Local Chef Is Behind-Scenes Star in TV World of Showcase Food

SRHS Grad Geoff Johnson,‘Advance Man’ for Celebrity Chefs
By RICK MELLERUP | Aug 30, 2017

It is easy to imagine Chef Geoff Johnson being one of those jugglers on the old “Ed Sullivan Show.”

They used to juggle just about anything – bowling pins, bowling balls, knives, cleavers, flaming torches. Well, Johnson could have handled the knives and cleavers and have mixed in pots, sauté pans and a flaming Baked Alaska or two.

Johnson, you see, juggles a lot of toque blanches (chef’s hats, for those who don’t speak French) in his busy schedule. The Barnegat native and resident, 41, currently is a line chef at Ship Bottom’s La Spiaggia, the high-end Northern Italian restaurant on Eighth Street. But he’s also a part-time culinary instructor at both Mercer County Community College and Atlantic Cape Community College; a caterer; has served as the personal chef for Jon Bon Jovi; placed in the top five in the New Jersey Seafood Challenge held at the Governor’s Mansion, Drumthwacket, which was hosted by New Jersey’s First Lady; was engaged several times by the Canadian Embassy; and – perhaps the accomplishment he is most proud of – hosted the 25th New Year’s Eve Celebration 2012 for the prestigious James Beard Foundation.

But, most importantly for this story, Johnson is also a leading presentation chef in New York City.

What, you may ask, is a presentation chef? Well, a related term is food stylist. They’re the people who make food look as good as possible for cookbook pictures, magazines and television commercials.

As Johnson sat for an interview, a TV played silently in the background. An ad for a pizza chain came on, and he pointed up to it.

“It’s all painted on,” he said of the pizza supposedly coming hot out the oven.

But Johnson’s niche in the food stylist industry (who ever knew there was such an industry?) is arranging the presentations for celebrity chefs when they appear on television shows. Johnson himself has been seen on TV – he was a contestant on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay”; was featured on the premier episode of Bravo’s “Rocco’s Dinner Party,” another competitive cooking show starring chef Rocco DiSpirito; and was a mystery diner on Food Network’s “Restaurant Stakeout.” But most of the times that Johnson has been involved with a television show, you don’t see him but rather the result of his hard work.

His creations have been seen on shows such as “The View,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan,” “Fox and Friends,” and “Harry,” the syndicated talk show hosted by Harry Connick Jr. Johnson has literally set the table for celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Claire Robinson, Giada Di Laurentis, Guy Fierri, Ted Allen, Duff Goldman, Tyler Florence, Sandra Lee, Paula Deen and Andrew Zimmern.

When celebrity chefs fly into New York to be featured on a TV show, they don’t have the time to do the groundwork necessary for their appearance. So, with – hopefully – 10 to 14 days notice (sometimes a lot less), Johnson, after getting the menu and recipes, serves as their “advance man,” shopping for the necessary foods and other items: the tablecloth, the cutlery, the dishes and platters, etc. He then shows up hours before the show to arrange everything for the shoot. He also has to prepare the “swaps,” pre-cooked dishes just waiting to be finished off or sometimes even the finished product. They’re called swaps because a chef will put a dish in the oven and, wham, pull out the finished food in a minute.

“It’s a lot of work. It’s very demanding,” said Johnson. “I have to get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to get to New York for a 5 or 6 o’clock start time.”

Luckily Johnson has found the celebrity chefs to be a joy to work with.

“My first one was Emeril Lagasse; he’s a sweetheart. Guy (Fierri) of Triple D (“Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”), he’s a cool dude. Paula Deen – no, I didn’t have to buy pounds of butter – she was super, super nice. All of the talent I’ve worked with are nice people, they’re not full of themselves.”

The two celebrity chefs Johnson probably works for/with the most are Lee and Zimmern.

Lee, the de facto First Lady of New York thanks to her domestic partnership with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is known for her Food Network show “Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee.” She likes to teach harried and hurried home cooks how to make meals from a 70-30 mixture of prepared foods and fresh items. Lee also insists on decorating her table in accordance with the theme of the meal, one of Johnson’s specialties.

“I’m the only one (presentation chef) she will talk to,” said Johnson.

Zimmern, the host of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern,” also gives Johnson a lot of work.

“He lives in Minnesota, but anytime he’s on the East Coast I get the phone call,” said Johnson.

Zimmern, with his love of bizarre foods, presents Johnson with his biggest challenges.

“He did a Texas-themed show. So I found a Texas state flag for the table. Then I had to find rattlesnake brains, a calf head. I had to shop things out. Where do you find calf testicles?”

Or, for that matter, raccoon meat, another tough demand Johnson filled.

You’ve got to figure Johnson attended a top-flight culinary school, right? Wrong. He is entirely self-taught.

“I read a lot of books, worked under a lot of good chefs.”

His first restaurant job came when he was 16 years old.

“I started out as a salad bar attendant at the Ponderosa in Manahawkin,” he says. “Within a year I was a manager in training.”

Interestingly, Johnson, a Southern Regional grad, got that first restaurant job by accident.

“I have a twin brother. He had applied at Ponderosa but before they called him, he got another job. My father answered the phone and told them the news. Then he said, “My other son is not working.”

Johnson fell in love with food and thought he was going to the expensive Culinary Institute of America. That’s what he thought, until the CIA told him to forget about a scholarship – “Have your parents mortgage their house.” So he moved on to Waretown’s Lighthouse Tavern.

“That’s where I met my mentor, Paul Lombardi. He was from the CIA. He gave me all his books and notes.”

His next stop was as a sous chef in the Sheraton in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. At the ripe old age of 21, he came back to Barnegat and opened his first restaurant, which wasn’t a hit.

“It sucks owning a restaurant,” he said, preferring cooking to business.

So he bounced around for a bit, working at places like Il Giardino Sul Mare in Forked River and Sweet Vidalia and C’est La Vie on LBI. In 2006 he was the chef at Moonfish Grille in Cape May, where he developed a local following.

Moonfish Grille only lasted a year. But Johnson saw promise in Cape May and soon partnered with a businessman to open and serve as executive chef at a new restaurant in West Cape May, the Copper Fish. It earned rave reviews and did well.

“We had it for eight years and then Superstorm Sandy happened.”

Cape May County didn’t get hurt by Sandy nearly as much as Southern Ocean County and points north. But it was enough to spook Johnson’s partner and it was, at least for now, back to cooking for other people.

But for many years Johnson has been building up his presentation chef/food styling connections.

“It started about 10, 12 years ago,” Johnson explained. “I had a friend who was dating a woman who was in the business. And she called me out of the blue one night. She had eaten at my restaurant and saw my presentation. She needed help for a job – I believe it was Emeril Lagasse.”

Johnson believes Lagasse is a great guy. But his “people” are sometimes late in farming out a food styling job, causing a scramble. That’s why Johnson himself now has an assistant, Juanita Carbone. In this case it worked out well for Johnson, who learned the job of presentation chef from the woman, who now owns Gourmet Butterfly, one of the top food styling companies in NYC.

Johnson says his busy schedule is helped by living – and cooking – on the Jersey Shore.

“Restaurants down here are busy during the summer. The presentation scene on TV in New York and Philadelphia gets busy in the fall and winter.”

As do the community colleges at which Johnson teaches. So it all works out well.

It certainly makes it easier to juggle numerous responsibilities.

rickmellerup@thesandpaper.net

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