James Beard Semi-Finalist, Chef JJ Johnson, Shares Tips for a Successful Culinary Career

Chef JJ Johnson, FIELDTRIP
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Young individuals aspiring to pursue a career in the culinary world often find themselves at a loss, unsure of where to begin or how to secure their first position. To provide guidance and support to those navigating the path to their dream careers, we approached a James Beard semi-finalist. Chef JJ Johnson, a four-time semifinalist for Best Chef in New York, and one time nominee, by the James Beard Foundation, graciously shared his perspective and offered invaluable advice for aspiring chefs.graciously shared his perspective and offered invaluable advice for aspiring chefs. Beyond his culinary prowess, people recognize Chef JJ for his commitment to community-building through his restaurant, FIELDTRIP. His genuine charisma and dedication shine through his actions, evident in his efforts to give back to the community and mentor young talents.

What inspired you to pursue a career in the culinary world, and how did you get started?

Chef JJ: I started in my grandma’s kitchen. She injected the love for cooking into me through DNA. It was always exciting, with loud music and my great aunts joining in, creating an amazing atmosphere. The food always tasted delicious, and everyone wanted to come over.  

 That sparked my desire to become a chef from a young age, and I’ve been fortunate enough to live my dream. When it comes to recognizing one’s true calling, I believe it’s about identifying your passion.

 Everyone has something they are passionate about, and if you can envision doing that for the rest of your life, then it might be your true calling. Often, young people lack a clear vision because there isn’t an exact job description, or they’ve never met someone in that specific role. But there are countless unique positions in great companies or opportunities to start something on your own. 

“I encourage everyone to pursue their dreams and live their passion because it’s achievable.” 


How can aspiring chefs jumpstart their culinary careers effectively?

Chef JJ: “To start a career as a chef, first, find a chef you like and learn from them.” It could be a restaurant you saw on TV or read about. Working in their kitchen and soaking up their knowledge will be easy because you admire them. Your first kitchen job could be at a local restaurant you love. It could be a restaurant recommended by your family or friends. Stick with that chef for around two years, learning as much as you can. This hands-on experience will give you a strong start as a chef and open many opportunities in the culinary world.


In your opinion, what are the essential skills and qualities that aspiring chefs should focus on developing?

Chef JJ: “When starting as a chef, it’s crucial to understand that you’re in the people business.”  Pleasing others is at the heart of what you do. Be prepared for long hours, early mornings, and the need for patience. Skill development takes time; you won’t become proficient overnight. Dedicate yourself to honing your craft, whether it’s mastering taste profiles or perfecting knife skills. Treat your journey as a chef with the dedication of an athlete striving for excellence.


What inspired you to start your own business?

Chef JJ: After working hard for someone else as a chef, I thought, “If I can do this for them, why not for myself?” So, I embraced my inner entrepreneur and started my own business. But starting on your own means no regular paycheck. You’ve got to handle personal and business finances separately, which isn’t easy. And you have to be okay with people saying no to your ideas. It takes courage and a willingness to face uncertainty. Plus, you need money to get started, whether it’s your savings, a loan from the bank, or investors.


What's the essential skill needed to work with you?

Chef JJ: “At FIELDTRIP, we prioritize hiring good people whom we can trust and who thrive in a safe work environment.” Our turnover rate is low because we focus on building a strong team. While previous experience in hospitality or the kitchen is a plus, we provide training before employees start representing FIELDTRIP. We aim to instil our brand in every team member, welcoming customers and guiding them through our menu. We operate as a cohesive team, with everyone pitching in to fill gaps. If our current weaknesses include hospitality, culinary skills, prep work, or restaurant cleanliness, those are the qualities we’ll seek in our next team member. We’re constantly building and strengthening teams at each of our locations.


Do you believe a cohesive team plays a role in reducing turnover rates in the hospitality industry?

Chef JJ: Yes, definitely. But we also prioritize treating our team fairly. If you request a day off, most of the time, we’ll grant it. We’re not in the habit of saying no to vacation requests. We expect team members to show up on time and give their best during their 6 to 8-hour shifts. We aim to provide a healthy work-life balance. And we encourage young college students or even high school students who work with us. While some may see it as a temporary job, we promote growth within the company. However, we understand that not everyone may be ready for advancement, which can be challenging. As a relatively new company, only five years old, we’re continuously evolving and hope to offer more to our employees over time. “We’re taking it one step at a time, recognizing that each day brings new opportunities for improvement.”

Photo courtesy of Chef JJ

 


How do you manage the pressure and stress of juggling various roles: chef, owner, author, and media figure?

Chef JJ: The simple answer is people! I’m fortunate to have a great team of people supporting me. We all work hard, just like CEOs of big corporations or athletes striving for excellence. I’m constantly striving to be the best I can be, managing my time and pursuing my goals. Hopefully, all this effort will pay off in the end.


How important is networking within the culinary community?

Chef JJ: For me, attending culinary school was a valuable form of networking. I kept in touch with classmates and learned about job opportunities through them. If you don’t have the chance to attend culinary school, you can still network by meeting people in kitchens or restaurants. As you progress, don’t hesitate to seek mentorship from experienced professionals, whether it’s the general manager, chef at your workplace, or someone you admire. These days, you can even reach out to people on social media for mentorship. Having a mentor is crucial for personal and professional growth. I’m constantly seeking mentorship myself, reaching out to individuals like Steve Ells from Chipotle. “Mentorship is essential for breaking through personal barriers and reaching new heights in your career.”


What is your favorite and least favorite thing about your job?

Chef JJ: My favorite part of the job is seeing people enjoy my food and leave with a smile, plates cleaned. That’s what I love most.

On the flip side, my least favorite part is dealing with the unexpected responsibilities that come with being a chef and founder. I never imagined having to handle tasks like development, construction, or technology issues daily. In my mind, being a chef is like being the CEO of a business. I prefer focusing solely on cooking. However, I recognize the need to evolve and expand my skill set. While food remains my primary focus, I see it as a gateway to broader opportunities. Dealing with construction is particularly challenging for me; I’ve learned it’s best left to experts while I focus on what I do best—cooking.

Food made by Chef JJ at his restaurant FIELDTRIP.
Photo courtesy of Chef JJ

What final piece of advice would you give to young chefs and job seekers in the restaurant industry?

Chef JJ: I always remember my dad’s advice: live life to the fullest without regrets. I strive to approach each day with a positive attitude, ensuring I live without any “what ifs”, “should haves” or “could haves.”  Embrace each day with positivity, aiming for a smile on your face no matter what you do. It’s about living without regrets and finding joy in every moment.


As a professional chef, do you find joy in cooking privately?

Chef JJ: Absolutely, I cook for my kids all the time. I enjoy meal prepping for them and spending time in the kitchen together. Cooking for my wife and family brings me immense joy and they always look forward to enjoying my meals. It’s a special moment for us all. I often cook alongside my sister-in-law and brother-in-law, and my mother-in-law likes to take charge as if I’m her sous chef—it’s all in good fun. Being a chef means cooking at home too; there’s no escaping it, and I am not trying to escape.


Chef JJ’s journey from beginnings in his grandma’s kitchen to becoming a James Beard semi-finalist is an inspiration. If you are passionate about pursuing a career in the culinary world, heed Chef JJ’s words of wisdom and guidance. Be true to yourself, network, and find mentors. Remember that mentorship plays a crucial role in personal and professional growth. As Chef JJ exemplifies, with dedication, hard work, and a positive attitude – everything is possible.

About FIELDTRIP: Founded by Chef JJ Johnson, a James Beard Award-winning chef, TV Personality and Author. FIELDTRIP was born out of Chef JJ’s realization that rice connects us all and can be found at the center of the tables across the world. FIELDTRIP is a community-focused rice bowl shop that celebrates culture through the shared experience of rice.

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