“I cook food that tells a story,” says Johnson, who found his culinary voice after spending time in Ghana and Senegal. In Africa, he was taken by the heady aromatics and the merging of flavors of the Chinese migrant workers and the Ghanaian cooking traditions. “It was a birthplace for me,” he explains. “It birthed me and the food I cook.”
Harlem too is a place full of rich culinary influences -- from the American south, the West Indies, West Africa, and beyond. “The cultures of the diaspora live in Harlem and exist through music and through food,” says Johnson. “You can’t find that anywhere else.”
You can’t find food like Johnson’s anywhere, either. Taking inspiration from his travels in Africa, his grandmother’s Caribbean kitchen, and his classical training at the Culinary Institute of America, Johnson has created a menu that’s as creative as it is comforting. Take his plump oxtail dumplings, his signature dish at The Cecil. The dumplings arrive in a zingy, creamy green apple curry with a crispy taro chip. The oxtail is a Caribbean staple, the curry is Indian and the dumpling wrapper comes from Chinese tradition. The flavors are familiar, yet together, totally unexpected. His short ribs get braised in palm sugar and onions, then piled on toast with spicy pickled yogurt sprinkled with za’atar. His eight-hour smoked pork ribs are sticky, sweet, and savory with BBQ sauce and scallions, and crunchy from a shower of cashews. His gumbo is a steaming bowl full of smoked chicken, Chinese chicken sausage, gulf shrimp, and crab. There’s something extra satisfying about digging into a bowl while listening to a singer croon or a horn trill right in front of you.