Chef Todd Johnson
“Chef Todd Johnson is a rising star in Richmond’s culinary realm . . . “ Style Weekly magazine.
Much of what makes Todd Johnson a great chef today happened years ago back in Martinsville, Virginia. Todd grew up playing basketball, football and soccer with his older brothers, so he had to push himself hard to compete with the older kids. That habit of playing at the top of his game around the big boys stayed with him long after leaving the school yard and set the pattern of his culinary career.
Years later, while focusing on the marketing side of the business degree he was earning at NC State University, Todd took a basic kitchen job to support himself. That was all it took to light the spark of what would be his life’s avocation. He loved the sports-like camaraderie generated by the restaurant command structure, so he pushed himself to be the best he could be for the team.
After graduation, Todd went looking for a good kitchen with a great chef who could teach him the basics of cooking. The search led him to The Trellis, a Williamsburg, Virginia restaurant proudly holding its place in the Nation’s Restaurant News Fine Dining Hall of Fame. For the next two years, Todd blossomed under the careful tutelage of the restaurant’s chef/owner, author and TV personality, Chef Marcel Desaulniers. Our aspiring young cook was now, in fact, learning from one of biggest names in the culinary world. In 2000, Chef Desaulniers pushed Todd to enroll in the Culinary Institute of America, where Desaulniers serves as a Trustee Emeritus and a Life Fellow.
With a mind to explore how the rest of the world cooked, Todd Johnson went abroad before enrolling in cooking college. On a trip to Germany’s Black Forest, Todd met Chef Karl Hodapp, executive chef at Gasthof Rebstock. Todd then worked the balance of his 3-month visa in Kappelrodeck-Waldulm, learning technique and the magic of great local ingredients from Hodapp.
For his Culinary Institute-required internship, Todd headed west to experience first hand what was fast becoming Alice Waters’ “locally grown, organic food movement.” Then it was back to New York to finish his culinary degree.
Todd began a fascination with Asian tapas as an intern back at Roppongi restaurant in La Jolla, California, but it was his two years as Sous Chef to Wolfgang Puck in the famed Spago restaurant in Maui that cemented his affectionate relationship with Asian cuisine.
For the following year, Chef Johnson set off on a journey to “eat his way through the Far East!” While lingering in kitchens in Thailand, Viet Nam, Laos, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and even India, Chef Johnson began to dream of owning his own restaurant. Todd’s first landing spot back on the East Coast of America was Wilmington, but North Carolina just didn’t feel like the right fit for the restaurant he envisioned.
Todd Johnson’s vision of what he wanted in the home of his new restaurant was very specific and it didn’t take long before he realized that Richmond, Virginia had it all. The sophistication of Richmond diners coupled with their unwavering support of independently owned restaurants was very enticing. With an aim to “take the pulse of the city” and get settled into “the new neighborhood,” Chef Johnson helped Steve Jurina get Lulu’s restaurant started “down in the Bottom,” Shockoe Bottom, that is.
Restaurant critic, Joseph W. Cates once wrote that the key to sustainably great food in Richmond was “whenever possible, to choose ingredients raised here in Virginia. The results include less pollution from transportation, the preservation of farmland nearby, and delicious food fresh from our own rivers, our bay, our shores and our fields.” Mr. Cates also wrote, “Food isn’t about ideas. It’s about farms and farmers, plants and animals, harvests and shipping, knives and fire, love and comfort.”
On Labor Day Weekend 2008, Chef Todd Johnson inked the deal that made him a Richmond restaurant owner and Mezzanine was born. For the next eight months, Todd built relationships with local farmers and suppliers so that he could remain true to the what all of his mentors taught him about good, fresh local ingredients.
From the days of his childhood when his mom made it a priority to consistently put well-balanced, nutritious meals on the table for her family; through his California “slow food” experience; all the way to the herb gardens of the Black Forrest and the fishing boats of Southeast Asia, the mantra was the same. Using fresh, local ingredients to create fantastic food has been forged over a lifetime into the psyche of this rising start on the Richmond restaurant horizon.
As Chef Johnson says, “It’s hard to mess up when you start off with great ingredients.”