meez podcast

JJ Johnson on How Rice is Culture

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About this episode

#41. Welcome to the first episode of season two of The meez Podcast! We are excited to introduce our first guest, JJ Johnson. JJ  is a James Beard Award-winning chef, TV Personality, and Author best known for his barrier-breaking cuisine informed by the Caribbean flavors of his upbringing. He has been featured on multiple television shows, and has his television show called 'Just Eats with Chef JJ’ on CLEO TV.

Chef JJ's cookbook with Danica Novgorodof, "The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table," was listed as one of New York Times Best Cookbooks in 2023. Chef JJ’s signature cooking style combines culturally relevant ingredients and classical techniques with a global point of view.

At FIELDTRIP, his made-to-order rice bowl shop that debuted in 2019, Chef JJ
highlights rice as a hero ingredient and showcases it in recipes sourced from around the
world. As one of the only fast-casual restaurants on Esquire’s “America’s Best New
Restaurants” list in 2020, FIELDTRIP utilizes sustainable ingredients and ethically
sourced vegetables and proteins, creating a flavorful and diverse dining experience.
The brand’s motto, "Rice is Culture,” was born out of Chef JJ’s belief that rice is the
universal ingredient that connects us all and can be found at the center of the table in
almost every community.

In this episode, JJ and CEO of meez, Josh Sharkey, talk a lot about the restaurant, the story behind the dishes, different kinds of rice, and how JJ is overcoming some of the challenges of scaling FieldTrip to multiple locations. They also discuss how becoming a parent can make you a better leader, and thinking about how Josh and JJ's kids getting into the food business makes them feel. We hope you enjoy the show!


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Where to find JJ Johnson:

Where to find host Josh Sharkey:

What We Cover

(03:30) Puerto Rican ingredients and the headache to try and order them in the states

(04:52) All about FieldTrip

(07:10) The varieties of rice featured on the menu

(07:59) JJ's goal of identifying rice farmers

(09:42) The beauty of a simple menu

(11:50) The ins and outs of properly cooking rice

(17:35) Lessons learned from scaling FieldTrip

(22:03) How FieldTrip is about empowering its employees

(31:04) How parenting influences leadership

(40:12) Crunchy rice in different cultures

(44:26) What five years from now looks like for JJ

(45:51) Auditing personal growth


[00:00:00] Josh Sharkey:

You're listening to season two of The meez Podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, a culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, we're going to talk to high performers in the food business, everything from chefs to CEOs, technologists, writers, investors, and more about how they innovate and operate and how they consistently execute at a high level.


Day after day. And I would really love it if you could drop us a five star review anywhere that you listen to your podcast. That could be Apple, that could be Spotify, could be Google. I'm not picky. Anywhere works, but I really appreciate the support. And as always, I hope you enjoy the show.


All right, let's kick off season two of The meez Podcast. This first episode we recorded just at the end of last year. So my guest today is chef and author JJ Johnson. If you don't know JJ, he has won a James Beard Award for his work as co author of the book, Between Harlem and Heaven. The book explores the flavors and history of the Afro Asian American cuisine, which has had a really big influence on his food.


His latest book, The Simple Art of Rice, digs into the culture and common threads of rice dishes from around the world. JJ is also the founder of FieldTrip. It's a fast casual spot. Well, it's a group. There's three locations in New York City, and it's growing, and in case you didn't figure it out yet, the restaurant revolves around rice and rice dishes from around the world.


So JJ and I talk a lot. The restaurant, the dishes, we talk about different kinds of rice, crispy rice, and of course we dig into, you know, what it's been like to open a fast casual spot in Harlem before anything like that existed in the neighborhood, and how he's overcoming some of the challenges of scaling to multiple locations.


And because him and I are both parents of two kids, we also discuss how becoming a parent can make you a better leader, and thinking about how our kids getting into the food business makes us feel. So, as always, I hope you enjoy the episode, and here's to an incredible season two of The meez Podcast.

[00:02:02] Josh Sharkey:

Welcome to the podcast, man.

[00:02:03] JJ Johnson:

Thanks for having me.

[00:02:04] Josh Sharkey:

What do you got planned for the holidays, dude?

[00:02:10] JJ Johnson:

Uh, I go to my parents house in the Poconos where I grew up. So head there, it's like magical Christmas, like fairy tales, my mom, my dad do big things.

[00:02:20] JJ Johnson:

It's been a thing for, um, 39, 39 years and been still going strong. My kids love it. They literally, my kids literally told us that the elves on the shelf at my mom's house are the real elves on the shelf, not the ones at our house. Nice. And, uh, I'll cook Christmas Eve dinner like Noche Buena because keeps the spirit of my Puerto Rican grandmother alive.


So what do you cook? I'm gonna do, my wife doesn't eat pork, so instead of beignet, like roasted pork shoulder, I'll do roasted lamb shoulder, same way. I'll do roast gondolas, I'll do pasteles, I'll do some type of beans, we're gonna do roasted fish this year, I think some type of like oregano marinated fish, there'll be mac and cheese on the table, my wife makes a killer mac and cheese.

[00:03:02] Josh Sharkey:

What's her background?


Black and Native American, grew up in Boston.

[00:03:06] Josh Sharkey:

Oh wow. So, you know, I know you got a Puerto Rican background, uh, among other things, but I'm curious, like, do you find, is there other ingredients that you wish you could get here that are hard to find, like, you know, recal, or, you know, what we call culantro, like things that, like, make it less authentic, or?

[00:03:23] JJ Johnson:

Yeah, like, you could get culantro, but when you tell people about culantro, they're like, they have no idea what you're talking about.

[00:03:28] Josh Sharkey:

I mean,

[00:03:30] JJ Johnson:

what do you say when you call, like, a produce company, and you're like, yo, man, can you get me culantro?

[00:03:34] Josh Sharkey:

Like, yeah, we got culantro, it's spelled with an “I”.

[00:03:36] JJ Johnson:

Right, and then they send you cilantro.

[00:03:38] Josh Sharkey:

Is there a big difference you think?

[00:03:39] JJ Johnson:

I think a huge difference. Yeah. Yeah. I think culantro to me is like a mixture of like cilantro and sorrel, but I think that's the beauty of cooking though. Like you can only do so much in certain parts of the world or certain regions of the country, right? Like, you know, here in the Northeast, you get the best corn in the summer.


You get all the root vegetables. You know, you get amazing fish out of Montauk. You go to California, you know, the tomatoes are rocking. Strawberries are phenomenal. So I think like that's the methodology of like a chef or like the creativity of a chef. Like you really tap into what you have.

[00:04:15] Josh Sharkey:

Yeah. You know, I'm going to assume most people probably already know your background. I want to make sure we talk about that, but you have this concept. called FieldTrip, which is, you know, rice's culture is a big part of the whole concept, which is awesome. And what's cool about it is like, it's not one, you know, culture or cuisine. You're actually looking at rice across all these different cuisines.


But, you know, you're talking about like, you know, what's in season and what's ripe and where you're at. Like, how do you actually, you know, maintain. that as you're scaling this company, right? So you're, and maybe we'll start with just like a little wind up of like what's FieldTrip and you know, what's like, what's the concept and what's the vision?

[00:04:52] JJ Johnson:

FieldTrip trip is a rice bowl shop. I believe that rice is the greatest connector in the world, connects everybody. And I just utilize one ingredient to tell multitudes of stories around food and places that I've traveled or food that I loved. When I first started thinking about FieldTrip, I thought it was going to be like a Momofuku, like noodle bar, but with rice.

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