Jenny Johnson glides over and gives me a hug worthy of an old friend before offering me a cup of tea like we’re in her own living room. Fact is, I’ve only met her once before, very briefly, and we’re not in the privacy of her home. We’re at Davio’s on a Monday afternoon in the Back Bay.
Johnson, 37, has just stepped out of a meeting with her business partner and television co-host Billy Costa and directly into an interview with me without missing a beat. She’s relaxed. In her element. If you live in the Boston area, you might know this gracious beauty as the three-time Emmy-winning producer and co-host of NESN’s weekly dining and entertainment show “Dining Playbook,” or as one of the voices on WBZ NewsRadio’s “Food for Thought” show and podcast, or the brains behind her sparkling wine brand, Champy.
But, over the past year, Johnson has begun to see her career and relationship with food in a whole new light.
Factoring in Food
“It’s been 15 years since I’ve been immersed in food,” says Johnson, of the career she’s built as a spokesperson for Greater Boston’s hospitality industry. But, really, her relationship with food goes way back to when she was growing up in Massachusetts.
“Some of my favorite moments were surrounded by family at a dinner table. There was never a shortage of noise or celebration or singing or conflict. Whatever those emotions were, [they] all sort of took place around food,” the 37-year-old recalls. “My Jewish faith is not necessarily based on religious background, it’s based on culture. It’s based on bringing people together around food. Coming together around a table is where so many of those valuable moments in life happen. Where you’re the realist, where you’re most comfortable.”
Johnson strives for everyone she interacts with to feel at ease. “She has this unique ability to form relationships,” Costa says, describing Johnson. “Really solid, legitimate relationships with so many different people from so many different walks of life. She makes everybody feel really comfortable. When you’re around her, you always feel like the most important person in the room.”
Johnson’s comfortable way and relationship-building skills are her own biggest asset.
Back in 2005, her effervescent chemistry with Costa on the set of New England Cable News show “TV Diner,” where she was already executive producer, had the station and Costa promoting her to co-host. “I was a 20-something-year-old at the time, who had a voracious appetite,” she says, as we sip our pots of herbal tea. “I had no problem doing food challenges. I wasn’t timid. I was willing to try anything. It didn’t matter who was cooking it [or] what type of cuisine it was.”
The show ran until 2013, when Johnson boldly started her own production company, reenvisioned the show with Costa as “Dining Playbook” and moved stations to New England Sports Network, where it lives today.
The relationships she developed through her TV programs have led directly to other professional ventures. Enter: Champy and “Food for Thought.”
“I wanted to be part of [the food and hospitality] business in a way that was different than promoting it,” she says of her brut-style sparkling wine from the Sonoma coast of California. “I learned how to understand the business from a different perspective.”
And, on “Food for Thought” she and Costa connect with chefs, restaurateurs, doctors, dietitians, and other people who work with food in some capacity, giving them a platform to talk about important, food-related issues.
When Life Gives Her Lemons
To some, it may seem like the uber successful Johnson lives a charmed life in her South End home with her husband of two years — author and magazine editor Robert Cucuzzo — and their beautiful daughter Vienna. Johnson works hard, attends and hosts parties, travels around the world, donates time to myriad nonprofits, all while making it look effortless. However, the last year of Johnson’s life has been anything but effortless.
When Vienna was eight weeks old, she developed severe eczema. Her whole body was covered in an itchy, red rash.
“In those first few months,” Johnson says, “I did what any mother I imagine would do. I eliminated all of the major potential allergens from my diet so that I could keep breastfeeding. I was also trying dozens of topical creams for Vienna to keep her eczema at bay.”
Johnson says she was surprised to learn that traditional medicine’s protocol for eczema had not changed since she treated her own eczema as a kid. So, as well as trying more traditional methods like steroids and bleach baths, she also broadened her approach and explored a number of integrative options, like seeing a Chinese herbalist.
Right before Mother’s Day, when Vienna was eight months old, life got even more challenging. Vienna ate some homemade pea soup for dinner and went into anaphylaxis 10 minutes later. “Vienna’s face swelled up entirely, her eyes became sealed shut,” says Johnson, tearing up. “We knew she was having a reaction. We gave her Benadryl immediately. As I went downstairs to get in the car, she started vomiting. We rushed her to Boston Medical Center emergency room where they administered epinephrine, steroids, antibiotics and antihistamines. I don’t think there are ever adequate words to describe what that very short window of time was, but it was nothing like I’ve ever experienced, and nothing like I ever want anyone to experience.”
Reflecting on what she’s learned since, Johnson explains the correlation between eczema and food allergies exhibited in her daughter, specifically how her inflamed state likely contributed to a number of food allergies. In addition to peas, she can not eat gluten, soy, dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and sesame.
… She Makes Lemonade
Given Johnson’s career promoting the food industry and developing relationships with its players, one could argue that she is an ideal candidate to tackle food allergies and eczema in an educated, research-based and relatable way. She certainly doesn’t lack energy, empathy or devotion, especially when it comes to the people she loves most. Since her daughter’s struggles, she’s become a warrior for these causes and an advocate for some of the lesser known practitioners trying to cure them. “Over 50 percent of children in the U.S. have a diagnosed chronic disease, and a lot of what I was reading included nontraditional methodologies,” she explains. “I feel it is important to straddle both western practices and more emerging options in a way that leaves me feeling confident in the decisions we are making.”
Johnson began working with several different specialists. She Skyped weekly with a pediatrician practicing anthroposophical medicine in California. Locally, she made a connection with Amy Thieringer, the founder of A.R.T. Allergy Release Technique, a cutting-edge therapy that is reversing childhood allergies. She visited with Chinese herbalists. She bathed Vienna in horsetail (it’s an herb), bitter melon (it’s a subtropical fruit) and the ocean.
“I was reading how powerful these nontraditional methodologies were, and I wasn’t feeling like I was getting the whole picture from traditional medicine,” she says. “I was also understanding that the longer that we have to keep Vienna from all of these things, the harder it is going to be for her to live a normal life.”
While the many approaches Johnson tried varied, the common denominator she found comes down to a pretty simple concept: balance.
“Think of it like a triangle, you have to address all of the corners in order to have any of them get to a baseline of normal. I am addressing eczema at the same time that I am addressing food allergies, because I have to get her body to a balance,” she explains. “It’s sort of like what I think about anything in life — whether it be my own anxiety, relationships, or tasks I am trying to do in a given day. Life is more openly accessible when we find a place of balance, and that is what we are trying to do for Vienna’s immune system.”
Johnson discovered that one of the most powerful tools in achieving this balance and strengthening the immune system is food.
At home, Johnson immediately made some changes. She developed her own homemade coconut milk formula and started feeding Vienna nutrient-rich food like bone broth and fermented vegetables. She orders Vienna’s food weekly from an Amish farm in Pennsylvania. The animals there have never been fed grain or corn. They are rich in nutrients, like vitamin A, D and K. “We eat chicken livers three times a week now,” she says. “It’s not something that I imagined would be in my diet. If you think to yourself, would any of us be like ‘Yes! I get to eat chicken liver.’ My daughter gets so excited to eat chicken liver. She literally can’t contain herself.”
And Vienna’s immune system has responded. “For the first time in months, her skin has cleared, and we were finally able to take the socks off her hands,” Johnson says. “And I was able to start breathing again.”
Changing the Conversation Around Food
It’s been six months since Vienna’s anaphylaxis, and Johnson is ready to see that there is a silver lining to her personal nightmare. “I am in a unique position to share what I’ve learned and bolster awareness around all the revolutionary thinking happening around food today,” she says. “It feels like I’ve been training my whole career for this opportunity to really change how we think about our health and wellness.”
Using her platforms like “Dining Playbook” and “Food for Thought,” Johnson’s goal is to not only talk about food as medicine, but to give voice to more integrative methodologies that have largely gone unheard amid the din of traditional medicine. “I’m not a medical practitioner, and I don’t have all the answers. I’m a mom with a platform where I hope to serve as a vehicle to give voice to those who do.”
“As a parent, you always talk about, ‘So long as my kids are healthy,’” says Costa, who has watched her integrate these new themes into their programming. “Parenting is hard enough, saying the right things, doing the right things when it comes to your children. But, then, you’re dealt a set of cards where things are not that way and you have to step into a whole other role on top of being a mom. She’s just tackled it wholeheartedly.”
People have responded. In sharing her journey over social media, Johnson has connected with many other parents who have not only found solace in their shared experience, but also useful, actionable information. “Women would reach out to me. Women I knew, women I didn’t know,” she says. “Part of what I was able to do is connect them with the practitioners that I had found and with different studies and resources that I had read. My goal is to create a community where dialogue can take place, where conversation can ensue, and where people are met with compassion. To connect with someone who understands is so unbelievably comforting.”
At the moment, Johnson is in the process of developing a comprehensive resource for New England, where the information, ideas, methodologies and people that she’s found over the last year can be easily accessible in one location.
She’s also working on developing a line of allergen-free food products, although this project is very much in its infancy. “I’m working with some chefs right now to come up with what the future of that looks like.”
Johnson sets down her tea cup. “You build a career in food. You give birth after you’ve wanted to have a kid for so long. She can’t eat the food. It’s the ultimate irony.” And, then, she summarizes her greatest desire. “How do we get to here, so that you can live somewhat of the life that I’ve been able to live?”
A few days following our interview, the family of three took off for a week away in Austria. It was to be their daughter’s first trip overseas.
“We had documented notice from our doctors that we needed to travel with Vienna’s homemade formula and meatballs,” says Johnson. “I had connected with the concierge at the hotel and developed a relationship with the chef prior, expressing the severity of the situation. He met me upon arrival, and we actually spent an hour together. Every morning he brought her avocado, banana and berries for breakfast and then her lunch of veggies and some kind of protein in a to-go box for lunch and dinner. It was a lot of steps, but it was so worth it!”
As a woman, entrepreneur, and leader in her field, Jenny Johnson offers us all some food for thought …