Kenneth Johnson is a New Yorker born and bred. He hails from Brooklyn where he first ignited his passion for cooking. Johnson was always cooking for his group of friends and his family. He began working in New York City kitchens in 1989 as a line cook at Bouley. He took that love to the next level when he attended the New York Restaurant School where he graduated in 1989 with honors. Johnson then went on to work at various restaurants in New York including Picholine Restaurant, The Terrace, and Osteria Laguna.
The culinary skills of Kenneth Johnson have not gone unnoticed by his peers. He has been invited to various James Beard House events including the Annual Latka Cook-off and Chefs and Champagne in the Hamptons. He has also prepared banquets for The Prestigious Culinary House Members. Johnson has appeared on several television shows such as Chopped, Pat Bullard Show, CBS Saturday Morning Show, Sara Maulton Dining Around and more.
Kenneth Johnson came to Pescatore Restaurant in 2009 with 20 years of experience under his belt. He is trusted with complete control over the design of the menu, incorporating Italian cuisine with a focus on homemade pastas and flatbreads. Johnson changes menu items seasonally and incorporates local flavor into daily specials. Johnson’s ability is not limited to back of house operations. He plays a key role in the marketing plans of the restaurant and also provides creative input into all front of house operations. Johnson has proven himself to be the perfect fit for Pescatore Restaurant through his creativity, drive and passion for food.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
When I was a young man I used to watch all the cooking shows that were on T.V. (Julie, Jacque, Justin, Frugal Gourmet, Galloping Gourmet)
Have you always had a passion for Italian cuisine? Any other cooking experiences with other Ethnic cuisine?
Even when I was a boy I always gravitated toward Italian, at that time there weren’t too many options.
Where does your creative and inspiration come from?
My creativity comes from fresh products. I try to buy what is in season for a couple of reasons: availability, price and freshness.
In your opinion, what misconceptions do people have coming into a chef position?
How hard can cooking be? We don’t walk through the dining room shaking hands saying “hi there.” Cooking is just one aspect of what we do.
Briefly, what’s a typical day like for you at Pescatore?
Geez! I don’t know, arrive at 10:30, check deliveries, go and check the specials’ board to make sure that we have everything. Then I head to the walk-in and see if there is anything that needs immediate attention. (i.e. soup, sauces, specials). Expedite lunch; again check with our Sous Chef, Necho, and see if we have everything for dinner. Then I set up the specials. Now it’s time to do the ordering, check the produce, dairy, dry, etc. Expedite the dinner shift, do one last sweep of the kitchen, and by 10:30pm, I collapse on my couch.
Tell us about Pescatore’s recent launch of the old concept of social dining to celebrate the restaurant’s 20-year anniversary. What’s the story behind this?
With the 20-year number coming up, we decided to do something significant. So we decided to follow certain trends and commit to a smaller plate concept. With the changing of the neighborhood, it became more necessary. This neighborhood has a lot more restaurants than before, so we had to be able to compete. So far so good.
You play a key role in marketing and creative input at Pescatore. What are some of those responsibilities and how important are they for running a successful restaurant?
I try to give my two cents whenever I can. I have 24 years of experience. I am very personable. I’ll come out to greet customers, also keeping the wait staff on top of the new trends, teaching them about seasonal vegetables, and so on.
What are a few of your most essential ingredients?
Extra virgin olive oil, salt & pepper, grana padana and only the freshest produce in season.
Have a favorite piece of cooking equipment you can’t live without? What do you look for in equipment before you purchase?
Robot Coupe is by far the workhorse of the restaurant. What I really want is a Vita Mix and I wouldn’t be above shamelessly plugging the product to get one.
The restaurant industry has a broad range of foods, what’s your buying approach?
Stay true to the concept and buy when in season.
You’re a Two-Time winner on The Food Network’s “Chopped.” How did you first get on the show and what was the experience like? Did that experience help in any way when you’re in the kitchen?
The Food Network was sending out people to certain restaurants. They came to Pescatore and gave us a card. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it at first. When I decided to do it, we went through the screening process and low and behold, I made it. The experience was incredible. The motivation alone was crazy. It gave me a renewed look on my career. I was having a lot of success early in my career, with lots of press, the Food Network and the James Beard event, and along the way, I became a drunk and fell into a bottle for twelve years. I couldn’t keep a job, friends were deserting me, and my family was fed up. Along came the news I was becoming a grandfather and I said, “she will not see me like this.” So I changed my life, resurrected my career, and now the future looks so bright.
What bit of advice can you offer to young chefs just starting in this business?
First, FOCUS. I truly mean this. Focus on what is important to you. To become successful, you need to make a commitment and stick to it.
Then, become a voracious reader. When I first started in this business, I would read anything that had food stories. Magazines, books, menus… While riding the subway I would write menus. Finally, learn the seasons. It’s very important to know this so you can start writing seasonal menus.
And lastly have fun. If you are not having a good time, how can you make sure your guests are having a good time?