Emmy Award-winning television producer Jenny Johnson, 31, recently launched a new food and sports show, Dining Playbook, on NESN, co-hosting with Billy Costa. For eight years, Johnson and Costa co-hosted NECN’s TV Diner, for which she also served as executive producer. A Marblehead native, she’s an honors graduate of the University of New Hampshire and spent a summer after graduation volunteering at an orphanage in Cape Town, South Africa. Her extensive charitable involvement includes riding in the Pan-Mass Challenge and hosting Dana-Farber’s annual gala. She worked as an entertainment and news reporter before finding her niche as New England’s most telegenic foodie. She lives in Back Bay.
Jonathan Soroff: Which is easier—being in front of the camera or producing?
Jenny Johnson: Being in front of the camera. What you see is what you get. The person on TV is similar to the person you’d be sitting at dinner with. Behind the camera, there’s so much to orchestrate, so many different people and elements to juggle, the writing…it’s so much more complicated.
Well, I’m not a Gordon Ramsay fan. He’s just so not my style. I have so much respect for the restaurant business. Of course, there’s going to be yelling. Chefs yell. I’m a producer. I yell. But he takes it to this level I can’t relate to at all.
[Laughs] My answer used to be, “Wait till I’m 30.” Now, I’m 31, and apparently, it’s still working. I honestly have a voracious appetite. My sister always says that it’s not humanly possible to consume what I do. But I will say that in the past two years, I’ve become more conscious of what I’m eating…. The short answer is: Look at my mother. She and I have the same body, and she’s 62 years old. I’m very lucky.
I think working with Billy [Costa] has upped my game in that department. He’s an exercise fanatic—he exercises all the time, and working out has become very important to me. I try to exercise five days a week. Right now, I’m on a Bar Method kick. I do yoga. I try to run the Esplanade once a week. And my new obsession is indoor rock climbing. I’m an obsessive person, and exercise has become part of that, thankfully.
Sweet, without a doubt. I would eat dessert all day. I’m that person who, when I go out to dinner with a group of friends, and we’ve eaten our faces off, no one can move, they need to be rolled out of the restaurant…and when the waitress says, “Would anyone like to see the dessert menu?” I’m like, “Obviously!”
There’s nothing. I will at least try anything. I won’t necessarily like it. But that’s part of my job. I was just in Thailand eating roasted grasshoppers.
I was in Puerto Rico, high up on a mountaintop at a place called La Ranchera. There was a pig roast, and I’d just spent a solid hour taking an axe to the pig, which was one of the more exhilarating moments ever and kind of disturbing at the same time. Anyway, I think it was a relleno, wrapped in a plantain skin, and it was one of the few times on camera when I took a bite of something and you could tell I could barely swallow it.
That would presuppose that I go on dates, which is something I’m really working on for 2014.
Secret seduction dish?
Chicken shawarma salad from Cafe Jaffa.
This is so cliche, because it’s now on every menu, but I’m in love with Brussels sprouts. If I could cuddle with them, I would. If I need to feel comfy, I make Brussels sprouts—and if you’d said that to me as a kid, I would have stared at you.
No more than once a week. Sunday, I usually make a kitcheree [mung beans and rice]. It’s very easy to digest. It’s super flavorful. I can get a lot of veggies in there. I love Indian spices and the rich, layered flavors. And you can make an enormous pot of it, and you have it for the week.
It was actually something I drank. A Châteauneuf-du-Pape at Cru on Nantucket. I don’t remember the maker or year, but there was definitely sticker shock.
Probably a Saturday walking tour in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There were thousands of people, and carts of food, and smells in the air, and the most beautiful colors. I ate things I had no idea what I was eating, and it was unreal. The sensory stimulation was unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced.
Neither. It’s the people. I love both of those things, but the restaurant business is one of the hardest things to succeed in, and I’m fascinated by who these people are, how they got here, how they do what they do, how they deal with every menu change, every person, every Yelp review. To me, it’s the person behind it, making it happen, that’s so important.
People ask me that, and I used to ask myself the same thing. What am I? Who do I want to be? Do I want to be in NY or LA? It wasn’t until recently that I realized I am exactly where I want to be. I love Boston. My dream is to be doing what I’m doing now.
It’s kind of hilarious that somehow people think I’m fashionable. I’m so not. But I have a sister who is one of the most fashionable human beings you’ll ever meet, and she tells me what to wear. Thank God.
I’m getting there. I promise. My little brother could tell you the neck size of every guy in the NFL, every statistic of every baseball player who’s ever lived. When he found out I was doing a show on NESN, he was like, “You’re the girl who’s gonna say, ‘Nice goal!’ when they score a basket.” I’m embracing that. NESN’s embracing that. There’s a place for that. And I’m learning. I’m excited to get to know these people who are masters at what they do.
Fried dough at Gillette Stadium. They have an Anna’s Fried Dough, and it’s sooooo good.
Ugh, God. [Laughs] He likes to have Evian sprayed on his face before they put on his makeup.
Vaseline. I cover my face with Vaseline at night.
That while they’re in competition with each other, the restaurateurs and chefs genuinely like each other.
It’s more that they ask me, and I could just give an answer, but I feel compelled to say, “Well, are you in the mood for Italian? Would you like a romantic restaurant? Do you like fine dining? What’s your price point?” I have to ask 17 questions to give an answer. But I love it when people ask me. If I can’t do that, then there’s no point to this.