At FieldTrip, the former Cecil chef nods to his travels and one of his grandmother’s specialties.
Rice was one of the chef Joseph Johnson’s first loves and first heartbreaks.
His earliest remembered taste of it was in his grandmother’s asopao, a Puerto Rican dish that is not quite stew, not quite soup. It’s made of rice simmered in chicken broth and white wine, with collapsed tomatoes, sofrito and olives leaching their brine.
This is food that warms you, changes you from within. Mr. Johnson, known as JJ, called it simply soupy rice, and drank it by the cup. But after his grandmother died, the only rice that appeared on the table was “this Uncle Ben’s nonsense,” he said — bland and mushy. “It was never right.”
He held a grudge all through culinary school, failing at pilaf and doing his best to avoid the grain. The turning point came on a trip to Ghana with the restaurateur Alexander Smalls, an owner of the Cecil in Harlem, where Mr. Johnson was the executive chef until last summer.