Chef JJ Johnson made a name for himself at The Cecil in Harlem (Esquire's number one Best New Restaurant in 2014). He published a James Beard award-winning cookbook called "Between Harlem and Heaven," then opened a fast-casual, rice-centric restaurant called FieldTrip in Harlem. He's feeding his community and hospital workers through the pandemic. Now, he's using his voice to say: enough.
After a week of nation-wide protests over the killing of yet another unarmed black man by police, I am listening to the president declare war. I’m more scared of this than I am of Covid-19.
When Covid-19 shut down New York, people would say to me, “Yo, this is crazy. You’re going to open your restaurant every day?” But I was taught as a young black man that there are going to be many hard times in our lives. For most people, Covid-19 was their first hard time. But black people woke up to Covid-19 thinking, another day, another hardship.
My restaurant FieldTrip is still open, and has been throughout the pandemic. It’s on a street between 115th and 116th on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. Malcolm X himself spoke on the corner. The historic Islamic Brotherhood mosque that protected the people of Harlem is right next door. This place is steeped in history. And on Monday, as I stood in FieldTrip thinking about this Mike Tyson one-two punch and then knock-out—a young black man getting hunted down on a run through his own community; an EMT worker who went out every day to save lives and then got killed in her own home; a knee to the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes—I felt in that moment that I had been here before, my dad had been here before, my grandfather had been here before, and my great-grandfather had been here before.
I got angry, an uncontrollable anger. I could not keep going quietly about my work. In my mind, my soul, I knew what I needed to say.
I used to have a car in New York City, back when I worked at the Morgan Stanley executive dining room. I was never a guy who would drink and drive, but one day I drove down to Lavo, a restaurant and nightclub in midtown, to meet some friends. I had one cocktail and left four hours later in a weary space. As I drove up Park Avenue, a taxi cab cut me off. I swerved. Maybe five blocks up, the cops pulled me over. I was never scared of the police, because I never walked around doing anything wrong. My dad would always say to me, “You have nothing to worry about with the police because you’re not doing anything wrong.” So when the cop came to my window and said, “Hey man, you drinking tonight?” I said, “Hey officer, I had one cocktail four hours ago.” Next thing I knew, the cop was saying, “If you don’t get the fuck out of the car, I’m going to drag you out of the car.”
When white people encounter cops, it’s a very cordial conversation. But if you watch videos of officers arresting people in the black community, this is when there’s a confrontation, because in this moment, we’re trying to prove ourselves—why we’re good people, why we’re taxpayers, that we know our rights. For me, this was the moment that I was fucked up by the cops. The officer slammed my head against the car window, and when I arrived at the precinct, I was verbally abused. I can remember to this day what I was wearing. You’d think I was in the Hamptons—salmon-colored pants, boat shoes, a tan shirt that was ripped from neck to torso. My nose was bleeding, eyes busted up. And then they charged me with assault. With assault. A felony. I could’ve done five years in jail, or even ten, or twenty. Luckily, I had some savings. And luckily, I was working for Zack Friedman at Morgan Stanley, and his wife Melanie Hammer was one of the biggest defense attorneys in New York. She came and got me out of jail.
I wound up getting a violation and doing 30 days of community service. But too many black people in that situation would’ve been pleaded out and locked up, their whole life destroyed. That’s what is occurring every day in black America. If I hadn’t been lucky, there would’ve been no Chef JJ, no FieldTrip. I would be sitting in jail as another statistic of black America.
I’m happy that white people are speaking up right now. Yesterday was a message, today was a blackout, but what’s tomorrow? What are you doing the next day, and what are you doing the day after that? If you are really out there protesting, if you are really out there saying that black lives matter, then you should be taking a percentage of your income and supporting a black-owned business.
There are lists—the James Beard Foundation has one, and there’s a Google spreadsheet making the rounds in LA—of black-owned businesses in this country. I love seeing that Harlem is dominating that list in New York City, that Harlem represents the black excellence of the world. Our greatest, blackest leaders all have come through Harlem. A truly black-owned business means a lot in America. The bank is not handing out business loans to us. Investors are not funding us. We can practically count on one hand who’s black and has generational wealth in America. To be a black restaurant owner is not easy.
Ask yourself, where do you eat? Are you eating in the same (white) neighborhoods again and again, or are you seeking out businesses in new, diverse neighborhoods? Are you scared to go to Harlem or walk around in Brooklyn? When you purchase delicious food or amazing clothing or hair products or anything else made or sold by black people, it keeps our businesses from failing, allows us to build our values into society, allows our kids to have a place to start from that isn’t zero. It is simple.
But we’re looking for more than that.
When I worked at a resort called Skytop Lodge right out of culinary school, there was a cook—I think his name was Ryan—who every day would ask me, What are you? What are you? What are you? I’d say, hey man, I’m black. I’m African American. No you’re not, you’re Mexican. One day I told him that if he wanted to reference me, he would not reference me as a Mexican guy, he would call me by my name. He said, Mexicans are above black people, so I don’t need to reference you by your name. The chef called Ryan into his office, and I don’t know what occurred in that conversation, but Ryan went home with a slap on the wrist, then came back to work the next day. If that had been my kitchen, my restaurant, my employee? He wouldn’t have had a job there anymore.
The culinary world is overwhelmingly white. If you’re a big organization saying that black lives matter, then you need to ask yourself, “What black lives do I have in my organization?” Employing a black cashier, a black server, a black sous chef, a black dishwasher—that’s not good enough anymore. Hiring a chief of diversity isn’t enough. Change means black chefs in restaurants, black general managers, big restaurant groups with black executives. It means investors investing in black restaurants.
Change means interviewing black people for jobs, and employing black people at every level of the industry.
Say a white couple complains in a restaurant about their food and the black general manager comes to their table to help. The couple is probably going to insist, "I want to speak to the manager," and the general manager will respond, "I’m the manager." That changes perception. That puts a chip in the edifice of white supremacy. The independent restaurant industry employs 11 million people, and we connect with millions of patrons every year. This industry has the power to effect enormous change overnight.
For years, black America has been crying out: We need help, we want reform, can somebody help us? And very few in the white culinary world have said, "If politicians aren’t going to do it, I’m going to make sure I do it within my organization." I won’t name people; they know who they are. The restaurant industry needs to look diverse, feel diverse, to look black, feel black. My white peers need to hire diversely, to make sure people walking in and out of your stores are being treated fairly, and to rise up as one to solve the issue right now.
I think that’s why FieldTrip is doing so well during Covid-19: The team that came around the table to make a plan was a very eclectic group of age, color, race, and gender, so when we were talking about issues of getting food to our community and staying safe, everybody had input on what society looked like to them—not just what it looked like to me.
A few days ago, during protests against police violence in Louisville, Kentucky, a black chef and BBQ business owner named David McAtee was shot and killed by cops. McAtee was a pillar of the community in the West End of Louisville, the black neighborhood—he often fed law enforcement officials for free; he fed those in need for free. He hoped, one day, to buy the lot where he worked and build a brick-and-mortar restaurant. But the president has declared war. The Louisville Metro Police and National Guard together fired some 18 shots at protesters in the doorway of McAtee’s BBQ stand, and McAtee was struck and died at the scene. Do I need to say it again? To be a black restaurant owner is not easy.
I’m fortunate that I come from working-class parents who sacrificed a lot to make sure my sister and I lived a better life. My grandfather fought in WWII, my other grandfather fought in the Vietnam War. My mom was a lot of kids’ first black teacher. My dad commuted back and forth to New York City from Pennsylvania every day. I grew up in a Pennsylvania neighborhood where I’d go jogging without ever looking over my shoulder in fear of being shot. We went to sleep in our home, believing that our home was safe. Today, if there were a protest outside my restaurant, I would give out fruit and water and let folks use the bathrooms, opening my doors to anyone who walked in, without worrying that I’d be shot in my doorway. And yet, deep down, I know that George Floyd could have been me with a knee on my neck. David McAtee could have been me. Feeding people and building community like David McAtee did—that is a frontline job.
I want my kids to live a better life, too. I don’t want to have to fight for the same thing my parents fought for, or my grandparents fought for, or my great-grandparents fought for. Enough is enough. I should be able to fight climate change. I should be able to fight for pothole repairs in the streets of Harlem. I should not still be fighting for the right to live without fear of being killed simply for being black.
If you put out a message this week that Black Lives Matter, then you have to live and die by that message. It’s time to step up. I’ll be holding you accountable.
I always say I see the light in the tunnel, but this tunnel is so dark we either choose to be the light or there will be no end.
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