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JJ Johnson Keeps His Harlem Restaurant Open For The Community, Whatever It Takes

Cooking up rice bowls, washing dishes, and feeding the neighbor's cat.

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Joseph “JJ” Johnson has been a chef at several notable New York restaurants—particularly in Harlem, like The Cecil and Minton’s, as well as The Henry in the Life Hotel further south in NoMad. In 2019, Johnson opened Fieldtrip in Harlem as a fast-casual incarnation of his growing interest in rice as a foundational staple of cuisine.

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Fieldtrip is a community-based restaurant. People that work in the restaurant are from the community, and they’re serving their friends and having a blast doing it. What’s going on right now—this is something I personally couldn’t control. So when I had that conversation with my staff, I was like, “Hey, some people are going to be able to still work, some people are going to get let go. If it picks up, I’ll bring some people back. Maybe you’ll get a couple hours here, a couple hours there. You’ll have a job when this is all over. If it is all over. I don’t know. But this is always your home.”

In the beginning, I was definitely in a panicky mode because this is the first restaurant that I own. Every other restaurant, I’ve been a partner, or the chef de cuisine or executive chef, which is a totally different mindset than when you are the owner or operator.

So for me, it was hard. My friends that are business owners definitely uplifted me and reminded me like, “You’re a fighter, and you’ll figure this out. Your operation is small. You can actually operate from hour to hour. You can do what you want to do. You can change it up. If you want to do different foods, nobody can stop you.”

I just rolled my sleeves back up and got back in the kitchen. When I couldn’t afford to have a dishwasher, I washed dishes. If I couldn’t afford to have a prep cook one day, I’m prepping and cooking, or I’m the cashier, whatever. I am pushing to get through this so when we get to the other side, I can bring back my staff and they can have a place to call home again.

People think it’s amazing that I’m behind the line cooking. There’s no celebrity JJ right now. It’s just head down and worrying about my restaurant being open tomorrow. I think being open gives hope to the people that walk by, seeing this small restaurant open in their neighborhood. It’s hope, right? “Oh, wow. The restaurant is open today. All those people going in there. Oh, my God. The delivery guy is coming through. Let me go in the door and just check on them.”

We do contactless delivery now, and I did the first one. I put it on this lady’s door handle, I knock on the door, I walk away. I hear somebody screaming, “Excuse me!” I walk back there to hear an older woman’s voice. I say, “How can I help you?” She says, “I need help. Can you move my oxygen tank?” I say to her, “Hey, is this going to be an episode of SVU? Are you gonna kidnap me?” She laughs. I go in, I look around. I move her oxygen tank. She goes, “Oh, can you do me one more thing?” I say, “Yeah, what do you need?” She says, “Can you feed my cat?” She’s like ninety years old. “And can you pour me a glass of ginger ale?”

So we have a conversation. I say to her, “What made you order from Fieldtrip? Have you been there before? And she goes, “Oh, I’ve been watching the news, and they’ve been saying you should order from your local restaurant. I walk by Fieldtrip all the time with my nurse’s aide that I don’t have right now. You guys are always serving. Everybody always looks like they’re having the best time in there. So I thought if I ordered from you, you would help me out.” And that’s when I realized, oh, wow, really? Right. To me, a restaurant bridges these gaps.

A couple of our regulars are coming in talking about their jobs, or how they just lost their jobs. And this might be their last paycheck for a while. “I’m going to spend $15 on a rice bowl and crab pockets.” Because they know it tastes amazing and it puts a smile on their face. Or the hedge fund regular who comes in like, “Yo I’m losing so much fucking money right now, JJ, you have no idea bro. But I’m gonna figure it out, I’m just moving stuff around.”

The world is really on reset. One guy said, “Hey is your salmon wild salmon?” I was like, “No, I wish I could get wild salmon right now.” And he said, “Maybe when we all come back, there’ll be wild salmon in the oceans again.” And I was like, “Oh, shit, you’re right.” Because all the restaurants stopped. The grass is actually going to be greener. The air’s going to be a little fresher.

I have kids at home, twins. I’m doing this for my kids, for my family. I’m the first business owner in my family. This is what I signed up for. I’m always trying to maintain the light in the tunnel. Right now the light in the tunnel is going a little dark at times. As a black man in America, my dad always raised me to know there’s going to be tough times in life. This is just one of those tough times. That switch is turned on for me. If I wasn’t doing this, what else would I be doing?