base shift. His regulars, "the everyday worker in Harlem," as Johnson calls them, were slowly replaced with more new faces — locals who had never visited the restaurant — than ever before.
"Our goal was always to tap more into the local community of people that lived around us, that potentially would walk by and believe it wasn't a place for them," Johnson told me over the phone. He recalled at the start of the pandemic, when most restaurants in the area were closed, many locals found their go-to takeout spots no longer an option. "It forced people to get to know who we were."
Fieldtrip, which opened in 2019, is what Johnson calls a "community-based dining experience," focusing on rice from global cuisines.
"I traveled the world, cooking in Ghana, Singapore, India, Israel. Rice is always at the center of the table. And not as an afterthought — it is the star of the table," Johnson explained. "People will be fighting over the rice, [it] will be the first thing on your plate. I realized as I traveled, that every culture either has a rice grain that was cultivated there, or they had a rice dish." This led him to the phrase "rice is culture," which became the ethos of Fieldtrip.
As COVID-19 ravaged New York City, it swiftly became clear to Johnson, whose wife is a nurse, that communities of color, primarily Black communities, were getting hit harder by the virus than others in the city. His wife would say she and her colleagues barely had time to eat, let alone think about ordering food; Johnson immediately began donating rice bowls from Fieldtrip to the hospital. "Then I said, 'what about [other] hospitals around us? Are they getting beat up the same way?' These doctors and nurses are our customers. Let's feed them."
Johnson launched Fieldtrip's "Buy a Bowl" program, where anyone who visited the restaurant website could purchase meals for first responders. The project was so much of a success that after 11 weeks, most hospitals in the area had more than workers could eat.
"'Who needs food now?'" Johnson said he mused. The answer was clear: families with kids at home. With pandemic-related school closures, many children who rely on free school meal programs were struggling with food access.
"In New York City we've seen this every year… when school gets let out, it's very hard for kids to get hot meals," Johnson noted. "So we partnered up with the Madison Boys and Girls Club. They're already a hot meal site in the summertime, they had all the logistics in place. They had the families, they knew how to touch the community."
Johnson was able to provide the program with produce boxes and Fieldtrip meals — when we spoke in June, he'd been doing this for over a month. Johnson also facilitated the application of this project with a local HeadStart chapter in the Bronx, another area that was hit hard by the virus, and pledged to distribute 15,000 meals via Rethink Food NYC.
Though he manages these initiatives around the clock, it hasn't stopped Johnson from cooking at home with his family. "I've been buying CSA boxes from local farmers markets…I've been trying to support all local businesses in the food industry. I've been cooking at home as much as I can."
His 2018 cookbook Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day (coauthored with chef, restaurateur, and opera singer Alexander Smalls, and author Veronica Chambers) is a testament to the African and Asian diasporas' influence on global cuisine, through the lens of Harlem, where Johnson has cooked and lived for years. Though Johnson developed most of the James Beard Award–winning book's recipes with Smalls while working as the chef during a former iteration of Harlem's The Cecil Steakhouse, these dishes are still accessible for home cooks looking for something to make tonight.
Which brings us to heirloom tomatoes. When Johnson and I spoke, summer was looming, the promise of the year's best tomatoes along with it. There was no recipe in Between Harlem and Heaven that seemed more appealing than his heirloom tomato salad, which is layered over a citrusy yogurt dressing.
"When I was in Ghana, all their tomatoes looked like the heirloom tomatoes that we get excited about here," Johnson said, noting how the tomatoes he ate on that trip inspired this recipe. The yogurt — tinted highlighter-yellow with curry powder — offers creaminess, offsetting the acidic tomatoes and pickled onions. Though the recipe isn't on the menu at Fieldtrip, Johnson still thinks rice, particularly day-old rice, would be a delightful accompaniment — the grain's stiffer texture is similar to tomato-soaked bread or pita you'd find in Tuscan panzanella or Levantine fattoush.
Whether he's cooking at home from local farm-sourced produce or supporting neighborhood restaurants through takeout, Johnson emphasizes that all eaters should experience new food. "Support Black-owned restaurants that [you] might've never ever gone into before…The best way to learn about culture is through food," he said. "When you travel, you think you're traveling for the beautiful water, or the amazing hotel…but that food is always telling you about the culture. Do that in your local community."
This story was originally published on Food52.com: Chef JJ Johnson on Harlem, Community & Tomato Salad