New York

JJ Johnson Connects the World With Rice With New Harlem Restaurant

Rice was a staple in JJ Johnson's home when he was growing up. It was also a food he despised.

"My mom made overcooked rice," Johnson, now a James Beard Foundation-nominated chef, says jokingly. "But most people don't make rice well."

Many people rely on boxed rice, he says, making rice "the most disrespected food item in the world."

Johnson is giving the grain some respect at his new restaurant in Harlem, Field Trip , which is dedicated to fresh rice. Its bowls, wraps, salads and more all feature rice that certainly did not come from your local grocery store.

"Three of our rices are freshly milled coming right from the farm to us," he says, including the Texas Brown Rice and Carolina gold rice. "We're helping the farming community that really has to change their farming culture because nobody buys fresh rice."

Johnson, who came to prominence as executive chef for the acclaimed but now closed Cecil restaurant in Harlem, spoke about Field Trip at its booth at the U.S. Open tennis tournament in Queens, New York.

Thousands of tennis fans get their grub on at stands featuring some of the best food from restaurants chefs including Jose Andres, David Chang and more.

Being part of the Open's food village is considered a prestige gig, despite being a short-term one.

Johnson was spending as much time at the Open as some of the athletes, making sure the restaurant runs swimmingly.

"We were tucked in the corner last year for like our trial year. The joke is that I was in the minors and I've been brought up to the majors," he says.

Noting that some of the vendors were the country's top restaurants, he said: "And some of them were at the U.S. Open when they just had one place, like myself, and they were able to build. ... So fingers crossed, I'll be able to do the same. "

Johnson won the coveted James Beard Award earlier this year for his book "Between Harlem and Heaven: Afro-Asian-American Cooking for Big Nights, Weeknights, and Every Day," co-written with Veronica Chambers and Alexander Smalls. And he was nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award a few years ago for his work at the Cecil, which explored the cuisine of the African diaspora worldwide.

While the Cecil was a fine dining establishment, Field Trip is quick-serve, though hardly fast food. Johnson said it takes two hours to cook the brown rice at Field Trip because it's fresh and still has an active germ in it.

He named the restaurant for all the trips he's taken globally. It was his time in Ghana that taught him to love rice.

"Everywhere I was eating, rice was at the center of the table. I came back and started doing some rice research on West African rice grains," he said.

At Field Trip, he said, "every rice on the menu is from a different place. They're heirloom grains. No rice is bleached or enriched. It's gluten free, it's a rice bowl shop, it's global flavors."

Johnson, who also hosts the show "Just Eats with JJ" on the Cleo Network, is excited to have the restaurant in a prime section of Harlem, which he considers home. He said the community supported him early in his career, and he's hoping to give it something unique, tasty and healthy with Field Trip.

He also plans to pen a book on rice, and hopes to open a full-service restaurant.

"Field Trip — I hope to be able to put it into communities that look like Harlem and to be in sporting events like the U.S. Open across America," he says.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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