"It's so easy to be lost in New York City. If you're not involved, how can people be drawn to you?

Chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley at American Table Cafe and Bar

[Photographs: Brent Herrig]

We were introduced to Charlene Johnson-Hadly a few weeks ago at a panel discussion at Marcus Samuelsson's Ginny's Supper Club. The discussion focused on minorities in restaurant kitchens and, as a woman with Jamaican roots, Johnson-Hadly had plenty to talk about.

A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in 1998, she cooked in many kitchens before trekking up from Brooklyn to Harlem in 2010. Now she's the executive chef of Samuelsson's American Table Café and Bar in Lincoln Center, presenting upscale comfort food in a relaxed setting for an often un-relaxing clientele.

Chef Charlene Johnson-Hadley at American Table Cafe and Bar

What food did you want to make after graduating from cooking school? I didn't have an idea; I just wanted to be involved. Everything was pretty much new to me, and the food industry seemed so vast that I wanted to just explore it and not put myself in a box. I was drawn to things that were rustic, I did know that. Technique was very important to me, but I was drawn to the look of rustic cuisine, the textures and way of building food.

What was food like for you growing up in your family? It was very, very traditional West Indian food—my whole family's from Jamaica, so that's what I ate. Others had pot roast while I ate curry goat and oxtail. That was Sunday dinner for me.

Did that background help in any way? I do think that was an advantage for me, definitely. Steps were incorporated in bits and pieces and there are ties between what I've grown up with and what I've served in my career, but not full on. I would be interested in cooking more Jamaican food professionally, but it's almost like I already know that. And I don't really want to just do that; I want to learn.

Brisket at American Table Cafe and Bar

Braised brisket.

You started working at Red Rooster with Marcus when it opened in 2010. What was unique about working there? He really makes it about more than just food. He mixes food and culture and life, and I think that touches on all of your senses. And he's very open; he invites all his cooks to places he's traveling to and events he's attending.

Do you see a gender divide in which cooks help out at these festivals? So many woman chefs have told me they'd prefer to put their heads down and cook rather than seek out the spotlight. I don't, but I've been doing this for long enough that I see two sides. I do think that women tend to want to just focus and do their thing, which probably has a lot to do with showing your skills through your work. But restaurants are also a business, and cooks need to think about that business beyond their everyday work.

Food is about life, it's about culture. All these things tie together; it's why we have festivals people travel all over the world to partake in. They're important, but a lot of businesses just don't participate. So I think it's that's more than women having a tendency to just doing what they do; restaurants are businesses that want to clock in and clock out and make whatever money they're going to make.

Pulled Pork at American Table

Doro Wat Chilaquiles

Events get press, but how else do they impact a business? You're reaching people, you know? Just last week I was having a conversation with a chef friend about open and closed kitchens. Most chefs concerned about the diners' experience want an open kitchen so they can watch reactions. They're genuinely interested in knowing how the customer feels. It's so easy to be lost in New York City. If you're not involved, how can people be drawn to you?

You can't be more exposed than this space. I like the openness of it. I like that I can see where people are, and their reactions. When they're happy, they can come right up. Right now it's very laid back, but in the evenings people have somewhere to go and so you have to be on top of it. It's a challenge, but I get bored easily if I don't have a challenge. You get creative when you're lacking something, and your imagination takes you far.

About the author: Jacqueline Raposo writes about people who make food and cooks a lot of stuff. Read full versions of past interviews and more at www.WordsFoodArt.com or tweet her out at @WordsFoodArt.

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