Whether he’s praising San Diego-area restaurants and chefs in San Diego Magazine, freelance writing for Rolling Stone, or trading verbal jabs with Guy Fieri on Food Network, Troy Johnson’s résumé is a menu of milestones. And foodies everywhere have acquired a taste for his whip-smart observations and encyclopedic knowledge of local and national fare.
Johnson’s twisting ascent to success began after graduating from Chico State, when he returned home to San Diego armed with a degree but little direction. Though his strengths were in speaking, writing, and a tireless work ethic, he didn’t know what to do with them yet.
For several years, Johnson (BA, Speech Communication, ’97) dabbled in the media world, working as a freelance writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper and music critic for City Beat magazine. He won local Emmy awards hosting his own music television show, Fox Rox, and was hand-selected to host an hour-long pregame show before the official San Diego Padres pregame show.
When the 2008 economic downturn hit and advertising dollars dried up, both shows were cancelled. Just as he was left with one-third of a career, Riviera magazine, a glossy lifestyle magazine, gave Johnson a new writing opportunity: food.
“I knew nothing about food except carne asada burritos,” Johnson said. “But what came out of my mouth was, ‘Oh, I love writing about food.’”
Johnson spent the next three years editing the work of Riviera’s award-winning food critic, while studying food and flash cards of culinary terms, talking to chefs, and cultivating his own critical palate. Opportunity knocked when that critic left and Johnson told the editors he was ready to write a food piece.
His first foray floored the editorial staff. His review of a local Italian restaurant won Best in Show for the San Diego Press Club. In all, over the next two years as Riviera’s senior editor and food writer, Johnson garnered seven first-place awards for the SD Press Club, Society of Professional Journalism, and the Orange County Press Club. Then television beckoned again.
In 2010, Johnson responded to a Food Network blog post searching for new hosts, and submitted an ambitious six-minute video that flew in the face of the stuffy and snobby food industry, making jabs left and right and comparing the unsightly appearance of rockfish to “Keith Richards with a bad sunburn.”
The Network asked him to host his own show, Crave, where Johnson paired the nation’s finest fare with history on why and how it became so beloved.
Crave did well ratings-wise, until Monday Night Football, Dancing With the Stars, and How I Met Your Mother returned for their fall seasons and competed for viewers.
The show was cancelled after its second season following a ratings decline.
Yet, Johnson’s wise-crack quips, richly researched clips, and verbal gymnastics became fan favorites. Even in reruns on Friday nights, it was Food Network’s No. 2-rated show, and Johnson was its most-quoted personality on Twitter.
Being a fan-favorite, Food Network invited him back, this time as a judge on Guy’s Grocery Games, where four chefs compete for a $20,000 prize in supermarket aisle challenges that test their culinary skills. Over the last five years, Johnson has appeared more than any other judge in the show’s rotating lineup, thanks, in part, to his back-and-forth banter with Fieri.
Food may be Johnson’s work, but it’s also become his passion. When he’s home, he logs plenty of hours in the kitchen, experimenting, perfecting, and enjoying the craft.
His go-to healthy dish is Panang curry but his comfort food is pan-fried chicken thighs with rosemary, thyme, garlic, and butter. He also makes homemade chicken broth every week.
“I take a full chicken, add a ton of vegetables, I let it simmer on my stove for five hours. My house smells like God,” he said. “I take the chicken stock, put it into ice cube trays, and throw an ice cube of chicken stock to everything I cook. It just adds this beautiful, explosive flavor.”
Johnson remains a food critic for San Diego Magazine, which wooed him over in 2011 and he’s one of three primaries on its weekly podcast, San Diego Magazine’s Happy Half Hour. This year, he also co-stars in his second season of the Big 10 Network’s Campus Eats, exploring culinary delights that revolve around Midwest collegiate athletics.
He is quick to credit Chico State for crafting his creative writing and wordsmithing skills, building on his talent of non-linear thinking.
“My Chico State professors taught me to take a cliché sentence and turn it on its head, how to think differently about words, language, and metaphors,” Johnson said.
The University also prepared him to conquer what was once his biggest fear: public speaking.
“Thanks to some amazing professors, I became calm on camera—it’s my happy place,” he said. “For some reason, a massive calm now falls over me, thanks to that degree.”
This story first appeared in Chico Statements.