Jonathan Waxman should be angry, furious, enraged. He’s the guy who pretty much every chef in 2014 should be bowing down to, saying you did it first, Chef; he’s the guy who should have his own splashy food TV show, rather than just occasionally appearing as a wise Jedi sidekick or a professorial judge; he’s the guy who long ago realized that there are some serious parallels between food and rock. And yet here he sits on a sunny NYC morning at his neighborhood stronghold Barbuto, looking blissed out, just now having his, well, moment in the sun.
Waxman isn’t as recognizable a figure as so many who have risen in his shadows, but now this well-seasoned chef, who has cooked in kitchens up and down the California coast and way over in Paris, who has run kitchens in Manhattan since the early 1980s, nurturing many brilliant chefs along the way, is making serious moves. In the past few months, he’s opened two very large restaurants in two very different cities with two very famous partners: Adele’s in Nashville with Caleb Followill of Kings of Leon, and Montecito in Toronto with film legend Ivan Reitman (director of Stripes and Ghostbusters, among many others). Later this month, Waxman will preside over the second annual Music City Food And Wine Festival in Nashville, which he started with high-profile music industry friends like manager Ken Levitan and C3 Presents.
Over the course of an hourlong chat sitting there at Barbuto, Waxman pingpongs around topics like how to spot talent in the kitchen, why Adele’s and Montecito opened within a month of each other (surely a geographical headache?) and why he’s now seizing the day, so to speak. To crystallize his best points, here are 12 Things You Can And Should Learn From Jonathan Waxman:
1. Food TV Gets The Butts In The Seats
“I didn’t wanna do TV. Ever. I kept saying no no no, and [Tom] Colicchio one day – I don’t know, we were out late. And he says, ‘Just fucking do it,” Waxman says, laughing. The exposure pays off at Barbuto: “I think because of my TV presence, I get a lot of people from all over the world. It’s weird. Because they show Top Chef everywhere. They show Guy Fieri shows everywhere, Bobby Flay shows everywhere. I get people coming from Singapore that say they watch me on TV.”
2. When It Comes To The Kitchen, Size Doesn’t Count
At Adele’s and Montecito, Waxmans’ chefs have the luxury of big, brand new open kitchens, but Barbuto’s kitchen is notoriously small. Still, the Saturday before we speak, Barbuto did 375 covers. “I like serving lots of people. We do serve a lot of people. It’s shocking how many people we serve. Out of a tiny little space, a tiny kitchen,” he says proudly.
3. Learn From Your Elders…
“You know when I was a young Turk and I was all full of beans in my late 20s, early 30s, I was doing a lot of crazy stuff,” Waxman recalls. “And there weren’t any rules, so we could try stuff out. Somewhere along the way, I decided that it was more important to be true to what I grew up with. Like my father did some really crazy things when I was a kid. I was like 10 or 12, and he got a blade steak, a thick, thick blade steak. He poked it with a fork, and he made a marinade. Marinade? Who the hell knew what marinade was? He must have got it from Sunset magazine or something. And he made a marinade in a blender, with onions and garlic and ginger and olive oil. And he put it over the steak and he put it in a Pyrex in the refrigerator overnight. The next day we build a fire in the fireplace. The middle of winter. He took a grate out of the oven. Put two bricks on it, put it in the fireplace and he grilled a steak on the fireplace. I’m looking at him what the hell are you doing? And when I ate it it was like the greatest thing I ever ate in my life. So I realized that was really where I wanted to be going.”
4. …And Keep It Simple
The takeaway from the above lesson? “People wanna eat stuff that’s pretty direct,” Waxman says. “I always think of a custodian. Or a fisherman or a rancher or a farmer. Whatever they produce or collect or gather, I don’t wanna screw it up too much.”
5. Anyone Can Learn To Cook Like A Chef…Well, Almost Anyone
When I ask Waxman if he’s ever had a chef who couldn’t get on the same page as him, his eyes widen. “I had one guy – and he’s actually a journalist now. And he’ll tell you the story as well. He came to me, he said I graduated from the University of North Carolina and I wanna become a food journalist, but I need to learn how to cook. And he said, can I come work in the kitchen, and I said well do you have any experience, and he said no that’s why I wanna come to you. Okay, great. And I said well why don’t you work in the kitchen for a day. Just work in the kitchen, and I said, ‘You’re the worst cook I’ve ever seen in my life!'” Who was it? Hunter Lewis, who last week was named editor in chief of Cooking Light. Lewis could take his lumps. “[He] goes – yeah, I know, that’s why I came to you! So I said, okay Hunter here’s the drill. You’re all thumbs. But if you have the heart, which he did, and you have the drive, and you’re obviously an intelligent person, come work for free for a while and then we’ll work it out. And it took him about a year before he felt that he’d gone through that tunnel.”
6. True Talent Can Be Spotted Right Away
Like who? “Like Justin Smillie,” Waxman says, referring to the chef who is about to helm Stephen Starr’s new NYC project, Upland (scheduled to open next month). Not that he was easy to work with. “When he first came to work with me, he was such a pain in the ass. Oh my God, he was just – he was like the unbroken colt, you know? He was kicking the fence, getting in everybody’s way, he was annoying everybody. I remember putting him on a station at Washington Park and he just fucked it up so badly! So I said, dude, go down to the walk-in and do a hundred push ups. I knew he was so wound up! Or I said go walk around the block. Go walk around the block. Get some fresh air. And countless times. But I knew that he had it. You could see the drive.”
7. Though Sometimes, True Talent Takes Time To Emerge
“And there’s people like Bobby Flay. Who I didn’t have any clue about. No clue! Whether he’d be good bad or otherwise,” Waxman recalls of the über-celeb chef, who worked for him at Jams in the 1980s. “But he just had that look on his face that he wanted to succeed. So I didn’t make any judgments about him, and we abused him, put him on the busiest stations. And there was one time when Gail Arnold, who was the chef at that time, and Gail goes, he’s gonna fail. And I go – if he fails, it’s fine. That’s okay. Because he’ll learn. I always tell people, I learn by my mistakes. I said Bobby will learn. He’ll get it. And sure enough, he did.”
8. Chefs Should Have An Intimate Relationship With Their Ingredients
As a guy who’s been cooking seasonally and with an emphasis on local ingredients since the 1970s, when he worked at places like Chez Panisse and Michael’s in Santa Monica, Waxman has a unique perspective of how American food went off the rails. “The influence of fast food and convenient food was just too overwhelming,” he says. “A family of six that doesn’t make a lot of money, they go to a Wendy’s or McDonald’s and feed the family instantaneously and they don’t have to do any dishes or anything else. It’s a compelling story. But I don’t really think it’s the American story. I grew up on a farm. My grandmother grew vegetables and she raised chicken and worked the land. That’s what we ate. It wasn’t always great, but that’s what we ate.” He goes on to cite Larry Forgione and other old-school chefs who’ve become teachers who preach about knowing the ingredients intimately. “That’s better for cooks, to realize that food doesn’t come in a box. Or in the back of a truck. It comes from someplace real.”
9. It’s True What They Say About Canadians Being More Polite
And respectful. Montecito was a long-in-coming project that finally opened last month after a two-plus-year period of delays, but Waxman is pleased so far. He’s sourcing from Ontario farms and purveyors, and best of all, his team is really polite. “There’s a great professionalism in Canada,” he says. “They’re much more European-oriented than we are. Their culinary industry is pretty advanced. They really adhere to the French system. There’s a lot of chefs that I know up there, so it was easy for me to find people. In a lot of ways, it was a kind of joy. Toronto is a joy. Everybody is a professional. They all say ‘Yes chef!'”
10. It’s Not True What They Say About His Chicken Being Easy To Make
Waxman is a man of many signature dishes, but loyal fans like Frank Bruni swear by his chicken, which many have written about but few have been able to replicate. “Everybody says it’s so easy to do,” Waxman says. “But it’s so hard to do.”
11. If At First You Don’t Succeed, Hang In There
As I start to point out, I’ve interviewed dozens of chefs who point to him as an influence, and you see well-known chefs talk to Waxman with a kind of reverence in their eyes, but the man himself is nonplussed. “I’ve just lasted a long time,” he says. “I didn’t die.”
12. Young Chefs Should Have A Game Plan For Life
Why is Waxman opening two big restaurants in two cities, spearheading a music and food festival and potentially pursuing other projects? “Wolfgang told me that I’ve caught his disease now,” he says, citing his friend Wolfgang Puck, an avid entrepreneur. Still, he insists, he’s perhaps not as ambitious as Wolfgang. “I’ve got three kids. I’ve got to pay for their education. One thing I’ll be brutally honest about – and most cooks won’t understand this — but when I was 30 years old I never thought about the future. Never thought about longevity, never thought about an annuity plan. And most restaurants, if they last 10 years, they’re lucky. So what’s the annuity plan for that? What happens when you’re 50 or 60 years old? Have you saved enough money to retire? No. I realized it too late in life about creating that annuity plan for myself. Guys like Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud were much smarter thaand Mario — Mario’s a genius about business. So that’s what I have to do. Being a creative cook is a nice thing. But as my friend Peter Morton said, you can’t take fame to the bank. So I think that if I could take fame to the bank in my own fashion, that’s what I’m gonna do.
Update: This story was edited on Sept. 3 to include the name of the restaurant where Justin Smillie will helm for Stephen Starr.