Phil "The Grill" Johnson
Phil Johnson has always done life his own way. Growing up in an urban setting in an all-black community in New York, he reveals that the kids in his neighborhood didn’t have a lot of options to set themselves up for a successful future. While many dreamed of college, the reality was most of the parents could barely afford to meet the rent on their apartments let alone save for their children’s college tuition. Aside from those top scholars or star athletes that were able to secure a scholarship, for more, college would remain just that — a dream.
Johnson was taught to cook at an early age from his grandmother and mother. That time in the kitchen helped him meld the cultures he grew up with in New York — Asians, Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, West Indians and Africans — through a unique culinary outlet. He can still remember the “flavors in the air” in the elevator going to his home. This aroma he fondly recalls was created by the families of these various ethnicities cooking up their own cultures’ traditional foods. This helped ignite his passion for food, which eventually led him to defining success on his own terms — and developing his own unique way of cooking, which he calls “Freestyle BBQ.”
Not one to follow the patterns of his own rough neighborhood that seemed to cycle generation after generation, Phil sought to do something different. He wanted to break the mold to give his family a better life, but also to help future generations in his community see that they can define success on their own terms. However, he wants kids to know that while they can (and should) dream big, they’re going to have to work to achieve their goals.
Phil thrives on being different. That’s what has made him so successful in the world of BBQ and his freestyle approach has earned him some serious bragging rights. He has been internationally recognized as a Firemaster Champion by competing on Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters, and prior to that he was a contestant (and on Bobby Flay’s team) on Food Network’s BBQ Brawl — Flay vs. Symon. Phil has also earned a variety of global accolades for his pitmaster prowess — his Rub Me All Over Smoky Sweet Heat Rub was named 19th overall according to the American Royal World Series of Barbecue’s “2020 Best Rub on the Planet” contest. The rub also ranked 16th in the nation in the contest’s Mild Rub category. This contest is the largest BBQ rub contest in the world with entries received from 38 states and seven countries.
Throughout 2021 he competed in multiple Steak Championship Association competitions around the country, earning multiple top 10 calls and two 1st place golden tickets, which earned him the chance to compete in the 2021 World Food Championships where he advanced in the Steak competition and ultimately took home 3rd place in the world within that category. He has already been invited back the 2022 World Food Championships as well as the 2022 Steak Championship Association World Championship. Beyond mastering BBQ and steak, Phil’s cooking skills are limitless. His famous Philly Crack Wings are award-winning and were named Best Wings in Phoenix in 2020, further exemplifying Phil’s wide breadth of talents in the kitchen, over the grill and managing the smoker.
Using his own rub for all his competitions has also given him a chance to showcase his distinct flavor profile on a larger platform — and it has caught the attention of the world in a big way. His Rub Me All Over Rub is now sold internationally in Sweden and Australia, as well as nationally in outlets such as Ace Hardware stores.
Phil is also a big personality — his extreme talent is matched by his charm, charisma, humor (those that know him know his laugh is contagious) and the knowledge of his craft that he understands how to share with the masses. This ability has earned him the opportunity not only to appear on national cooking and competition shows, but also the chance to showcase his cooking talents for the likes of the TODAY show. He has appeared on the show five times and is grateful for the national stage this outlet provides as well as the camaraderie of the show’s hosts.
Throughout his life, Phil has sought a different path to define success. While others are doing Texas style, Kansas City style or Memphis style BBQ, he created his own style by tossing classic recipes and traditional “styles” out the window and developing a new way of cooking. For him, it’s about bringing together the flavors he knows and loves and making it his own — Freestyle BBQ. He is proof that living “freestyle” is not only an option, it’s a way to the top.