Chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley; Exposed and Extremely Present

Photo copyright Brent Herrig. Using it without his permission is illegal... and very mean.

Photo copyright Brent Herrig. Using it without his permission is illegal… and very mean.

I grew up in an old-school European family where politics and religion were conversations brought to the dinner table, because where else would we gather for such an extended length of time that we could hash out, argue and throw things in defense of what was really important to us? I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind and keep it open to the opinions of others but, recently, it seems etiquette is making its presence known when transferring those conversations to a restaurant’s kitchen.

Lately the whole “women in the kitchen” thing has been on my mind, since stuff’s been happening in the media prominently the past few months and I’ve taken the chefs I choose to speak with in my column and for my book a touch more seriously. Yet, despite trusting myself and the strength of my opinions, I’ve found it hard to speak my mind completely unnerved; this was clear a few weeks ago when I spoke with chef Lauren DeSteno, and gender is something I usually only ask about after my official interview has concluded.

But, in an uncommonly open forum hosted by Mother Jones, a panel discussion led by “minority chefs” (meaning those who are not heterosexual, white men), got me an introduction to chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley, a woman with Jamaican roots heading up American Table Cafe and Bar in Lincoln Center. She is incredibly observant and smart, and in our ensuing interview broadened the realm of what the problem might be in elevating chefs who are women to a brighter spotlight. She’s worked in kitchens since 1998 and been a present mother to two children, busting the myth most buy into that the lack of longevity for most women in the kitchen is because of our curse of being able to bring life into the world and all.

So as we sat at the light-filled space in one of my favorite nooks of the city, gender and ethnicity wove amongst other natural bits of conversation. I have a feeling she could hold her own at my family’s table.


Chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley; Exposed and Extremely Present

Taken March, 2014

When you graduated from the FCI, did you have an idea of the kind of food you wanted to focus on?

I didn’t have an idea; I just wanted to be involved. Everything was pretty much new to me, and the food industry seemed so vast that I wanted to just kind of explore it. I didn’t want to put myself in a box. I was drawn to things that were rustic, I did know that. Technique was very important to me, so I didn’t want to take away from the proper foundation of every cook, but I was drawn to the look of rustic cuisine, the textures and way of building food.

Since you graduated in 1998 you sort of were able to observe the rise and peak of the modernist trend, which is as far opposite as possible from rusticity, which is still here…

Yeah, right! Because people can still identify with it. If you bring something to the plate that’s foaming and bubbling, that’s cool in the moment. But I don’t want all my dishes to do that, you know what I mean? It’s not what everyone grew up on. It doesn’t speak to individuals on a unique basis. If you bring rustic Italian food and rustic Thai food or something, people can still enjoy it, even if they haven’t been introduced to that previously. The foam thing is gimmicky and trendy, and trends never last.

What was food like for you growing up in your family?

It was very, very traditional West Indian food – my whole family’s from Jamaica, so that’s what I ate, and American food was an introduction. I may have been here, but it’s not how I ate. People ate pot roast, and I was like, honestly, what is that? I ate curry goat and oxtails. That was Sunday dinner for me. That was Thanksgiving for me.

Did you feel restricted then, becoming a chef, without ever the option of high end cuisine from your heritage? Despite being this big city that’s supposed to have everything, we don’t have much rustic cuisine that gets to elevate itself.

I don’t think it was limiting, because essentially what I’ve come to realize in my years of cooking is if you understand technique you can cook everything. Everything is essentially a roast or braise or something, and if you understand those ways properly and those steps to take, you can do something that’s foreign to you and do it relatively well. So I didn’t feel limited. It took me a while to get to that train of thought, because when you’re a cook you’re doing things over and over again, and if you’re a person that’s open to criticism you start to notice the mistakes you make and the things that are really successful, and you try to steer towards the things that are really successful. That’s how you develop. And so when I look at the food I grew up eating and the food I’m drawn to and like to cook now, I understand them because I can put them together. I can retrace the steps and find similarities.

On the flip side, did your background give you any fun advantage, with all the ingredients your comfortable with that others may not have been exposed to. I’m sure there are a lot of cooks out there who would have no clue what to do with goat!

I do think that was an advantage for me, definitely. Steps were incorporated in bits and pieces and there are ties between what I’ve grown up with and what I’ve served in my career, but not full on.

Is that something you aspire to?

If I were ever to have a place of my own I would definitely want to incorporate what I grew up upon, but in all honestly it would be a mix of things, because I don’t want to be limited to just that. Let’s just say I was looking for a place I wanted to cook, and there was some sort of up and coming Jamaican restaurant that’s supposed to be awesome. I would be interested, but it’s almost like I already know that. And I don’t really want to just do that; I want to learn. It’s not that I couldn’t learn from that person or that place, but I want my mind to be blown by something that’s a challenge for me.

You started working at Red Rooster with Marcus Samuelsson in 2010. What is unique about his hospitality in the back of house?

He really makes it about more than just food. He mixes food and culture and life, and I think that touches on all of your senses. He’s got this musician coming in, or he’s got an event that he wants you to attend. And he’s very open; he invites all his cooks to places he’s traveling to and events he’s attending. Part of what we were talking about at the Mother Jones event was about cooks coming in that just do their thing and just leave; if you’re not working in a place that makes it about more than that, that’s all it’s ever going to be for you. So that involvement really means a lot. I have friends who have been doing this for ten or twelve years and have never been to any of the Food and Wine events, or the festivals in the parks; they’ve never left the kitchen, they’re in the kitchen all the time. And when I say we’re gonna be participating in GoogaMooga they’re like, “googawho?” When you explain your experiences to them, they’re just, “Man, I’m just in the kitchen.” And you’re in the kitchen, too, but at least you’re doing other things, mixing with people and broadening your network.

Do you see that leaning towards one gender? I’ve had many chefs who are women point out that they just want to put their heads down and work rather than search for a spotlight.

I don’t, but I’ve been doing this for a long time so that answer, for me, has two sides. I do think that women tend to want to come to work and just focus and do their thing. And that probably has a lot to do with the fact that they feel the need to show themselves through their work, and that they’re capable through their work. But the other side of that is just that people look at restaurants as a business, and they’re not thinking beyond the business. Food is about life, it’s about culture. All these things tie together; it’s why we have Taste of Chicago and Food and Wine and festivals people travel all over the world to partake in. They’re important, but a lot of businesses just don’t participate; it’s the same restaurants and the new restaurants that have different ways of cooking that want to be involved. So I think it’s that’s more than women having a tendency to doing just what they do; restaurants are businesses that want to clock in and clock out and make whatever money they’re going to make.

I love how you say that it’s the culture of food because I often feel that our side of this can be a little invasive for chefs who just want to be cooking and not doing press and festivals. Doing festivals for the culture of food on top of promotion is a much more positive intention.

You’re reaching people, you know? Just last week I was having a conversation with a chef friend and we were talking about open kitchens and closed kitchens. Most chefs who are very concerned about reactions and making their customers feel good want to have an open kitchen because they want to see how people feel through their reactions. If someone doesn’t look happy they want to ask what was wrong, what they didn’t like or how they can improve. They are genuinely interested. It’s strange to me that you would have to explain to people why you should go to a festival, because you’re talking with the people, you’re involved, and putting yourself out there. It’s so easy to be lost in New York City. If you’re not involved, how can people be drawn to you?

You can’t be more exposed than this space.

It’s strange because you see that we’re surrounded by glass, but you wouldn’t believe how many people walk by and don’t notice. I think it’s partially because it’s in Lincoln Center and people assume it’s a private space, so even though we’re surrounded by glass and you see food and people, it’s still like, “Come in!” People assume you have to be attending school or a show or something of that nature. So part of what we want to do is let them know it’s okay to walk in off the street. We’ve done demos and managers have gone out to announce them; we do whatever it takes.

What kind of dining experience do you want people to have?

It’s a café, so you walk up to the bar and order, and your food is brought by a runner, which has to be explained to people who walk in. So we have managers stationed at both sides to give everyone a rundown, and people the space is comfortable and hospitable.

How does being inside Lincoln Center affect the menu?

We have to plan a lot on shows; we have to be 100% ready and have a lot of foresight. We get mobbed before shows, so we have a good relationship with the ticketing staff so that if it’s a sold out show so we can have some sort of understanding of how we’re going to get hit.

What’s fun about this experience for you? It’s obviously a challenge to have such a turnover and different experiences throughout the day.

I like the openness of it. I like that I can see where people are, and that I can see their reactions. When they’re happy, they can come right up. I’m not so happy about when they’re like, “Where’s my food?!” Right now it’s a very laid back group, but in the evenings people have somewhere to go, and so you have to be on top. It’s a challenge, but I get bored easily if I don’t have a challenge. You get creative when you’re lacking something, and your imagination takes you far.

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