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"The dish is called Hands Only, and the folks behind the Cecil, the restaurant in Harlem where it is served, are not kidding about that. To give you an extra nudge of encouragement, they usher it to your table with a hot aromatic towel that has been steamed with lemon thyme, kaffir lime and lemon peel. Not that you’re apt to resist digging in. Hands Only begs to be ripped apart with messy, hungry abandon."
"Nearly every dish on The Cecil’s menu contains a history lesson within. The Moqueca, for example, is chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson’s version of a traditional fish stew from Bahia, Brazil, where many African slaves were brought to work on sugar plantations during the trans-Atlantic trade. Those slaves carried their culinary traditions with them, leaving an indelible mark on the local cuisine."
"A recent revision to Johnson’s menu saw the end of well-loved dishes such as his fried guinea hen. An excellent collard-green salad, which melds the softness of red adzuki beans with the crumble of candied cashews, thankfully remains. Along with braised goat dumplings, it is the best way to start a meal. The menu draws attention to drinks from Africa and the African diaspora. A Pinotage from South Africa pairs well with the superlative meat dishes, like the glazed oxtails, which rest on a mess of brown-rice grits, and the pan-roasted venison."
"Since the Cecil opened in the fall of 2013, chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson has helped bring the Harlem restaurant much acclaim. It comes as a bit of a surprise, then, that he has completely revamped the menu. 'We've always changed the menu but kept the staples,' he says. 'And then, as more and more people came to dine at the restaurant, I would see them only ordering the staples. I want the culinary world to know that Afro-Asian-American cooking is not one-dimensional. It's a big conversation. There's a lot of history. Introducing this new menu is a way to keep the conversation going.'"
"Those roots are on display even more prominently at the Cecil, where the flavors of Africa, the Americas, the Caribbean and Asia merge in dishes like gumbo, beef suya on skewers, oxtail dumplings and a collard-green salad with spiced cashews and coconut dressing. 'It’s always been a rallying cry for me,' said Alexander Smalls, the chef, entrepreneur and social powerhouse behind The Cecil. 'The idea that black folks cooking are only making soul food is frightening. What we have to say is much bigger than that. It’s our job to expand the conversation. People need to be enlightened.' Joseph Johnson, the executive chef at the Cecil and Minton’s in Harlem, spent a month doing research in Ghana before the Cecil opened in 2013. 'I came back here a changed man,' said the chef, who goes by JJ."
"Once a week, chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson and his team at Harlem’s The Cecil feed their upstairs neighbors. It was a deal owner Richard Parsons and chef Alexander Smalls made when they recognized that the tenants got most of their meals from City Harvest and other local organizations. Johnson orders free-range organic chicken and salmon from D’Artagnan and Skuna Bay; the team rolls out sheet pans of vegetables, salad, and starches."
"The Cecil’s creative team reveals the secrets to keeping a crowd happy, and executive chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson shows how to make his favorite cocktail party appetizer."
"That the food of the Caribbean is increasingly being embraced by chefs and diners alike comes as no surprise to Alexander Smalls, an owner of Minton’s and The Cecil. The Cecil in particular draws liberally from Guyana and Trinidad, in dishes like a roti pizza topped with soft shreds of oxtail, while the shrimp in chile-tomato sauce over yam flapjacks borrows from the executive chef JJ Johnson’s Barbadian relatives."
"The Cecil calls itself New York’s first Afro-Asian-American brasserie. With a mix of influences, it’s no surprise beverage director Antoine Hodge likes to pair an intricate blend with the house-special Cecil Burger. 'There are a curious mix of seven grape varietals in my favorite Napa Valley red,' he says."
"As chef de cuisine at both the Cecil and Minton's, JJ Johnson plays a key role in Harlem's culinary renaissance. His cooking has helped to make the restaurant a hot spot in one of NYC's most exciting neighborhoods, and while he just turned 31, he exhibits the poise of a much older, more accomplished chef."
"Antoine Hodge, the beverage director of "Afro-Asian-American restaurant" The Cecil in New York City, takes inspiration for many of his fantastic cocktails from Harlem's neighborhood markets and African produce stands. His newest addition to the cocktail menu, Teranga, is a smart, super-refreshing (and zero-proof) take on the classic gin and tonic made with ditax, a tart, nutrient-rich fruit native to Senegal."
"Chef Joseph "JJ" Johnson discovered cooking at a young age, standing alongside his grandmother who brought Caribbean influences into the kitchen. In 2013, Johnson helped famed restaurateur Alexander Smalls open The Cecil in Harlem, New York. Johnson joins The Dish to share his recipes."
"A fun demo by the friendly and in-fashion chef JJ Johnson, great drinks, good conversation, and jazz from The Potash Twins – that’s about all you need to have a full house in The Daily Meal’s kitchen. And that was the scene this week, when chef Johnson came and conquered the crowd with a delicious and savory menu."
"Long-Island born chef JJ Johnson, who learned to cook from his Puerto Rican grandmother and spent time in Ghana before coming back to NYC, has created a menu featuring ingenious combinations like a giant prawns with piri piri sauce and a yam flapjack, and udon noodles with braised goat, West African peanut sauce and edamame."
"Eat out in America, particularly in high-end restaurants, and you tend to see the same people, eating the same dishes, and you start to take them for granted. Then you find a place like the Cecil and you wake up."
"Joseph “JJ” Johnson found inspiration for his food on a trip to Ghana, where he saw how the evolution and spread of societies can manifest itself in cuisine. The chef experienced a unique use of ingredients and techniques that would set the wheels in motion for his own culinary success. He recalls seeing Japanese whiskey and a man making piri piri sauce for the first time."
"Mr. Parsons has also made a point of putting wines produced by winemakers of what he calls "the African Diaspora" on the list at the Cecil. That same Diaspora is the focus of Mr. Smalls's inventive and intensely flavored menu of dishes. There are currently 11 wines from four African Diaspora producers on the Cecil list: André Hueston Mack of Mouton Noir, the Brown Family of Napa, Marcus Johnson of Flo and Raymond Smith of Indigene. Mr. Parsons is looking for additional wines, but many lack distribution, which is key."
"That the restaurant asks you to think at all is exciting. Even better, it rewards the thought by opening up a complementary universe of far-out flavor constellations, a panoply of beans, gumbos of extreme complexity, yassas of edifying creativity, eddies of spice in swirling stews, suyas of edible derring-do and a goddamned great macaroni-and-cheese casserole."