Chef JJ Johnson on Creating Your Own Traditions and Starting Noche Buena Early

FOODBy 2023-12-19T14:03:21-05:00December 14th, 2023|
  • Chef JJ Johnson prepping Pasteles at Marcello Hernández’s 200% Noche Buena hosted by Buchanan's Whisky.

When Chef JJ Johnson released “The Simple Art of Rice” in the fall, his Instagram DMs were flooded with messages like, “Oh my God, you are really Puerto Rican.”

The cookbook, spotlighting the grain’s versatility across cultures everywhere from Africa to the Middle East, opened a window into the James Beard Award winner’s Latin roots with recipes for arroz con guandules and asopoa.

Johnson recently co-hosted a Noche Buena themed-dinner with Saturday Night Live cast member Marcello Hernández in New York City. The intimate night celebrated the comedian’s participation in Buchanan’s Whisky’s “We are the Spirit of the 200%.” Hernández, known for his viral SNL skits with Bad Bunny and Pedro Pascal, is one of the several faces of the campaign championing their equally Hispanic and American identities. When Buchannan’s plugged Johnson to kick off the brand’s “Family Cena, Vibra Buena” series, he found the concept of the initiative campaign affirming.

Johnson’s childhood in his Puerto Rican grandmother’s kitchen inspired his interest in becoming a chef and despite not being fluent in Spanish, he takes great pride in his Afro-Latin background. A Pennsylvania native with a lineage spanning the Caribbean and US South, he was eager to team up with Hernandez to create a culinary experience that paid homage to the commonalities within their home kitchens while incorporating the nuances of their respective identities.

Chef JJ cooks for Marcello Hernandez’s 200% Noche Buena Dinner. Hosted by Buchanan’s Whisky.

“I think there’s a lot of people like me that have Latino heritage and are mixed Black or Asian, and the only time that they come around their heritage is around food and music,” Johnson told LATINA. “Because they might not speak Spanish, that’s their way to let people know I’m Latino, I cook this or I dance this way.”

The evening captured the cozy familiarity of la sala with a dominoes table in the corner, the nutty earthy aroma of boiling pasteles in the air, and guests bopping in their seats and at the bar to contemporary salsa and merengue remixes from DJ Bembona. Hernandez’s friends, families and fellow comedians feasted on plates Johnson hadn’t served for the public before.

DJ Bembona throwing down 200% sounds at Marcello Hernández’s 200% Noche Buena Dinner.

“It really makes me feel good because most of this menu I cook on Noche Buena at my parents’ house to keep my grandmother alive,” the chef said.

Nostalgic comfort foods commonly found around Latin tables during the winter holiday season were in abundance. Canapes inspired by Puerto Rican street food included salty bacalaito cod fritters that left a trace of grease on the fingers, and savory yuca bites topped with tender and just fatty enough chicharon.

To preserve culture and connection to their history, many families feel beholden to Noche Buena traditions that have been passed down for decades. While Johnson made sure to honor many of the holiday’s classics, he also took the liberty of infusing his own spin. He believes that upholding cherished customs doesn’t have to mean not accommodating shifting dietary needs or preferences, and having one family member carry the burden of hosting responsibilities forever.

“It’s okay to have a vegan or vegetarian Noche Buena, it’s okay to do no pork. It’s okay to say, ‘I don’t want rice this year.’ It’s okay to say, ‘Let’s potluck it,’” he said.

Johnson opted to omit the pork typically found in arroz con guandules, and vegan empanadas with imperfect crust were stuffed with Meati mushroom filling reminiscent of ground beef cooked in a tangy sazón. A rotation of carving stations made their way through the room, one featuring a roasted cauliflower. He didn’t mess with the pernil, though; its crispy sweet skin remained intact. The coquito and Johnson’s sister’s pudin de pan recipe had extra smoky notes from Buchanan’s whisky, instead of rum, giving the sweets a smooth kick.

Chef JJ Johnson’s Churros with Buchanan’s Chocolate Drizzle and Budín de Pan at the dessert table during Marcello Hernández’s Noche Buena Dinner.

Normally white rice-averse, Johnson made an exception for Hernández who has strong feelings about how the side should be served. “I don’t put beans on seasoned rice so you can really taste the beans,” the comedian said.

A pollo guisado inspired by Hernández’s family made it on the table, too, and it didn’t disappoint.

“I sent him a million things, and he made the perfect selection. My Cuban mom, my Dominican cousin, my Dominican friends, everybody loved it,” he said.

Chef JJ Johnson, Radel Ortiz and Marcello Hernández at his 200% Noche Buena.

Johnson’s skill for serving approachable yet inventive food has gotten him far. The Culinary Institute of America graduate, known for leading the African-diaspora-inspired kitchens at Harlem’s Minton’s and Cecil, has nods to Puerto Rican cuisine at his rice-forward fast-casual chain FieldTrip open since 2019. The spot’s bowls have some plantains here and yuca chips there, but he hasn’t always felt confident about introducing all of his favorite bold Latin dishes.

“As much as I wanna put pasteles on the menu, I’m like, will people understand pasteles even though they’re so delicious?” Johnson said.

The coveted holiday staple that can be traced back to the Caribbean’s indigenous Taíno people, was front and center at “Family Cena, Vibra Buena.” A takeout station setup made it easy for guests to bring some home. Their moist plantain filling and tender chicken maintained the integrity of the dumplings known for being a labor of love as they came out of pots of piping hot water in the venue’s open prep kitchen. You’d never guess the banana-leaf wrapped masa was made in a food processor instead of by hand.

Johnson doesn’t think the criticism he’s received in the past from older generations for opting not to use the old school pasteles method is fair.

“You’re gonna shame me ’cause I use a food processor? Like, I have what you didn’t have back then!” he said. “As a trained chef, I’m gonna do something different than my grandmother. But the goal is for me to have all the heart and soul and the rhythm moving through the food so when you taste it, you can feel it.”

Johnson encourages others to proactively dig into their family’s recipes to gain the foundational knowledge to carry the torch of Noche Buena on their terms before it’s too late.

“You don’t want that to die out because you don’t remember how to make that recipe,” he said. “Then everybody’s complaining it doesn’t taste this way.”

There is one part of the holiday Johnson would like to do away with. Opening presents at midnight usually means not eating until late. “We could eat a regular dinner and still be Noche Buena,” he said. “The [doctors] tell us we shouldn’t eat at 9:30 p.m. anyway.”

Find recipes for some of Chef JJ’s favorite Noche Buena recipes below.

Arroz con gandules (Puerto Rican) from “The Simple Art of Rice”

Arroz con gandules. Photo by Beatriz da Costa.

Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 56 minutes
Total time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Serves: 6 to 8

● 3 cups uncooked long-grain rice
● 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
● 3 tablespoons green sofrito
● 4 ounces tomato sauce
● 1⁄2 lb smoked ham, cut into chunks
● 1/3 cup green olives stuffed with pimento
● 1 (1.41 ounces) packet sazón with Achiote
● 1 (1.41ounces) packet ham flavoring
● 1 teaspoon adobo
● 1 teaspoon garlic powder
● 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
● 1/2 teaspoon ground oregano
● 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
● 1 (15 ounces) can pigeon peas, rinsed and drained
● 23 cups water

Rinse the rice in a large bowl with cool running water until the water runs clear. Strain into a
fine-mesh sieve and shake off excess water. Heat a large Dutch (6-quart) oven pot to medium
heat and add oil. Gently fry sofrito in oil for 3 minutes or until fragrant. Stir in tomato sauce, ham
and green olives, and simmer for 3 minutes. Add sazón with achiote, ham flavoring, adobo, garlic
powder, cumin oregano and salt. Stir until all seasonings are dissolved. Add rice and pigeon
peas. Stir to combine and add water. Bring to a boil and stir constantly for 5 minutes. Reduce
heat to low and simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for 30 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the
rice dish steam for 15 minutes.

Noche Buena Pasteles

Chef JJ’s Pasteles Meet Buchanan’s Coquito for Noche Buena.

Yield: 15-20 Servings
Active Time: 90 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours

For the dough — Make in a food processor
2 sweet, ripe plantains, peeled
2 green plantains, peeled
1 cup whole milk
1 yucca, approximately 1 pound, peeled and cut into chunks
1⁄2 kabocha squash, peeled, seeded and cut into chunks
1⁄2 bunch cilantro
1 Tbs. fresh oregano
1 large Spanish or white onion, quartered
5 cloves garlic
5 sweet green or multi-colored Dominican peppers
1⁄2 lb. butter at room temperature
1 packet Goya Sazón with Achiote
Salt to taste

For the Filling
Canola or other neutral oil for cooking
8 boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 packet (about 1 tsp) Goya Sazón with Achiote
1 10 oz jar green olives with pimentos, drained
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups chicken stock or water
salt and pepper to taste
banana leaves
parchment paper


(Serves 15)
· 21 oz Buchanan’s Deluxe 12YR
· 14 oz sweetened condensed milk
· 12 oz evaporated milk
· 15 oz cream of coconut
· 0.5 oz vanilla extract
· 1 tsp ground cinnamon
garnish: grated nutmeg
glassware: rocks glass

Mix the Buchanan’s DeLuxe 12 YR, sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, cream of coconut, vanilla extract and ground cinnamon, stir until combined and chill before serving.

Leah Rodriguez is a writer living in New York City covering food, culture and women’s rights.