To students at Calvin Rodwell Elementary School, she was “Chef Connie,” the crisp, almost military-style teacher at their unique Culinary Arts program.
“Chefs, attention!” Chef Connie called out one day in 2011 as The Brew watched, prompting her class of third graders to pause in their task of making cheese omelets and stand erect in a line.
The kids responded to Connie Johnson with awe and affection as she schooled them in everything from proper knife skills to the pleasures of roast beef with a rosemary-mustard glaze.
“I wish we had Chef Connie every day,” nine-year-old Bree Edwards Ross said that day, after enthusing about the bruschetta garnishing technique she’d learned in class.
“Sometimes, you just put a nice little tip of basil on top of it!”
Connie Johnson’s care for her students and her high standards for them were just a few of the qualities that community leader Kim Trueheart recalled in the wake of the sad news that the 56-year-old culinary master and youth mentor died on Thursday.
“Connie was a giving person in so many ways. I will miss her dearly,” said Trueheart, who directs the Liberty Rec Center at 3901 Maine Avenue, not far from Calvin Rodwell.
Kids were playing basketball at the rec center on Saturday as part of Baltimore’s first Junior NBA program, another project Johnson had been heavily involved in.
“Connie was a big part of what I did at Liberty,” said Trueheart, who is already of thinking how to pay tribute to her friend.
“We’re going to have a ‘Chef Connie Memorial Garden’ at the Rec Center with all the herbs she loved.”
Recognized for her Work
Johnson’s life story is one of wide-ranging ambition and accomplishment in spite of personal challenges.
A Baltimore native and Western High School graduate, Johnson was an accomplished athlete who earned a scholarship to Howard University where she studied marketing. Running in the 4×400 relay, she was named an All American National Athlete by the NCAA.
After working for a time in New York City for an affiliate of Bad Boy Records, Johnson returned to Baltimore where she got into cooking, apprenticing at The Prime Rib and eventually working as a chef at Little Italy’s Ciao Bella.
After years spent outside restaurant kitchens – Johnson shifted her focus to raising her six children – tragedy struck. Her 17-year-old daughter Bijan died of a sudden severe asthma attack.
Johnson began volunteering at her younger children’s school, Calvin Rodwell, starting a gourmet cooking club for 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in 2010.
“It was a way to, I guess, channel my grief,” she said, recalling that Bijan always encouraged her to show her younger siblings how to cook healthy food.
Pretty soon Vegetable Time Catering was tackling dishes like Veal Saltimbocca and feeding groups of 100.
The classes grew in size and complexity. Pretty soon Vegetable Time Catering, as they called it, was tackling dishes like Veal Saltimbocca and the task of feeding big groups, sometimes more than 100 people at a time.
People took notice.
The Obama White House sent its head chef to learn more, and HBO sent a crew to interview her for a series on obesity in America: “Weight of the Nation.”
She got funding to put on a culinary and sports-themed summer camp at the Gwynn Oak United Church Community Center. She caught the attention of celebrity chefs, prompting talk of a television show focused on Connie and her young proteges.
Johnson also worked at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s (UMMC) Midtown Campus as assistant manager of food and hospitality services. In 2020, she was selected from a pool of nearly 200 applicants to cook at various NFL events for VIPs during Super Bowl LIV in Miami.
The publicity served as a means to an end.
“This is a way for funders to know that I’m still here. Having events for these children is my ultimate goal,” she told Baltimore magazine. “I want my art to provide a safe place for children with nowhere to go in the summer.”
“Children loved her”
The indefatigable Johnson succeeded in her goal, leading a five-week summer camp at the Liberty Rec Center for the last three years that stressed fitness as well as culinary arts.
“The kids would go on community walks every day in the morning. She had them over at the pool,” Trueheart said. “The children loved her.”
Dreaming big, “Coach” Connie was working with Trueheart to develop a Junior NBA league in Baltimore out of Liberty Rec Center.
Just before she died, Trueheart had received word that grant funding had come through to expand the fitness and culinary summer programs her friend was to lead.
“Now my plans have changed. I’m going to have to figure out how to do it without her,” Trueheart said over the weekend.
“One thing I know, it’s going to be called ‘The Chef Connie Memorial Camp.’”
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