Less than a year after James Beard Award Winning Chef JJ Johnson opened his fast-casual restaurant Fieldtrip in New York City, the COVID-19 pandemic nearly forced him to close it down. It had all started so promising, including a glowing review from the New York Times that praised the “perfectly cooked fish” included in Johnson’s China black rice bowl. But there he stood in April 2020, wondering how to keep the doors open.
Then his wife Mia, a nurse, suggested he send some of Feildtrip’s creative and popular rice bowls to the overworked staff at Harlem Hospital.
Soon, individuals and corporations caught wind of Johnson’s generosity and began donating money so Fieldtrip could give away more rice bowls. The energy and effort grew, with the eatery eventually delivering more than 150,000 meals to healthcare workers and local Harlemites facing food insecurity.
There were days I walked home with tears in my eyes. There were moments I screamed,” Johnson told The Today Show at the time. “But at the end of the day, I was able to cook another day.”
Through unanticipated circumstances, that experience exemplified the “Rice Is Culture” motto painted on the walls of Fieldtrip, splashed across the website, and defined by Johnson’s Afro-Asian cooking style. With a range of cultures and taste palettes represented on Fieldtrip’s menu, his bowls offered the security of comfort food to a wide swath of Harlem’s diverse population.
Johnson came to view rice as a sort of cultural superfood while growing up in a home with African-American, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean cultural influences and in neighborhoods in New York and The Poconos that were tapestries of diversity. He’s packaged his passion for the grain and some of his favorite ways to cook with it in his new cookbook, The Simple Art of Rice: Recipes from Around the World for the Heart of Your Table.
A beautifully laid out guide to the humble grain and its history, The Simple Art of Rice is packed with recipes from all over the world, from Filipino garlic rice to rice and mushroom potstickers, to herbed shrimp with cilantro lime rice.
One of Johnson’s favorite recipes from the book — and one that he cooks his six-year-old twins Taya and Miles almost every Saturday morning — is his Nutella and strawberry stuffed crepes. The crepe is, unsurprisingly, made with rice flour.
“My kids are big fans of French toast and pancakes,” Johnson says. “And as a chef, I can whip those things up very easily. But eventually, I needed to take them to the next level. So that’s how we got into crepes.”
Crepe mornings are truly a collective effort for Johson and the twins. He fries the thin pancakes; his kids are in charge of stuffing them to their heart’s content. Of course, there’s plenty of sampling along the way, especially from his daughter, who is particularly fond of dipping a strawberry or two directly into the Nutella jar and then straight into her mouth. (Who can blame her?)
Johnson, who became well-known for his Afro-Caribbean cuisine at The Cecil and Minton’s in New York, thrives on creativity, innovation, and connection. Breakfast at home follows the same thesis.
“I use the kitchen as a vessel of play and an area to connect. Making crepes with my kids is fun for me and a chance to really see their personality come through,” he says.
Mornings, he says, are a moment for him and his kids to share together. “It’s a win all the way around because we enjoy the time together, my wife gets to sleep in a bit, and then the kids have fun taking her breakfast in bed.”
So, what is the key to a good crepe? While relatively easy to prepare, it can take a bit of practice to develop the necessary delicate touch for those used to the heft and durability of flapjacks.
“A crepe requires just a very thin layer of batter to coat the pan,” Johnson explains. “It cooks from the bottom up, and then you slide it off and roll it up. So the first key is to coat the bottom of the pan with just a thin layer of batter so that the crepe can cook all the way through.”
Johnson suggests whipping up the batter in a blender jar or food processor after combining the ingredients to achieve the airy texture specific to crepes. The rice flour tends to settle at the bottom of the bowl as the batter stands, so he gives it a quick stir before adding it to the pan for each crepe.
In a restaurant setting, Johnson would take care not to overfill the cooked crepes before rolling, but he eases that standard significantly when cooking with his kids. They tend to stuff their crepes so full of fruit and Nutella to the point where folding them over works better than trying to roll them.
Oh, and speaking of the hazelnut spread, Johnson says it’s worth noting that not all varieties are considered equal. The version found on the shelves of grocery stores in North America is slightly different from that available in the rest of the world. The domestic variety is still delicious, no doubt. But with a lower hazelnut concentration, more added sugar, and an oilier consistency, it lacks the depth of its darker and richer Italian counterpart.
Johnson admits that his kids aren’t Nutella snobs yet. But he knows it’s only a matter of time before they see the light.
Chef JJ Johnson’s Nutella and Strawberry Stuffed Rice Crepes
Makes 8 Crepes
- 1 cup rice flour
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal)
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1½ cups milk, at room temperature
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup Nutella or other hazelnut chocolate spread, plus more if desired
- 1 pint fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced.
- Combine the rice flour, sugar, and salt in a blender jar.
- In a large bowl, beat the eggs with a whisk. Whisk in the milk, vanilla extract, and half of the melted butter. Pour the mixture into the blender jar and blend with the dry ingredients for 2 to 3 minutes until you have a nice, airy batter. Pour the batter back into the large bowl, scraping down the sides of the blender jar to remove it all.
- Heat a nonstick crepe pan or 8-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat. Brush the bottom of the pan with melted butter. Give the batter a quick stir to incorporate any rice flour that has settled at the bottom of the bowl. Pour about ¼ cup of batter into the pan, then quickly tilt and rotate the pan to coat the bottom with a thin layer of batter evenly.
- After about 30 seconds, the crepe should be set on the bottom and starting to bubble on top. Flip it with a thin, preferably offset, spatula and cook on the other side until golden, about 30 seconds longer.
- Using the spatula, transfer the crepe to a serving plate and cover it with an upside-down dinner plate to keep it warm. Repeat the process until you’ve used all the batter, adding more butter to the pan as necessary and slightly overlapping the crepes on the plate as you make them.
- To serve, spread one half of each crepe with Nutella and fold the other half over it. Transfer the crepes to individual serving plates and arrange the strawberries alongside.