Top chef JJ Johnson wants to bring the spork back to Harlem

By | July 10, 2019

At the new restaurant FieldTrip, the utensil of choice might send customers on a nostalgia trip.

“We’re bringing back the spork!” says the fast-casual spot’s mastermind, James Beard Award semifinalist chef JJ Johnson.

The spoon-fork hybrid is the perfect delivery method for the Harlem restaurant’s star player: rice. The menu features five varieties of the grain from around the world, each paired with a specific sauce-drenched protein. Salmon ($ 11.99) comes atop chewy China Black Rice, and is served with pineapple and zesty piri piri, while crispy chicken ($ 9.99) is smothered in barbecue sauce and paired with Carolina Gold, beloved by chefs and known for its rich, slightly sweet taste.

“The rice dictates the flavor of the bowl,” Johnson says.

FieldTrip is decidedly more casual than Johnson’s other ventures, which favor traditional utensils. The 34-year-old put his name on the culinary map as the chef at Harlem’s the Cecil, where he cooked vibrant, elevated dishes inspired by West African and Asian cultures. He left that restaurant in 2017 and went on to serve as head chef at Henry at Life Hotel, transforming the historic Nomad space into a Pan-African hot spot with an R&B soundtrack. Now, with FieldTrip, he’s aiming to make his global fare accessible and affordable, offering healthy, zesty bowls amid the neighborhood’s sea of fast food.

“There [are] so many Chipotles and Popeyes, but you can’t eat that every day,” says Johnson, who lives in Harlem with his wife and 2-year-old twins.

‘Most Americans are eating rice that’s either mushy or undercooked.’

The chef hasn’t always been a fan of what’s become his main grain.

“I hated rice growing up,” says Johnson, who was raised in Pennsylvania by a family with roots in Harlem, the South, the Caribbean and Puerto Rico. He not-so-fondly recalls the bland packaged stuff his “aunties” used to make. “I wasn’t eating rice cooked right.”

But on a trip to Ghana with restaurateur Alexander Smalls, who owns the Cecil, Johnson had a perfectly prepared, flavor-packed jollof rice dish that changed his mind about the staple food.

“Most Americans are eating rice that’s either mushy or undercooked,” he says.

At FieldTrip, he sources his rice from small farms, and most is freshly milled and not enriched, so it requires refrigeration and, according to Johnson, is more nutritious and easier to digest. The starch is cooked slowly — sometimes for up to an hour — and left to steam to achieve the proper consistency.

“It’s toothy, and that’s the way it should be,” Johnson says. “It has to have a bite to it.”

Open Wednesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; 109 Malcolm X Blvd.; 917-639-3919, FieldTrip NYC

Salmon, shrimp and veggie dishes
Salmon, shrimp and veggie rice dishesTamara Beckwith/NY POST

Living | New York Post