Meet Chef India Johnson this Thursday, February 24th inside the Epicurean in Midtown at 7:00 PM to experience some unique dish pairings with Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Chef Johnson shares more about her background and love for food and Southern hospitality. You can purchase your ticket to this charity event that will benefit the Shular Institute here:
Dawn: Let’s talk about how long you’ve been a chef! Was it something you sought out to do? Or was it something that you just fell in love with?
Chef India: Absolutely! So my journey is pretty interesting. I started out as a young adult in corporate America, and just didn’t love that. But I come from a family of cooks and bakers; my dad is actually a chef. So, just kind of growing up around food.
I eventually started cooking for friends and family. People thought I was a great cook so, you know, I went through college just like everybody else. And then I was just like, “Okay, I’m interested in cooking; should I go to culinary school?” I realized that I didn’t really want to pay — like, I don’t want to start all over from scratch with tuition and stuff with going to school.
I befriended some chefs and cooks in the industry and local restaurants. I started working with other chefs, going to events just to see how events worked. Eventually, I started doing my own events.
But career wise, as far as Culinary and Hospitality, I actually started out as a winemaker. My dad is a hobbyist, where he makes wine out of everything. I kind of grew up around that, and I fell in love with wine. When I was in corporate America, I used to travel a lot. I went to different cities. I spent a lot of time in California, just visiting wineries and learning how the industry worked. My ultimate goal, initially, was to have my own winery facility.
But in the south, especially in the early 2000s, there’s like a lot of red tape with alcohol and liquor licenses and stuff. I spent some time in Florida, but came back to Atlanta in 2009 with the idea that I was going to open up a concept like that and it just didn’t work.
I worked with a consulting company, and they were just like, “If you want to do something like this, it’s going to take a lot of cutting red tape and, like, a million dollars.” And I was like, “Oh, okay, well, I don’t have that so let’s see what else I can do.”
I really started doing food-based events full-time in 2010. From 2010 until now, I’ve worked with other chefs, helping out on their events. That’s led to more popularity, especially since social media has grown. I’ve utilized social media to put my food out there, so people tend to contact me for stuff all the time. That’s really how my career has flourished over the last several years.
Dawn: Do you have a restaurant? And what type of Chef are you?
Chef India: I am a local private chef. I specialize in doing events and working with brands. I’m not a restaurant chef, but I do a lot of events here in the city.
Dawn: Where did you go to school? Did you do formal training for this?
Chef India: My education is interesting. I’m originally from New York, then I spent some of my teenage years in the Carolinas with my mom’s side of the family. I graduated high school in Asheville, North Carolina, which is like three hours from Atlanta.
I wasn’t a native, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do as a young adult. I knew several people from North Carolina that migrated down to Atlanta, and we had visited a few times. So I was like, “Okay, I’ll go school down there.” Then it was trying to figure out where I wanted to go to school.
I got accepted to many schools; I mean, every school here in Atlanta, you name it. Spelman was one I got accepted to, but I just really wasn’t a school person. Actually, I hated school. The idea of going to college and really not knowing what I wanted to do, I just wasn’t with that.
I took some time off, got a regular job, and then I eventually went to DeVry [University] and finished out in the smaller technology school. I have a Computer Network Technology degree that I have never used.
Once I got that and kind of went into the workforce, I don’t know. I mean, I just started playing around with things like cooking and stuff at home. Like, I don’t have a formal education in culinary. I’m really naturally great at it. And once I started working with other chefs, it was kind of like a no-brainer for me. I knew I was capable of working in this industry. And I’ve been doing it since 2010.
Dawn: How did you get selected to be a part of this event?
Chef India: Chef Josh reached out to me. You know, the chef industry in Atlanta is pretty interesting. A lot of chefs here are doing a lot of different things. We all tend to follow each other online, social media wise, so I’ve been following him for a while. I’m familiar with the work that he’s done. He does a lot with events, and he obviously follows me as well. We all support each other, you know, high fives when we see each other doing great work. I guess I was just a chef he always wanted to work with.
When this event came about, he reached out to me via social. We talked about it, he asked me if I was interested, and I said, “Hey, this is kind of right up my alley — working with alcohol brands was something I’m very familiar with.” I used to be the resident chef for a Martell Cognac project for two years. They had a property here where they did private events, like every week.
Dawn: The loft? Yes, I’ve been to a couple of those events. That was amazing!
Chef India: Yeah! Yeah, I’m sad that will never come back. It was a good time with the events we were doing. It really put me out there in front of people, showcasing what I could do food-wise and working with Martell. That was pretty cool!
Since then, I’ve worked with Patrón and Courvoisier. Alcohol brands are always looking for unique events, which require food, so I tend to get those calls when those events are being planned for. I recently did some work with Bacardi. This [event] was a no-brainer with it being Woodford.
Dawn: What’s your specialty? What type of foods do you focus on? What’s your thing?
Chef India: My thing is not having a thing. I can cook whatever. I’m originally from New York. My dad’s from Trinidad and my mom is from down south. When I say “my thing”, it’s usually Southern and Caribbean mixed. It’s usually a fusion. Like, the dish I’m doing is a duck curry dish for this event. I’m fusing a lot of my Southern and my Caribbean roots together.
When it comes down to my career, or my thing, it could vary. I’m like, “Okay, what’s the thing we’re going for?” when it comes to my clients and people that I’m working with on the type of food that they want. I’m pretty custom when it comes to stuff like that.
I’m very creative and artistic. People tend to call me avant-garde. I like to do different things with ingredients that people are familiar with. You know, I’m going for flavor and color. I’m going for texture. I’m not one of those chefs that make things really pretty but it doesn’t taste great.
I try to find a balance between all those things, but I love everything. I mean, I love Asian cuisine. I love pastas. I love seafood. When it comes down to the events that I do for myself, and I really want to showcase my skills or talent, it’s usually a mix between African American and Caribbean cuisine.
Dawn: Can you share a little bit of what you’re probably going to cook at this event? Or is that going be a secret?
Chef India: I can tell you what I am making — it’s not top secret to me. This event is called “Made with Love & Soul.” When we first met with Josh and the other chefs, he assigned us a category.
My category is “Fly” which means chicken, or anything that has wings. I’m a big fan of duck. People really sleep on duck a lot; either they’ve never had it, or if they have, it wasn’t prepared to their liking. I like cooking duck for people that don’t get to experience it a lot, because it can be really good if you cook it well.
With getting that category, I decided to go with duck. From there, it’s like, how can I create a dish that has to be small? Because we’re going for like, two, three ounces. So we’ll try something at each station, but it’ll still be filling. I wanted to come up with something that would let what I do shine, which is kind of like African American Caribbean cuisine.
My dad’s from Trinidad, and in Trinidad, curry duck is actually like a specialty. It’s a dish that is made for celebrations; if someone’s getting married, or something big is happening amongst family, they’ll make curry duck. It’s a process. It’s a lot. It’s like a stew-ish type dish. I wanted to do something kind of modern where I’m taking those flavors like curry and duck but doing it a different way.
I’m actually going to make a sous vide duck breast with curry, with a custom curry seasoning that I’m making. Another popular thing over there in Trinidad is they eat dhal, which is like yellow split peas in a rice mix. So, dhal and rice. In my head, dhal and rice quickly turned into .. grits.
So now, I’m doing a curry duck breast over, like, dhal grits with some things on top. You know, some added flavors and stuff. I’m really excited. For me, when I think of stuff, it’s usually something that I’ve never made before. I’ve never made curry duck in this matter before.
So, for me, it’s like a creative process coming up with something that’s like, “Oh, okay, that sounds cool.” In my head, I can envision it. From there, it’s doing it in a way that when people taste it, it’s like, “Okay, I didn’t miss the mark. I got it.” Getting into that creative process is pretty exciting every time I do it. I’m excited about this event and kind of showcasing that edition and seeing how people feel about it.
Dawn: How can people book you or find you on social media?
Chef India: I’m pretty easy to find. My Instagram is @Chefindia.co. You can go to my website Chefindia.co. Instagram is primarily where people find me. I engage with people in regards to either working with me or wanting to see my food style.
Instagram is what I use as my portfolio and that’s where people can find me the most. I also have my own sauce brand called Sauce Queen. If you’re interested in condiments, I have a honey hot sauce right now that I am actively selling on Saucequeen.co.