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Chef J.J. Johnson Shares the Inspiration Behind His 'Pan-African' Menu

Henry, which opened earlier this summer in the Life Hotel, is as unique a spot as you'll find in New York City's culinary scene.

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When chef J.J. Johnson signed on to open his famed restaurant, Henry, at the Life Hotel, earlier this summer, he was determined to put his individual stamp on the project. Having led the kitchen at the Cecil and Minton's, Johnson was ready to create a space that was unique—a difficult feat in a culinary capital like New York City.

When you walk into the restaurant, it's like a summation of what New York City was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s—when it still had an edge. Neon signs adorn the walls, tubular lighting reminiscent of a subway map runs across the ceiling, and throw-back R&B and hip-hop plays over the speakers, anything from Ashanti to Notorious B.I.G. The restaurant occupies the reception area of the Life Hotel, but still has an intimate feel, even as hotel guests pass through to check into their rooms. "For me, I always dreamed about a restaurant being in a hotel lobby," Johnson said. "The initial feeling you get when you check into the hotel is that you get J.J. vibes. I get to touch every guest that comes into the space."

And while the decor is an ode to New York, the menu is much further reaching. With what Johnson calls "pan-African" dishes—with flavors pulled from Africa, the Caribbean, and the American South, similar to what he served up during his residence at Chefs Club—the influence behind Henry is much more international. With dishes like Mushroom Yassa, made with pistachios, dijon, onion, and Aleppo pepper, a twist on a West African dish, or Bone-in Beef Shortrib served with roti that has Southern, Indian, and Southeast Asian influences, Johnson curates a true worldly menu.

"I look through all my dishes with a West African lense," Johnson said. "But I also mix in inspirations from my travels to places like Singapore and Israel." He said that by combining these influences that he can create totally unique and one-of-a-kind flavors. "I'm the only one in New York cooking this style of food," he explained.

Johnson sources much of his spices from farmers across the globe. Anything from dried bird's eye chilis to turmeric and green cardamom, comes from farmers that he's met during his travels. He explained that this interaction allows him to find spices that other chefs aren't using, and are in their purest form.

But even with so many international influences, Johnson still considers the Henry to be a reflection of New York City and of the diverse cultures and populations that call it home. "The feel of the restaurant, what it looks like, gives it a New York City vibe," Johnson said. "And the food is a representation of the people of New York City."


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