Chef JJ Johnson Explains Why He Started Cooking At A Young Age - Exclusive

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Some people know exactly what they want to do in life starting at a very young age. There are those kids who dream of being astronauts and, lo and behold, one day find themselves in orbit. Or the star Little Leaguer who ends up in a World Series Game. Or the young storyteller who goes on to write a New York Times bestseller. Most of us, on the other hand, tend to land on our career path later in life, whether it's defined by college studies, our first jobs, or after a few gigs that have left us wanting more.

Chef JJ Johnson falls firmly into the "kids with big dreams" camp. During a recent exclusive Mashed interview, the chef behind multi-location NYC restaurant Fieldtrip, co-author of the hit cookbook "Between Harlem and Heaven," and host of the show "Just Eats with Chef JJ" explained that he had been cooking since his pre-school years and had never really considered any other callings in life. "I've been cooking since I was about four-years-old," Johnson said, adding, "I was cooking in the kitchen with my grandma. She used to play really loud music. I would step up on a milk crate and peel carrots and onions and celery with her — or that's what I thought I was doing. She really injected food DNA into my soul. I used to watch us as a family, a pretty large family, gather around the table every Sunday. I always had the best time of my life around food."

Okay, perhaps Johnson considered a few other paths, but he stayed the course to get where he is now. To stay on target throughout all of his formative years, it was all thanks to family, even beyond his grandmother.

Family helped guide JJ Johnson to professional cooking

In fact the first meal JJ Johnson ever cooked for family was kind of a disaster. "The first meal I ever cooked was lasagna for my Aunt Lisa, and I burnt it on her birthday," he said with a laugh. Of course his family kept encouraging him anyway. "Everybody [in my family] cooked something ... My Uncle Donald was a big influence. He owned a crab boat, and we would have crab cake contests. He would make me eat raw clams and oysters because he said, if I'm going to culinary school, if I want to be a chef, I need to know what things taste like. So he tortured me a little bit, but a lot of those things I loved then I love now." 

From peeling veggies with grandma to burning lasagna for his aunt and his uncle's take on raw seafood, Johnson had a great foundation and soon moved onto an actual restaurant job. "My first job was a dishwasher. Then I went to the Culinary School of America," Johnson recalled. "My family knew I wanted to be a chef. When I really look back in life, they actually cultivated me." He compares it to the traveling basketball players that parents would take around the country to play in tournaments and be noticed by schools. "My family would be bringing me to restaurants, would be cooking food, would be having pig roasts. Everything was based around food and was really cultivating me to see if this was something I really wanted to do. Then, in culinary school, I wanted to quit a couple times, but my dad really kept me going. He said, 'You won't be a quitter.'"

Now, JJ Johnson is a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author with a few restaurants to his name and cooking demos attended by scores of people, such as one he recently conducted at the Sun Wine & Food Festival at Mohegan Sun. Follow him on Instagram and learn more about the Sun Wine & Food Festival here.