“I didn’t tell anybody,” said Connie Johnson, who works in the kitchen of the University of Maryland Medical Center’s Mid-Town campus and was recently selected from a pool of nearly 200 applicants to cook at various NFL events for VIPs during the game. “I’ve done so much. I just wanted to have fun.”
Despite her desire to keep a low profile, once word got out that the West Baltimore native and Western High School graduate was going to Miami, her bosses at UMMC Mid-Town decided to hold a press event. Johnson spoke with media Friday and offered samples of the crostini she’d be preparing.
“You were going to go to the Super Bowl and not tell anybody?” laughed Gonzalo Solís, VP of operations. “That’s the person that’s in charge of feeding all our patients in the hospital,” he said. Johnson’s full title is assistant patient services manager for the department of food and hospitality, but she calls herself “the ears and eyes of the patients to the kitchen.” When food coming to hospital rooms isn’t perfect, Johnson fixes it.
Sitting at a table with a box full of crostini was retired bobsledder and NFL player Greg Harrell, a friend of Johnson’s who lives in Columbia. “I’ve been eating chef Connie’s food a long time,” said the former tight end for the LA Raiders. “Her mission is to make the healthy food taste good,” Harrell said.
Johnson previously ran an organization to encourage kids to eat vegetables. One timeworn tactic involves sneaking healthy foods into a kid’s diet by combining it with something they like. Glancing over her appetizers, Johnson commented, “Bruschetta. That’s my sneak-in.” Sneak in healthy tomatoes by adding a sweet balsamic glaze.
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Harrell, who will be attending the Super Bowl as a spectator, had his own theories about the Ravens’ devastating loss in their first playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. Referring to the rest that players like Lamar Jackson took during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, he said, “Old school people, we never did that. We played all the way through.” In the end, football was a lot like the movie “Any Given Sunday,” he said.
Johnson’s own story is the stuff of movies.
After graduating from Western High School and attending Howard University in Washington, she moved to New York City and worked as an executive for an affiliate of Bad Boy Records. Returning to Baltimore, she worked for years with Little Italy’s Ciao Bella.
But Johnson decided to leave her job as a chef after realizing she wanted to spend more time with her family. In the kitchen, “I missed basketball games, mother daughter teas,” said the mother of five. Her eldest daughter died of an asthma attack during dinner, a profound loss that pushed her to continue to pursue her love of cooking.
Asked if there was anything else she wanted people to know, Johnson replied: “I want people to know that I’m from West Baltimore, and great things come from Baltimore. And [for] mothers who are mourning the loss of their children … there is a second chance.”
During the event in Baltimore, coworkers Lisa Miller and Jerome Harris stood by near the hospital cafeteria, excited to cheer on their colleague. “That’s huge,” said Harris. “We might not have the Ravens, but we got Connie.” He wanted to make sure to get a picture with the chef before the end of the day.