Chef Profile: Cheryl Johnson

By / Food / May 17th, 2023 / 2

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2022 print issue of Quench Magazine.

Cheryl Johnson is a self-professed ‘non- planner.’ This might seem odd for a chef of over 20 years and co-owner of Québec’s highly awarded, insanely popular restaurant – Montréal Plaza.

Superficially, her life reads like a series of happy accidents, yet a closer glance reveals intuitive decisions made by someone who knows herself well. Perhaps this comes from her peripatetic upbringing. “Travelling is one of the best ways to get an education about life,” declares Johnson. “It really helped me become who I am and was a lot more positive than negative.”

Post secondary school, she enrolled in an engineering program in California. “I enjoyed math and science, but I really hated reading – literature I mean,” she recalls. But engineer-ing wasn’t the right fit. It wasn’t long before she found her calling as a chef. “I grew up in a food family. My dad was a huge cook and I’m also half Filipino,” she explains.

Johnson’s first restaurant job was at Tomiko, a family-owned Japanese joint near San Diego. “I was managing a surf shop while going to school and there was this restaurant on a cliff overlooking the beach.” Despite never having eaten there or even setting foot in it, she was determined to work there. “I might have lied a little on my resume to get a job.” She started as a server, but the owners soon recognized her interest in cooking and invited her to work in the kitchen.

It was the owners of Tomiko who encouraged her to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Upstate New York. The two-year program included a five-month practicum. While her peers had designs on internships at famous restaurants in the Big Apple, Johnson wasn’t keen on peeling carrots in a kitchen basement for 10 hours a day. She also wanted to use the opportunity to go abroad.

“The rule was that if you were doing a stage outside the country, you had to be able to speak that language 100%.” She got away with Montréal even though it is officially a French speaking city. The next hurdle was getting a visa. When the school cautioned that she wouldn’t be able to get one, Johnson replied, “fuck you, yes I can.” She applied to Normand Laprise’s Toqué! without knowing much about it. The reviews from previous apprentices attracted her. “Everyone said the same thing: ‘They take the time to teach you. You are part of the team.’”

Johnson arrived in Montréal in 2000. “A, I fell in love with the city. B, I fell in love with the restaurant and the people.” This is where she met her now business partner Charles-Antoine Crête. After finishing up at the CIA, Johnson returned to Montréal and ended up working at Toqué! for nine years as Crête’s sous-chef. Eventually she left Toqué! to help open a restaurant in Thailand. “I’d only worked at two places in my life, so I wanted to see something else.” What was supposed to be a three-month contract ended up being a three-year project.

Before leaving for Thailand, Johnson and Crête had already talked about opening a restaurant together. “We always say: each on our side we can accomplish a lot but together we can accomplish even more.” This became clear to her during her time in Thailand.

When Johnson returned to Montréal, she and Crête lived together to save money (she assures me that the relationship has always been platonic). “We wanted to build a restaurant that feels like people are coming to our house.” The 70-seat Montréal Plaza, which opened in 2015, is just that – one big, really fun dinner party. While it may be hard to put a finger on the specific cuisine, the restaurant is 100% pure Cheryl and Charles-Antoine.

The two are also partners in Foodchain. Launched in November 2019, “it is the fastest fast food – and it’s healthy.” The vegetarian juice bar makes smoothies to order – each one packing in a pound of vegetables.

Johnson spends a lot of time in the kitchen and her love of food hasn’t waned, but it isn’t just cooking that keeps her there. “A large part of what I like is the human contact, especially with the younger kids.” She transitioned from mentee to mentor long ago. “We remember what it was like when it was us,” she says. “They are the future of our industry, so we have to take care of them.”

The family feel at Montréal Plaza is palpable. And if you happen to hear AC/DC spilling out of the kitchen, you are in for an extra rocking night.

Montréal. I have been here for 21 years now. It is the longest place that I’ve lived and has become my home.

All over. I moved around a lot – Philippines, Georgia, Texas, Hawaii, Japan.

Soup. I love Vietnamese Pho, but I am a huge fan of soup in general, all year around and all kinds. It’s not just the eating, it is as much the smell at home as it is cooking.

FAVOURITE INGREDIENT TO COOK WITH: Garlic. It always adds something. You can have pasta with just oil and garlic, and it tastes amazing.

Cooking with my father. I was always with him in the kitchen. He wanted to become a chef as well. But back then, it wasn’t a noble job.

Juni. There are a lot of sushi places in Montréal but with Juni, it’s the pure form – classic, simple, good quality.

My father.

It depends on my mood. Less beer, occasional cocktails, more wine.

It depends on what I’m cooking and who I’m cooking for, haha! When we really want to pump everyone up in the kitchen at Montréal Plaza, it’s (AC/DC’s) Thunderstruck. But that’s not an everyday thing.

Photo credit: supplied

Click here for Cheryl’s Fried Brussels Sprouts recipe.

Most people hate Brussels sprouts, but this recipe has cheese; it has fruit caramel; it’s crunchy, sweet and salty. We serve it on the branch. Even people who don’t like Brussels sprouts end up loving it. All year-round people ask – when does Brussels sprouts season start? When it does, it’s like – Brussels sprouts in the restaurant everywhere.


Michaela Morris is a freelance wine writer, educator and presenter. Though based in Vancouver, she sits on wine panels and judges both locally and abroad. Michaela holds the WSET Diploma, is a Vinitaly International Academy Certified Italian Wine Expert. She balances out all of the eating and drinking with yoga, and occasionally cheats on wine with a Negroni.

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