JJ Johnson thinks rice is the “greatest connector.”
“When traveling the world, I realized rice was alway at the center of tables, at a high-end or low-end restaurant,” the chef says. “Anywhere in the world, everyone was eating rice.”
The James Beard Award-winning writer and Eater Young Gun has spent a good part of the last few years researching the grain and different heirloom strains from around the world. That rice now makes up the bulk of the menu at his fast-casual rice bowl restaurant FieldTrip, opening today in Harlem at 109 Lenox Ave., between 115th and 116th streets.
There’s crispy chicken paired with Carolina gold rice, edamame, and sticky barbecue sauce; braised beef with Texas brown rice, spicy black beans, and turmeric yogurt; and Chinese black rice topped with salmon, pineapple edamame, and piri piri sauce. All of his rice is non-enriched, non-bleached, and sourced directly from farmers who mill the grain themselves, which Johnson receives with the husk and germ on and keeps refrigerated. It makes for a laborious process, but one that Johnson thinks matters.
“You just cant get that anywhere else,” he says. “Chefs do use Carolina gold rice in a very high-end restaurant, but not in an everyday place.”
An everyday place is precisely what he wants FieldTrip to be — a community spot for Harlem residents to get nutritious food on the go, he hopes. That’s why bowls are kept under $12, drinks at $6, and half-sized and half-cost kids meals are offered. Harlem-themed music from artists with connections to the neighborhood plays in the background.
“Hopefully FieldTrip will help do the same thing that Sweetgreen or Shake Shack did when they opened up in their community and helped shape a culture to eat better and be healthier,” he says.
Though he says he’s “not here to get ahead of myself” with trying to get the same scale as those behemoth brands, they are a telling comparison for his goals. Johnson has long approached his career with lofty ambitions. He made his name in NYC as the executive chef at the Cecil in Harlem, and has since opened his own hospitality group and a full-service restaurant Henry at the Life Hotel — and landed that James Beard Award for best American cookbook in 2019.
While he executes his other projects, his business partner Samantha Davis will be running the kitchen at FieldTrip. The two developed the menu together after Davis joined his team five years ago from now-closed Birds & Bubbles.
FieldTrip is the latest grain bowl restaurant to hit New York City, though this one predominately focuses on rice. This past winter, Teranga also opened in Harlem, and of course, Dig Inns dot the city. The restaurant’s 1,100-square-foot space is centered around an open kitchen and seats 20 with an additional six tables for standing.
FieldTrip is now open Wednesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.