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Editor's Note: This story is unlocked for everyone to read courtesy of the CRVA, our partner in nourishing culinary exploration for residents and visitors of the Queen City.

August 1, 2023

Oscar Johnson is a very busy man

Jimmy Pearls chef and co-owner talks about collaboration, dealing with business growth, and pitching in

by TM Petaccia

Jimmy Pearls chef/co-owner Oscar Johnson. Photo by Peter Taylor

Reigning NCRLA Chef of the Year Oscar Johnson is not one to be idle for long. Together with chef and business partner Daryl Cooper, running their successful seafood-focused spot Jimmy Pearls at The Market at 7th Street would be work enough to fill the days and nights for most restaurateurs — but that just wouldn’t be Oscar Johnson.

In addition to his primary responsibilities running his own business, Johnson takes an active role in supporting other chefs via special events and “just helping out.”

On August 11, he’ll be heading to New York City, joining the 2022 James Beard Award-winner for Best Chef: Southeast, Ricky Moore of Saltbox Seafood Joint in Durham for an Urban Fish Pickin’. This culinary star-studded North Carolina fish fry will also feature Leah & Louise’s Greg Collier; Asheville chef and Top Chef contestant Ashleigh Shanti; Jamie Davis of The Hackney in Washington, N.C.; and Keith Rhodes of Catch in Wilmington — part of James Beard Foundation’s JBF Platform series of educational and popup events at NYC’s Pier 57.

“Chef Ricky Moore has become a great mentor of mine over the past two years,” Johnson says. “We’ve connected very well and built a great relationship. He asked me to be a part of this with him. It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m just very thankful to be traveling with four other outstanding chefs. I’ve worked with all of them side by side. All of us are very supportive of one another. In many ways, it’ll be like any other gathering, except we’re on a big stage. It’s gonna be a great time. I’m really looking forward to it.”

Meanwhile, business at Jimmy Pearls continues to grow. Starting with a food truck in 2020, Johnson and Cooper opened at The Market at 7th Street in September 2022. Their menu focuses on their coastal Virginia roots with fried seafood dishes and traditional Southern sides, but with a strong influence of the styles and traditions of the African diaspora.

Oscar Johnson with Jimmy Pearls partner Daryl Cooper at the 2022 NCRLA awards. Photo courtesy

“Business is good,” Johnson says. “We’ve been fortunate enough to add staff who are helping us to hold everything down, as volume has been increasing for us here at 7th Street. We’ve become a destination spot. We were looking at our numbers the other day and saw about 45 percent of our consumer base is coming from out of town. Many say that they found out about us at the airport, but some people tell is they literally build their plans around Jimmy Pearls when they visit Charlotte because they heard of us.”

Recently, Johnson has taken on an additional role: Polish pierogi maker. He has been helping Baba & Pops chef/owner Megan Yurek craft the handmade pierogies she and her family sell at area farmers markets.

“Throughout my whole journey of entrepreneurship, I always try to find ways to see what else I can do — something that works with my schedule and also still spend time with my wife and son,” Johnson says. “I was literally just scrolling on the Chefs of Charlotte group on Facebook trying to see who I could help out really and something fun for me to do.

“I love pierogi, and when she and I talked, I said I ate the ones sold in the frozen section of the grocery store, and I thought they were cool, and she was like, ‘Well, I’m pretty sure you won’t be eating frozen pierogies no more.’ She’s very supportive, understanding, and a really nice person to be around.” he says.

As of yet, there doesn’t seem to be a Jimmy Pearls/Baba& Pops pierogi coming out soon, however. “I’m not counting it out. Megan and I both like to think things through. It would have to be something that makes sense and something that’s creative. I just want to use whatever resources I have to help another small business owner out,” he says.

Ever the entrepreneur, Johnson always keeps an eye on what’s next, but for now, he’s practicing patience, especially when it comes to Jimmy Pearls’ expansion plans. “Coop and I are faithful that we’re gonna have the full brick-and-mortar location we both envisioned,” he says. “Anything we do is not going to be something super huge. We like how we’re operating now, semi-fast casual. There always needs to be thought behind the food.

“But we have everything jotted down on what we want to do.”

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