Every year I challenge myself to add novelty to my holiday celebrations, whether that be with a new recipe, a new product, or simply new activities. Remember that time when everyone went wild for sous vide? How about the air fryer craze? I admit I never hopped on either of those trains—yet. However, I am one hundred percent amused with new-to-me recipes and styles of cuisine. If I am not riding that “new-to-me” train, I am the conductor. It adds novelty to my life. In this feature, I am presenting an opportunity for you to add novelty to your holiday gift list, whether it be on the table with a new rice recipe from Chef JJ Johnson in his new cookbook, “The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table,” or in marinades and cooking bases with the Latin Caribbean-inspired hot sauces and savory adobo seasoning from Maritza Abreu, who founded Pisqueya.
I chatted with both business owners on separate occasions. Read on as I talk about how I picked their brains.
Chef JJ is an author and the owner of the fast casual restaurant, FIELDTRIP, with locations in Harlem and Rockefeller Center. His rice recipes, and his enthralling pilgrimage story written in the opening of his new cookbook, highlight not only the essentials, but also the alternatives in flavor, to making rice. The “Simple Art of Rice” is an excellent resource for trying out all of those rice dishes from around the world, from the arroz gordo from Macau to the djon djon rice from Haiti. Rice has been a staple food for decades across a wide variety of cultures. Why is it not celebrated like pasta is celebrated? Those were the questions in Chef JJ’s head as he went out into the world and sought for himself the questions about rice he wanted to answer.
AmNews: I looked through your new cookbook. It is fantastic! I am looking forward to making the crispy rice salad with quick pickled onion. What inspired you to create a cookbook about rice, and how did your cultural identity play a part in this project?
Chef JJ: I created a cookbook about rice because when I traveled around the world, everybody was celebrating rice. And I was traveling everywhere. I was in Ghana, I was in India, I was in Singapore, I was in Israel, and everybody was celebrating rice through my culinary adventures and even on leisure adventures. I got my identity from growing up around the table. Being a kid made up of the American South, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean, that experience of growing up really shines through the cookbook. It allowed me to tell the untold stories of many cultures from around the world who celebrate rice.
AMN: In your introduction to the cookbook, you write, “I was reminded again and again that everyone has a different point of view about rice.” What was the most surprising tidbit of rice knowledge you found during your research for this cookbook?
CJJ: I learned that wild rice is a grass and it is indeed rice. But growing up in the culinary world, we were taught that wild rice is not rice, and that’s false. Wild rice is one of the original crops of America.
AMN: I listened to the podcast episode you were featured in on “The Splendid Table” hosted by Francis Lam, and you playfully said not everybody can cook it. What are some of your first memories of cooking rice?
CJJ: I was a young kid, probably an early teen. My early memories of rice were coconut rice and peas at the cookout, my Southern grandmother making the perfect pot of steamed rice with Vienna sausage sliced up in it, my aunt Jeanie pouring the gravy from the turkey wings over white rice. Those were some of my many early memories of rice. I was like ten years old, maybe eleven.
AMN: From previously being the executive chef at both The Cecil and Minton’s (now closed) and earning James Beard Awards for your previous cookbook, “Between Harlem and Heaven,” to your fast casual restaurant FIELDTRIP and appearing in food television shows like Cleo TV’s “Just Eats with Chef JJ,” what’s next for Chef JJ? What do you see yourself pursuing in the next three years, food-related or not?
CJJ: I hope to see FIELDTRIP continuously grow. I hope to see more of myself on TV, to grow more in the food space. I hope that in three years when you look at Chef JJ, you don’t only see me as a chef, but you’ll see Chef JJ as a food company. That would be my three year goal.
AMN: Name three people that you would love to rub elbows with at a party or simply collaborate with on a project.
CJJ: I would love to cook for Michelle Obama. I would love to kick it with Drake at a party. And I would love to collaborate with Jeff Staples.
Maritza Abreu is the founder and CEO of Pisqueya, a food company celebrating Latin culture and Dominican flavors. Pisqueya’s “hot like fuego” and “calentón” product line of hot sauces, bbq sauce, and their first all-natural adobo seasoning offer a huge leap up for your cooking. These sauces will not only diversify, but also simplify, your cooking repertoire. Using their sauce is as easy as enjoying it as a condiment to an empanada, adding a tablespoon or two to marinades for meat or veggie proteins, adding a dash or two to the cooking base of rice dishes, stews and soups, or being the main component to the citrusy flavors of ceviches. Pisqueya offers all this and more, and even partnered with UPS to feature their Hot Like Fuego gift box on a huge billboard display in Times Square.
AmNews: In your origin story, you say “soy de aqui y de allá,” meaning “I am from here and from there.” You’re talking about growing up in New York, but having a deep connection to the Dominican Republic, where your parents are from. Where did this sense of responsibility to fill the gap in Dominican representation in the fast-growing food market come from? How has this decision impacted the trajectory of your career?
Maritza Abreu: It comes from love. Not necessarily the romantic kind of love, but truly love of culture through food, through spices, through aromas—all a sensory representation of my family and life. When you experience this kind of secure and grounding love, you naturally want to share it. So the sense of responsibility, ultimately for me, is a way to share what I have experienced as love. When I realized that this wasn’t represented in the food market, I simply had no other choice than to make it happen. When I made this commitment, my career aligned with my passion—Pisqueya.
AMN: Pisqueya sources peppers and oregano from the farmlands of the Dominican Republic. I know how essential oregano is to the cooking of hispanic foods, but I don’t think the rest of the world truly understands the difference between Dominican oregano and the regular dried oregano widely available in all U.S. supermarkets. Did you foresee that incorporating ingredients from the Caribbean into your products would not only play a major role in your brand story, but also impact the success of your business? Do you see the influence of Latin Caribbean cooking growing into markets outside of NYC and other culturally diverse areas? How so?
MA: Again, I truly only stayed true to what I knew. I did know it was a part of the Pisqueya story, but I didn’t think of it as being something intentional. For the success part, I inherently knew that the flavors unique to Pisqueya would resonate based on the experience of seeing years of customer reactions at my family’s restaurant. I do see the influence growing because of the globalization of food trends and the interconnectedness of our world which has made Latin Caribbean flavors more accessible. I also think that the popularity of fusion cuisine has allowed Latin Caribbean ingredients to transcend geographical boundaries.
AMN: You have this respect for the ecology that I presume to say is in alignment with your values. Where did that come from? Tell us how Pisqueya and the product line you offer stays true to this vision for you, your company, and the impact on the world.
MA: I’ll speak to sustainability first. Latin Caribbean culture is essentially rooted in the traditional principles of farm-to-table, celebrating traditions and practices that go back thousands of years. Our clean brand offers recipes without added fillers or high levels of sugar and sodium. All of our products are packaged in glass with recycled labels in efforts to minimize our carbon footprint.
AMN: In your “Entrepreneur” interview, when you knew working for a corporation wasn’t your calling, you described it as a “fire inside” that burned. Now that you’re on the other side of that moment, can you describe what it feels like today?
MA: It feels grounding, scary, exhilarating, and humbling all at once. But knowing that I stayed true to who I am in every sense, I know that Pisqueya will continue to grow!