Change is a constant at the loftiest realms of the culinary profession, and so it is again on West 57th Street in Manhattan. “We’re integrating new items into the menus and developing new presentations, which is exciting to do at such a large-scale operation,” says John Johnson, who arrived as Executive Chef at Four Seasons Hotel New York on the first day of spring 2012. “The thing for me is to focus the food to appeal to our guests while featuring the amazing ingredients our region has to offer. Standing out is the challenge, as there no other dining destination like New York.”
As with most Four Seasons hotels these days, New York’s finest property has placed a priority on utilizing fresh local and sustainable ingredients. Johnson, who fashions menus for The Garden and Ty Bar as well as for events and room service, quickly introduced a new healthy breakfast menu focus for health conscious diners. “They know what they’re looking for,” he says, adding that maintaining seasonality can be a trial with the most tradition-based meal of the day. “People forget that melons aren’t seasonal and you can’t always get the pick of the peach.”
Fortunately, the Hotel’s reputation for buying quality assures that Johnson always has plenty to work with. "Four Seasons brings many things to the chef’s table,” he explains. “I’m working with some of the finest ingredients in the world and serving some of the finest customers in the world.” Indeed, Johnson’s clientele changes constantly, with weekdays drawing business and international travellers and weekends populated by the leisure crowd. The variation enables him to get creative, especially with casual food.
Though his last gig before joining Four Seasons was in Atlantic City, Johnson has lots of experience in New York. In the early 1990s he was a chef tournant under Geoffrey Zakarian at 44 at The Royalton Hotel, which doubled as a canteen for the glamorous crowd from Condé Nast and launched the genre of hotel restaurants as places to see and be seen. He also spent a few years at Patroon, which achieved two separate 3-star reviews from the New York Times during his tenure.
Johnson was also at Town at the Chambers Hotel. “That really taught me respect for ingredients,” he says of his eight-year run as executive chef. “We went to the market every two days and worked with a wide range of local farmers and co-ops in Vermont and New York State.” Lesson? “Focus on the ingredients – maybe three or four per dish – and don’t use too many tricks.”
Actually, ingredients have long been a focus for Johnson. Growing up in a quiet rural zip code in New Jersey, he spent afternoons in the kitchen with his grandmother – “something was always cooking” – and went hunting, fishing and lobstering with his family. “I wanted to be a cook from the time I was five.” His first jobs were on the Jersey shore, where he worked his way up from dishwasher to prep cook and, finally, to cook. All that hard work paid off as he saved up enough to buy his first car, a red ’55 Chevy Bel Air.
Years later, Johnson is still working hard, and he still owns that ’55 Chevy. “I’m definitely a Jersey driver,” he admits – bold words for a resident of a city that doesn’t suffer such motorists gladly. “I always keep right except to pass.”