CLEO TV ‘Just Eats’ Chef J.J. Talks Music, Food, and This Season’s Show

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Image: Christina Chi Craig

They say that “food is where the heart is.” We’ve found that ideal expression with CLEO TV’s Just Eats star, Chef J.J. From the traditions of African food, the culture of Harlem and that essence of real nineties music, Chef J.J. creates that flavor. Although he is a native of Poconos, Pennsylvania, throughout his life he has spent time in different places of the world that have inspired his culinary creations. With his residency at the Life Hotel in the heart of New York, he is able to create Pan-African cuisines for the enjoyment of all tastes. During Grammy week, Chef J.J. hosted a tasting at Spring Place restaurant in Beverly Hills, where he shared with us the influence behind his traditional creations, his hit show Just Eats and so much more.

MillBuzz: What inspired you to want to be a chef and where does your musical influence come from?

Chef J.J.: I grew up around it with my Grandmother. It was always the best gathering moments as a kid. For me, what inspires me is that food truly connects people. It’s great walking around a dining room or cooking food and watching how it connects new cooks and people around the table, that’s what truly inspires me. The key to my inspiration now is I am all about 90’s hip hop and R&B because it’s the era of Black Excellence. Everybody was showing excellence and that’s what we all aspire to be in some area, but that music brings you to a nostalgic moment in your life. And if I can bring you to nostalgia through music, and then you have this food that you think you know but you don’t know, and then you’re eating that food and it’s amazing and you’re hearing this music— I was driving a 1994 Honda Accord and it brings you back to college or wherever you are— then I just give you the best moment of your life because this food makes you happy and the music makes you happy and that’s what its all about. Music is what brings people together alongside great food.

MillBuzz: What is your inspiration behind the unique selections of traditional African American food?

Chef J.J.: I cook the food of the African Diaspora. I call it Pan-African. I spent some time in Ghana and basically, I found myself there and the goal is that West African slaves have been spread around this world and different areas. They’ve never been celebrated and I am celebrating their flavors through food. I am taking something really bad that happened and I am doing the reverse. If you really look at the dining room were in, in Beverly Hills, it is super diverse. You don’t see that all the time and that makes me really happy because I know that I am cooking the food of the people, it’s the culture and they’re coming out, so I put flavors that you wouldn’t really see together to people who have been living together for over hundreds of years. So you see some Chinese and Vietnamese flavors, you see some South American flavors, you see some stuff from my childhood. I consider myself the real bread from the African Diaspora. My dad is African-American, my mom being West Indie, Puerto Rican and Afro Puerto Rican, that’s really a mash of what it is. You’ll see extra short ribs, I actually brought those from the restaurant and actually made those by hand. I am just want to bring the flavor.

MillBuzz: What are you trying to show people with the different food selections you cook?

Chef J.J.: I am trying to show people real African traditional food. Soul food came from something that white people gave us and although we celebrate it, it came from the Great Migration. I am not knocking it at all, it’s truly something that we celebrate, but I am going before soul food, I am cooking the food before it hit the American South. I am showing you these traditions or these flavors from food around the world and places I’ve been personally, and some of these things have come from the time I spent in Singapore and Israel, but really seeing the culture in those places that people weren’t talking about.

MillBuzz: Tell us more about your book Between Harlem and Heaven?

Chef J.J.: My book is co-authored with Alexander Smalls and Veronica Chambers. It’s a book that truly celebrates black excellence; it’s 100 recipes with stories from old Harlem and new Harlem. It’s a book that shows people about who we really are and what we do and it’s relatable to more than just a cookbook. It’s something that you can truly read and pass along to others. All of our recipes you can cook at home, but it’s something that’s truly touching to me because they are no books that are comparable on the street or on the shelf. You’re getting essays from me and these amazing stories from a book called Bengali Harlem, which is this Harlem that nobody knew. These Bengalis, Puerto Rican and West Africans living together because Harlem was a place that everybody went to and we talk about that.

MillBuzz: Where did your love and history of Harlem come from?

Chef J.J.: I grew up in Poconos, Pennsylvania, but my dad is from Harlem and was brought up in the Bronx. My family lives throughout all of Harlem, Polo, St Nic and East Harlem, so I use to go there as a kid, but when I came out of Culinary school, the first place I lived was in Harlem with my aunt on 107th and 5th. I’ve never lived on any other borough in New York City, I lived in Harlem for 15 years so I truly call home East Harlem and West Harlem. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the people of Harlem. This is why I am opening Field Trip back in Harlem, it would be a shame not to open up a place that gave me so much tradition.

MillBuzz: What are some other things you would like to explore besides culinary

Chef J.J.: You would really think that I am a DJ now or I was a musician because people call me a “Chef DJ” because I just love music. I work alongside a guy name Brian Allonace and he compiles my thoughts of music and develops a playlist for me now so that they’re nice and clean and good. I hope to do something with music. I hope to do some sneaker collabs, I hope to truly play food and tech in some spaces, some lifestyle stuff, maybe a J.J. cartoon character for the kids. I am just planting the seeds and seeing where it goes. I just really want to open up some doors for people who look like me, so that they have space and they can work with me and grow, so I am just pushing along and very thankful for where I am today.

MillBuzz: Tell us more about the show and what can we expect?

Chef J.J.: I wanted people to have a show where they can relate to and what I mean by that is “Just Eats” is really “Just Eats.” The best place when you have a dinner party is where everyone hangs out at, which is the kitchen. There are two people in the kitchen with me, we drink together, and what happened is that we have these epic conversations and we don’t really know what we’re going to talk about, but the food is what connects people. It’s truly some of the best conversations I’ve had in life. Some things I do disagree with people and I am thinking, “Why are you asking J.J.this because I have no idea”, and “Maybe if I do, I just don’t want to talk about it,” but it’s with a great guest and I get to cook food and the things I love. It’s fun and it’s something you’re watching at home and brings you back to a memory of a moment you had in life or you think, “Man, I really didn’t know what to do, and you just gave me the best advice.” You’re having dating problems and you take something from what you saw on the show. Food is what brings it all together. We have some great celebrities on the show that talk about fashion, things they cook, relationship advice and things that people can really relate to. I am thankful that Cleo TV and Power House Productions believed in me to kick off this network. I call it “For us by us.”

MillBuzz: What impact do you want people to get from J.J. as a chef, contributor and public figure?

Chef J.J.: I have a partnership deal with a hotel. There are no black chefs that are below 125th. Our restaurant is packed every day. I hope this shows hoteliers that they can diverse their dining options and believe in other chefs of color to give them the platform in their hotels so they can make money and progress in life. For me, that’s one of my most successful things right now, and I hope that it will keep going and be able to branch out in other places.

MillBuzz: What is one quote or token you would leave with the millennials?

Chef J.J.: My best advice is I am never trying to get to the light of the tunnel, I am trying to maintain the light.

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