Local Chef Johnny Graham travels the world to bring cultured dishes to Jefferson City.

Johnny Graham was made to be a chef.“ What else would I do?” he says. “I consider myself lucky beyond words to have discovered something so early on that resonates with me and those around me. Cooking has provided a life full of adventure and cultural experiences beyond my imagination.”

Born in Metarie, Louisiana, Johnny was surrounded by vibrant food from a young age. By the time Johnny was 4 years old, he and his family moved to Mid-Missouri, where he began cooking after school and packed elaborate meals for camping trips with his Weimaraner, Bear. Immersed in nature, these meals often included crawfish, frog legs, and fish he’d caught himself.

“My father was the president of the Ducks Unlimited chapter here in Jefferson City when I was young, and I remember having access to duck and venison as well.”

Looking to revisit his roots, Johnny traveled to the bayou for a culinary learning journey last year. His first stop was spending a day at a crawfish farm, riding an amphibious tractor from one pond to the next, culling and harvesting the delicious “mudbugs” with hand nets, then wrapping up the day with a traditional Cajun-style crawfish boil surrounded by friends and colleagues.

“I still dream of that meal,” Johnny says.

Johnny Graham traveling by tuk tuk in India
Traveling by tuk tuk in India
Johnny Graham riding an elephant in India
Riding an elephant in India

Johnny spent a day on Avery Island at the Tabasco factory, joined some lessons on stuffing Boudin (a bayou specialty consisting of meat, rice, and spices stuff ed in a sausage casing) at Johnson’s Boucaniere, took a swamp tour of the Atchafalaya Basin, and participated in Cajun Zydeco dance lessons to round out the culture-filled week.

But this trip, by far, wasn’t Johnny’s first excursion in search of incredible food experiences. In addition to owning a small airplane that allows him to travel as freely as he likes across the U.S., Johnny also travels across the world with like-minded friends to learn more about the dishes he cooks and the cultures that created them. One of Johnny’s most memorable excursions happened in early 2020, when he traveled to India for several weeks.

“We spent a full day working at a spice farm in southern India where we peeled the bark of cinnamon trees, dug turmeric roots, and learned what black pepper looks like when it’s growing. Most spices grow within a certain latitude relative to the equator, and this farm supplies some 70% of spices sold in the U.S.”

Days later, Johnny and his group jumped on the opportunity to take a tuk tuk (a three-wheel vehicle often used as a taxi) through the market in New Delhi.

Favela Orgânica painted recipes
Favela Orgânica painted recipes

“Riding through the market was like something from the ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ The streets are narrow, congested, and covered with a web of electrical wires with monkeys running around on them. It was a little bit of a mind melt. We rode with a fleet of about 10 (two people in each) because we didn’t want to get separated.”

Other highlights from his time in India include a catered birthday lunch at the Taj Mahal and attending an Indian wedding where 27 different dishes were served aspart of the tradition.

“It is custom that guests eat with only their right hands, which was a challenge at times.”

Visiting Brazil is also an experience that remains near and dear to Johnny. One of the highlights involved spending his birthday at a favela, a Brazilian town of the working class.

“Feeding someone is an intimate act. You’re putting something into their body and sustaining life. Food is medicine, food is love.”

“There’s a lot of division between wealthy and not wealthy in Rio. The people in these houses are working as chefs, as house cleaners, and service staff , who are unable to afford the real estate of Rio De Janeiro. So, Rio carved out these places up in the hills, the steep back-drop to the city, and built these little villages. It’s not like the slums or the projects or anything, but very much for the working class.”

Located in these hills is Favela Orgânica, where one woman has dedicated her life to instructing workers and locals how to cook. In addition to classes, the winding streets throughout the favela are lined with recipes written on the buildings. The recipes consist of any items that are available locally with simple instructions like, take one can of this, two bananas, a handful of this, a couple of these, you mix it all together, and put it on the fire. Instead of a restaurant, the favela has a small food center, a place for the community to come together.

“Feeding someone is an intimate act. You’re putting something into their body and sustaining life. Food is medicine, food is love. We’re lucky that a basic human need can also be so damn good.”

“Cooking has provided a life full of adventure and cultural experiences beyond my imagination.”

During another trip south of the U.S., Johnny ate scorpions and other bugs at a market in Mexico City and learned how to create Mexico’s traditional mole sauce from a convent turned cooking school in Puebla, a preparation he has since offered at Revel.

Most recently, he was elected to the board of trustees for the International Caterers Association Education Foundation (ICAEF) and now serves as chairman of immersive experiences. Johnny joins a group of professionals who’ve come together in raising scholarship funds that provide educational experiences to catering professionals looking to expand their knowledge and to caterers who are just starting out. With these scholarships, chefs can attend conferences or other professional development events, such as making gourmet chocolates in Las Vegas, that help them grow and realize they can make a great living in the hospitality industry. This November, Johnny will also be leading a group through a four-day vegan immersive experience in Los Angeles, while next year, he’ll be organizing four days in Austin, Texas, for an immersive experience in meat smoking techniques.

“Being part of this organization allows me a way to kind of pay it forward and help provide opportunities to others. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have had, and I am honored to be able to help other ambitious young chefs and catering professionals.”