Johnny Ciao Interview
(Michael Jackson's Personal Chef)
He’s an author. He’s an entrepreneur. He’s cooked for all the stars including Whitney Houston and The Grateful Dead to name just a few.
He was Michael Jackson’s Personal Chef.
He is Johnny Ciao.
When we spoke to Johnny he had just opened his new restaurant in Universal City, California.
Q – Johnny, what are you calling your restaurant?
A – It’s the Johnny Ciao Concert Kitchen Restaurant.
Q – People come into your restaurant to dance? Who’s coming in to dance?
A – Young kids. Dance crowd.
Q – How about famous people?
A – Well, famous people are coming in. I’ve got parties lined up. I’ve got my famous Funk’n Soul Brunch. I’ve been doing Blues Buffets all over the country for many years and now I’m doing a Soul Brunch on Sundays and I also have a lot of private events going on at the venue. It’s a place for me to showcase my talent after many years of just doing food for celebrities and charitable events.
Q – You didn’t work in a restaurant at least in the beginning of your career and you didn’t go to culinary school did you?
A – No. I just cooked because I loved to cook. I’m from a Big Italian family. When I moved out to work in radio on the 70’s, I went to a Broadcast Academy and got my F.C.C. license. I was working in radio and then in management. I always wanted to eat like your mom was feeding you, so you actually taught yourself. So, that’s what I did. I taught myself. And then I worked with different chefs over the years in different capacities and built up a reputation through the industry mainly. When I met the late Bill Graham up in San Francisco back in the 80’s he had me do a couple of award shows which led to me meeting rock ‘n’ roll stars Santana and The Grateful Dead. A lot of great acts. And then Michael Jackson’s people got a hold of me when he collapsed onstage in Singapore or wherever. Somewhere in the Far East. He had collapsed. I was brought in to get Michael fattened up again and help him get nutritious again. He was a mess.
Q – Too bad you weren’t with him in June of 2009.
A – It was a sad thing for when I heard they did an autopsy and there was no food in his stomach. I was kind of blown away because I was brought in to put food in his stomach. He was very anti-drugs when I was there (Neverland Ranch). I didn’t suspect there was anything going on at that point, but hey, people do change with time.
Q – Was Michael Jackson the kind of guy who would take direction from you? If you told him he should be eating more vegetables for example, would he do it?
A – He took it, but, he also did what he wanted to do with snack time. But, it was good. I weaned him back on poultry and fish and he was getting healthy again. It was a good thing for me and I left up there and started doing a lot of television talk shows and moved back East to help my mother who had Cancer. Twenty years Cancer free now. I helped a lot with the diet. I worked with oncologists in creating a diet for Mom that most Cancer patients should sustain, a good Mediterranean diet solid in fruits, legumes, root vegetables. Pretty much the same way they were eating at home only boosted up the intake of ginger and garlic in her meals. To beat the rap of Cancer you’ve got to have the mind to do it and you have to have the right diet.
Q – You’re not going to get that from all the fast food restaurants we see advertised on t.v.
A – You’re not going to go anywhere with that man. It’s unbelievable especially out here in California. They’re everywhere. There’s fast food everywhere. And you wonder why America has a Fat problem. We’re thin, my whole family. We’re the most odd-ball Italians. A lot of Italians are thin. They eat a good diet. People think pasta makes you fat. That’s a myth. I believe in eating pasta, but, it also has to do with your genes. If your mother and grandmother were Big Women then more than likely you’re going to be a Big Woman. So genes and metabolism has a lot to do with it. People who are slower in their pace and don’t have the energy to do much every day, they sit around, and there goes their weight.
Q – You seem to be a guy who’s pretty even-tempered. That too most plays a role in a person’s health.
A – It depends on where I’m at. To tell you the truth, when I’m on the East Coast, I tend to be a little more wound up and I’ve been coming back and forth between the coasts since 1983. So, it’s 30 years now of being bi-coastal. So, you learn to pace yourself. Life’s too short. I’m losing friends left and right. Everybody needs to think about what they’re putting in their system.
Q – So, tell me about your restaurant.
A – This is my first restaurant. I have an opportunity now to blow it wide open and get people to come up and eat. I got Johnny Rockets downstairs. I got Bubba-gum shrimp. I’ve got Wolfgang Puck. But, you know what? I’ve eaten in all of them and I gotta tell you something, you’re in for an experience if you come up here. You’re gonna get real food made from the soul. It’s Mediterranean Soul food. Anybody coming out to Universal can stop by and say to hello Johnny Ciao and if they tell me they read about me in famousinterview.com they’ll get a free sample of the Michael Jackson fruit boats.
Q – In your earlier days you had a behind-the-scenes job in the entertainment business. That refers to your management days in radio.
Q – Yeah, well first of all after radio in Florida, I worked in Black radio, rhythm and blues radio. Then I did concerts in Florida, rock ‘n’ roll concerts. Then I took my rock ‘n’ roll concert business to Atlanta, Georgia and started doing jazz concerts with Maynard Jackson, the former mayor. He gave me an office at the City Hall annex building. I got the support of the city to promote jazz in Atlanta. I did acts like Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Smith, a lot of great jazz acts. Right after that I found out that that business was a little too much to keep up with. You had big promoters who would come in the night you had a jazz show and bring in Earth, Wind and Fire and then crush you to death. It was a very torturous of a business back then and probably so now. But now I believe all those promoters are on co. or two cos. – Live Nation. They do ‘em all. They’re not steppin’ on each other like they did in the old days when you had a promoter from Detroit and each city had its own promoter or two or three promoters. So, what would happen is, if you put up a show, the promoter would come in and try to knock you out of the box by putting up a bigger show. So, I couldn’t deal with that. I went on and started a communications firm with an Emersonian graduate and we were both in the same phase as far as business and communications. We represented anyone who would pay us. (Laughs).
Q – As a rock promoter in Florida, who did you promote?
A – I promoted acts like John Mayall, Leslie West from ‘Mountain’, 38 Special. Just a ton of acts from those days. Mostly straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll and blues. I had to take whatever I could get because you had big promoters who would get The Eagles, Billy Joel. I didn’t have access to those guys at the tender age of 18 or 19. But, I made money with those other cats, but then took it all to Atlanta and pretty much lost it doing jazz. Whatever I had made in Florida and I was like 20, 21, lost in Atlanta. Then the craziest thing happened. I saw an article one day written by Furman Fisher who was a sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It had a big headline ‘Racism In Baseball’. I was kind of blown away by that. It had a picture of Hank Aaron. I thought this is no way for the Home Run King to be written about. This is not cool. Furman and Hank were always at each other’s throats for one reason or another. I wrote a letter straight to Hank Aaron. I told him I could help him out with his image as far as making appearances and getting him out there more not thinking he would ever really call. But, he called. One morning I picked up the phone and it was Hank Aaron himself. I went down to his office that afternoon. As a matter of fact I always wore a suit in those days, in my office in Atlanta. That day I did not. I had jeans on. I ran home, put on a suit, ran to the old Fulton County Stadium and met Hank Aaron, which was the thrill of my life. Then I spent 4 years getting him commercials, speaking engagements, you name it. Whatever we could do to generate money and publicity for Henry.
Q – You didn’t have formal training in the agency or management business either. It seems like you were learning as you were going along.
A – I was good at communications, writing press releases. I was always a great student. That’s how I always made money by creating proposals whether it be for investors or corporations. That’s still how I generate money now. That’s why this is exciting in my life because it’ll be the first venture where there may be a consistent payroll. Hopefully, ‘cause I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life. But Henry led to other clients that I managed. I worked with Isaac Hayes for a few years. Even did some merchandising with Hank Williams Jr. for his people. Then I started doing more when the Home Video business and the Music Video business came out. I was a consultant to all the record labels, each and every one of them. I put together the first music video chart in the nation under my co. MVS, Music Video Services. That chart was published each and every week in TV Guide, Rolling Stone Magazine and USA Today. So, I clearly had good visibility and credibility as a consultant. That’s when I opened an office in Beverly Hills. That’s when I put together my book, ‘Cooking with Country Music Stars’, a book and video. That’s what kind of kept me in the food world. After that sold over a million copies with 25 % going to the Country Music Foundation in Nashville I went ahead and opened a Beverly Hills office, took a place in San Francisco just to break away from Beverly Hills every now and then. Then in San Fran Johnny Ciao was born. I was doing a big award show for Bill Graham one night and I had so much left over pasta salad I brought in on the streets of Market Street in San Francisco and started feeding homeless people without a license, without any permission. Police came and tried to break it up and did break it up. I had to stop. Herb Caen, one of the most famous columnists of our time wrote it up in his column the next day in the San Francisco Chronicle stating that ‘Johnny Ciao nearly gets arrested trying t help people’. That was the start of Johnny Ciao right there.
Q – How did it work with these Country Stars? Did you approach them? Did you have an agent who approached them?
A – The Country Music Foundation as well as two agents, one out in Beverly Hills and one in Oklahoma, Jim Halsey Agency helped put all that together. They represented a lot of music people. I know the right people to call and put it together, along with Merrimac Publishing in Atlanta, Georgia. I then went to Tennessee and filmed the video version of it with Brenda Lee, Mel Tillis. I put all that together on my own. Bobby Bare. Ray Stevens. Minnie Pearl. I hung out with Minnie Pearl all day. It was great.
Q – Didn’t you have a line of Spices at one time?
A – I had my spices in many supermarkets without being on television regularly. I was able to get the supermarkets to give me shelf space for my 6 spices and my 4 oils, until McCormick comes walking in and goes ‘Who’s this guy”? It’s a tough game. You need tens of millions of dollars to launch anything like that. I did well when I did my in-store appearances but then when you stop the in-stores, people walking down the aisle if you don’t have the exposure on t.v. they’re like ‘Johnny What Spices’? As an entrepreneur there aren’t many areas I haven’t tackled. I’m really good at creating a new idea or a new product and getting it germinated above the ground. It becomes a small tree. I’ve taken the time to put together an eating establishment. I consulted for the Olympics in Atlanta, a great spot that did very well. I did a record album menu, a terrific spot in Atlanta. Then two years later in 1998, I moved to Spain and opened a restaurant with a friend from Paris in the Mediterranean in a town where Salvador Dali lived. A great little village. And that was a fun experience because everything came in fresh. You cooked fish that came off the boat. Everything was just right then there. And so this is the 1st real restaurant venture. I have three different crowds. You have the Universal tourist crowd. We’ve got a night time crowd that dances here and then we’ve got a day time happy hour crowd that we’re catering to. It’s a Big job.
Q – I can see you putting in 17 hour days.
A – Yeah because there’s not only the restaurant there’s also all the back-up work, the mental work, the computer work. So, it’s a lot of work.
Q – Did you tour with The Grateful Dead?
A – No. It was basically at the Awards Shows. Then Bob Weir a couple of times at different events. The more interesting people came later when I lived with Michael. I met Marlon Brando and Gregory Peck. I hung out with Gregory Peck and his wife for 10 days and then went back to his house to cook for him. Same with Brando. I cooked for Whitney Houston. A lot of my clients are no longer with us.
Q – These people would come over to Neverland Ranch and you’d cook for them?
A – Yeah. Michael would spent 5 minutes with them, then leave them with me.
Q – You lived at Neverland Ranch for how long?
A – For just about a year. A little under a year actually.
Q – Johnny, you should have a show on the Food Network!
A – I was there before everyone. I created that Food Network. I’ve been sending those people proposals on every show they have on the air now back in the 90’s. That Emeril spot was my spot. They gave it to him ‘cause he had a restaurant and I didn’t. And in those days they were hiring restaurant chefs.
Q – Now that you have your own restaurant, Food Network should come calling !
A – I’m filming full-time here. I have a production deal. We’re filming me behind-the-scenes, in the kitchen, not in the kitchen, doing parties. I filmed in Scotland, England, Wales, over the last few years, British Columbia, New Brunswick, Canada. From black pudding factories in England, to whiskey factories in Scotland, lobster fishing in New Brunswick. A little of everything.
Q – You’ve worn so many hats, what’s left?
A – Well, I’ve done everything I wanted to do. I’ve lived several lives already. Most people don’t get to do one thing they want to do. Everything I decided I wanted to do, I pretty much did. Now, the restaurant is a fun venture. I’m gonna keep it fun instead of thinking of it as work.
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