Chef de Cuisine Joseph Johnson admits he’s always loved cooking with fire, which comes in quite handy for his role at Charcoal Venice, the neighborhood restaurant from Mélisse Chef/Owner Josiah Citrin, that’s centered around live-fire cuisine. This opportunity not only allows him to helm the kitchen, but also to apply the exacting standards he learned from his mentor in a more casual, down-to-earth setting. Noting he feels a strong emotional connection to his craft, Johnson says of his personal culinary philosophy, “I like to let the quality of the raw ingredients speak for themselves without too much manipulation. Although I may add complementary flavors to enhance the ingredient, I want guests to taste the purity of these fresh farmers’ market items.” For presentation, Johnson considers functionality as well as aesthetics, plating sauces and accouterments in places where they are more likely to complement one another in a single bite.
Johnson has had a passion for cooking since he was a kid, learning the basics from his Southern grandmother. “I never realized it at the time, but I remember her teaching me how to scramble eggs when I was 12, and her technique was classic French.” Johnson began his professional career at the age of 16, washing dishes at a hotel restaurant near his hometown of Petersburg, VA. Bored with that task, the teenager persuaded the chefs and line cooks to let him do more in the kitchen, and Johnson eventually worked his way up to executive chef at the hotel before he even turned 19. He continued to oversee the kitchen there until he was 22, but yearned to expand his culinary horizons.
After a vacation in Los Angeles, Johnson decided to move to Southern California. Anxious to refine his cooking skills, he enrolled in the Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena, where he graduated in 2012. During culinary school, Johnson worked at the Pasadena Hilton and served an externship at Savory in Malibu under James Beard Award-winning chef Paul Shoemaker.
When Savory closed, Shoemaker recommended that his young protégé consider Mélisse in nearby Santa Monica. After staging one night at the restaurant, Johnson proved his value and was hired as a garde manger cook at Citrin’s bastion of modern French cuisine. Learning as much as he could from Citrin, and volunteering for every special event, Johnson moved up the ranks rapidly at the two Michelin-star restaurant, ascending to the position of sous chef in just over a year. At Mélisse, Johnson learned from Citrin never to be satisfied with an item on the menu, even if it was a staple. “Chef Josiah taught me to constantly innovate, seeking perfection in every dish,” he says.
When he’s not in the kitchen, the young chef enjoys archery, martial arts, discovering new foods in Southern California, and searching for the kind of soulful Southern cooking his grandmother used to him back home. He also co-founded his own apron line, Cork District, with friend Gary Nguyen, which offers their handcrafted design on multifaceted and modern aprons suited for everyday kitchen needs—both at home and in the professional arena. A customized line of his aprons will be worn the culinary staff and servers at Charcoal.