Josh Johnson of District American Kitchen Describes Rural Roots, Switching Kitchens, and the “Five-Five” Lifestyle

Johnson surveys his new domain at the downtown Sheraton Hotel.EXPAND
Johnson surveys his new domain at the downtown Sheraton Hotel.
Robert Isenberg

For eight years, Joshua Johnson was chef de cuisine of Kai Restaurant. It's hard to overstate the prestige of this position: Part of the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, Kai is the only eatery in the state that can claim both a Five Diamond rating from AAA and a Five Star rating from Forbes. As restaurants go, that's kind like a movie winning both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Picture.

Just a few weeks ago, Johnson made a massive transition; He parted ways with Kai and became executive sous chef of the Sheraton Phoenix Downtown Hotel. Both operations are managed by Sheraton, and the transition seems to be positive for everyone, but for Johnson, moving to District is weighty with symbolism. He has shifted from the quiet suburbs to Phoenix’s bustling downtown. His kitchen has tripled in size. He has exchanged “five-five” luxury for a restaurant that is at once more flexible and much busier. 

Johnson didn’t grow up in the industry, and he never ate fine cuisine growing up. He is intense, earnest and friendly. We spoke with him about his career and his recent switch to District.

How did you get into cooking?
I’m from Wyoming originally. I grew up with seven brothers, and we hunted and fished for at least 80 percent of all the proteins that we consumed in our house. We grew up hunting antelope, deer, elk. When you have seven brothers, and they’re all six-foot-plus, we would consume a lot of food. We never ate beef, ever. Wyoming is a big fixture of oil and natural gas. All of my family is into that, that’s what they do. And I just kind of took a step back. I did listen to the counselors in school when they asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up? You have to think about these things.” I moved to Portland and lived there for about a year before I went to school. I worked at this door-manufacturing place, and it was literally the worst job I ever had. I hated my life. I said, “That’s it, I need to go to school.” As soon as I got to culinary school, it hit home that this was what I wanted to do. The camaraderie. The joking. And it was non-stop, which was what I wanted. I don’t like to idle. I don’t like to sit. I spent three years in Oregon, doing any job I could. I was three years behind the guys who did have moms and dads in the [restaurant] industry. I was so far behind them that I had to catch up quick.

How did you make the transition from Kai to District?
I’ve been looking to evolve my career for the last year or so. I’ve been with Kai for eight years—six years as a sous chef. I’m constantly trying to learn and grow, as all culinarians do. I was hoping, in the best situation, that some rich guy or woman would offer me a bunch of money to make a restaurant five-five for them. But the reality is, not a lot of people are going in that direction anymore. It’s more comfort food, farm-to-table, so not everybody wants to be in the five-five world, but they want to be fine dining. Wild Horse Pass is a sister company with this property, and I happened to know the chef here, and I saw there was an opening. I just kind of dove into it, knowing that it would be a total one-eighty from what I’m used to.

How so?
Well, here I’m overseeing about 30 associates, whereas at Kai I oversaw maybe eight to 10—cooks, stewards, other chefs below me. Also, that’s a resort, this is a hotel, so the demographic is completely different. Resorts are usually Monday through Sunday, always leisure guests, large groups. Here it’s Monday through Friday, business-style people. I think I just had my first Saturday off in eight years.

Now you’re downtown, which is radically changing.
It is. I lived in Portland for three years. And if you’ve ever been to Portland, that to me is a downtown city. Everything is right there. People want to come into downtown. When I moved here to Phoenix, it was completely the opposite. Eight years ago, there wasn’t a lot [downtown]. I was really thrown off by that. I was like, why isn’t the downtown booming with high-end restaurants? And now it’s becoming that. There’s lots of nice ma-and-pa restaurants. It’s nice to be here, with a scene going on around us.

District has a special lunch menu, where nothing is more expensive than $9. What is the idea behind that?
That was something that was introduced a couple years back. I think it was a means to draw covers and keep business during the summertime. I think it just went over really well, so it’s a fixture now. I think it’s really awesome, and I look at it as this restaurant, this hotel, giving back. No one’s offering what we’re offering for nine dollars. A steak and fries for nine dollars? It’s a good cut of meat, and it’s super flavorful. Not to mention the other things we’re offering—salmon and risotto, shrimp risotto with asparagus. It’s insane.

Part of what I love about fine dining is not just the ingredients, but that each dish is assembled like a sculpture, a work of art. Can you describe your approach to this?
My approach to food is multi-leveled. You have to have a balance, from sweet to spicy to savory. It has to have crunch. You have to have different layers and textures, whether it be finishing salts or purees that add different dynamics and colors, so that you can look at it from all sorts of different angles. I even try to make dishes that, no matter which was you look at it, it has a unique view to it. There are so many dimensions. You have to seek out the best ingredients. At Kai, I didn’t want to overlap too many ingredients within the menu. Whereas here [at District], the approach is to make a top-notch product, but not try to do too much with it. Just let the product, and the flavor of the product, show for itself.

Almost like a less-is-more approach?
Absolutely. And I think it works really well. Sometimes I think, as fine dining chefs, we just overthink so much. I’ll look at a dish and think, “I need something green.” But I can’t just put anything green on there. It needs to have a home and a place with the food, so when you eat it, it makes sense. You’re just trying to get the flavors to flow together, because when I make food, it’s designed to be eaten together. Together, it’s going to pop.

How have you been adjusting?
It’s been crazy, but in the most positive way you can imagine. I’m not just in charge of my kitchen, where I am kind of a control freak. Now I’m being forced to count on the other chefs to oversee their areas and just have full trust in them. I totally have to let go. I’m not an ego-driven person to begin with. But to be a chef of a five-five, I always refer to being like an NFL coach. You’re only as good as the last “W” you’ve got on your books. You have a couple losses and people start looking at you. You always have to keep the standards super high. But since I’ve come here, I’ve become more of a facilitator.

What does your family think of all your accomplishments?
They’re finally coming around. They never ate anywhere that nice, so they had no idea what I was doing at Kai. They were seeing the pictures I was putting on Facebook, and they were like, “That’s nice.” They really thought I was just a cook, struggling to make ends meet. You know, “Oh, my poor son, he works so hard, we don’t see him on Christmas.” And then they came to visit me about two years ago, and I brought them in, and it all clicked for them. 

Editor's Note: This post has been changed from its original version. 

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