JJ Johnson wants you to eat rice. The New York City-based chef and James Beard Award-winning author operates a restaurant in Harlem called Fieldtrip, a community-driven enterprise founded in 2019 where rice is the center of attention. It’s here that rice is celebrated, in all shapes and forms. All the menu items are influenced by a singular grain of rice, many of which are sourced from around the world. This focus on rice, JJ explains, is not something Americans often get excited about. But he is adamant that Fieldtrip is here to help change that mindset.
“When I was traveling the world cooking in Ghana, Singapore, and Israel, people [in those countries] are celebrating rice, they’re really excited about the rice dish that comes out,” JJ says. “Whereas here in the United States, rice is very eh.”
Why is rice not as popular in the United States as, say, pasta? JJ explains that it’s all chalked up to the media—who alert the country that rice isn’t good for us, that it’s enriched and bleached and packed with gluten, when, in fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Rice is nutritional, a great addition to any diet, naturally gluten-free, and JJ notes that cultures whose dietary foundation rely on rice actually live for a long time. Plus, rice doesn’t just stop at white rice. There are tons of varieties—from black and red rice to arborio and basmati—and JJ hopes consumers will become more familiar with rice’s multiplicity.
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At Fieldtrip, the slogan is ‘rice is culture.’ “It connects us all,” JJ says. “We all have grown up on a rice dish or a specific rice grain.” JJ pays homage to that sentiment by offering up a host of bowls and salads, each starring a variety of grains. Crispy chicken, slick with sticky BBQ sauce, arrives flush with Carolina Gold fried rice. A warming seafood gumbo swimming with shrimp, scallops, okra, and chicken sausage is peppered with red rice. Even dessert gets its turn with rice: puffy pillows of soft serve are infused with rice milk.
“I’m just trying to bring some respect back to rice,” JJ says.
Fieldtrip’s sense of community doesn’t just end with its diversity and celebration of rice. During the pandemic, JJ shifted Fieldtrip from simply a restaurant into a space that served Harlem’s essential workers. At the beginning of March, when everything was shutting down and hospitals were beginning to be inundated with patients, JJ’s wife, a nurse, came home one night having not eaten all day—because she just hadn’t had time to stop working.
“I was thinking, ‘What about the local hospitals by us? What about Harlem Hospital, Metropolitan, St. Luke’s—are they getting run over too? Are the nurses and doctors not eating?’” JJ says.
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So he started donating his famous rice bowls. And it snowballed from a mere 40 meals at Harlem Hospital Center to 120 meals. Over the past few weeks, Fieldtrip has donated 2,500 meals a week, spread out between local hospitals, essential workers, the Boys and Girls Club, and Harlem families in need.
Looking toward the rest of the summer, JJ and his team are continuing to prepare meals for the Harlem community. If you’re not local, but still want to help, Fieldtrip is accepting contributions to support their mission of supplying children and families with healthy hot meals. For every $8 donated, Fieldtrip will provide a hot meal to a child in need, and for every $40, the team is able to donate fresh produce boxes (filled with food to cook for a week), along with three of Fieldtrip’s rice bowls to families. Over the course of the pandemic, Fieldtrip has served 50,000 people, with the goal of reaching 100,000.
“We really are putting our arms around Harlem and the community,” JJ says, “figuring out how to give nutritional food access to people in need in these times.”
Header image by Briana Balducci.