They say the most beautiful people can come out of the ugliest situations. I was born in the city of bright lights, basketball greats, and dueling baseball teams. That’s right Chicago, born and raised by hopes of a better life and the dreams that poverty would not be the result. My mother (Sherry Ann Johnson) and father (Tony Johnson Sr.) taught me to show excellence academically and socially. Even though I was in a city where the streets were decorated with used, dirty needles, broken glass and police chalk. They work hard and never gave up. Dealing with a lot of personal issues such as, speech impediments, not so straight teeth and thrift store couture. From being picked on and bullied almost every day for years. The thought of a better life and growing into something great became a best friend and a coping mechanism. Being jumped, ran out of class rooms and having food thrown at me it sucked like hell but I survived.
At the young age of 8, I developed a love for food. I can still remember making an anniversary breakfast for my parents. Now the meal was extra crispy cinnamon bagels and Cajun scrambled eggs. Enticing as that sounds my parents and I knew that this was only the beginning. My parents would let me help cook more and more. Even if the concoctions weren’t the tastiest, my thirst for knowledge grew with every meal. When it came to school I did things that other kids didn’t want to do. I signed up for Home Economics classes, took more cooking electives in high school as well. I was the nerd when it came to food from baking cakes to how I could separate eggs and cook rice. It helped me deal with being dumped multiple times and even the more frequent rejections. I felt like a loner and no one would love me, funny thing is I remained in my faith and hopeful. A good portion of late middle school to high school I battled severe depression. Many times, it could be emotionally crippling to the point I gave up on having someone and focused on food.
Saving grace moment for my life is when around my sophomore year I felt like I was a burden to my family and friends. One day, I wrote my dear John letter to life and gotten ahold of a small hand gun with the plans of taking my life. Before that earlier my mom and dad ask me to make dinner I made this dish and had it holding for the family. Sounds crazy I made dinner before attempting suicide. The darkest ten minutes of my life had come where the letter was written and the gun was loaded.
Barrel to my temple sending a spine tingle down my back. Eyes drowned in tears while closed. The room had this soul piercing silence and my finger was ready and then…. click……click..click..click. The gun jammed and I fell apart collapsing onto my bed. As if somebody had plans for my life and me taking my life was not going to work. I composed myself and quickly wrapped the gun up and returned it to who I got it from. I burned up the suicide letter once I got back to the house. Cleaned myself up and did my homework. About an hour later my parents came in from work, settled in and came back to the kitchen to fix them some dinner.
TIMMY! Timothy Aaron! My mother exclaimed and my heart dropped thinking, what if she found a piece of the note???!!! My voice cracked as I said “Yes Ma’am”. I walked into the kitchen and she asked did I cook the food, I replied “yes ma’am”. She gave me the biggest smile on her face and said it was delicious. At that time my face grew a small expanding smile and felt like I could do this day by day but nonetheless I can do this. After that day, I held my head up and gain the confidence to pick myself back up and live.
As time continued I took classes about food, read books and helped cook at my church. I became so engulfed in culinary that senior year I was teaching my culinary class more than my teacher. I decided to give culinary school a shot and never looked back.
This was the works of champions having to get up catch a bus to a train to school 5 in the morning each day. Working full time while in school and getting married made my life a game of Tetris. Trying to figure out everything while finishing school. Including my wife getting pregnant a month before graduation. Yet I did it, I walked across that stage and did it.
My career began in the trenches as a prep chef who somehow managed the impossible every day. I worked in local and corporate restaurants, late nights and early mornings. Cuts, burns, scars and a partially severed finger all in the first year. Was I discouraged? Of course, not, I wanted more and I wanted to become faster, stronger and wiser. I’ve worked in every atmosphere of a restaurant, been accused of malicious lies by people going nowhere. I have been fired a few times yet never gave up going back and forth between Illinois and Texas to see where I could stick.
Throughout my career, I have seen blessings, cried, sweated and bled for this passion of mine. At some point, I saw myself as an underdog but when I got the call to be on Food Network it was surreal. Felt like I was floating in the clouds and at the same time so humbled about the opportunity and the experience. Even though I was out the first-round I took off and never looked back. Right now, I have plans for three cooking shows and so much more. I’m ready for the world, question is the world ready for me?
Story and photos by Chef Tim Johnson