Chef Jonathan Waxman is famous for championing seasonal, local ingredients, but the man known as one of the founders of the modern farm-to-table movement has no use for that term.
“Farm to table is silly,” Waxman says over a heap of some of the fleshiest stone crabs the landmark Joe’s could scare up. “If food is not farm to table, then where is it coming from? I think of it more of a journalistic term. Though, yes, the quality of the ingredients you use is everything.”
In the 1970s, the native Californian sold Ferraris and played trombone before he enrolled in cooking school, first in San Francisco and later in Paris, at the famed La Varenne, where he mastered all the classic French stuff. He returned to California and found his way to Chez Panisse, where he worked under the queen of the organic-and-local movement, Alice Waters. He rose to chef there following the departure of another pioneer of California cuisine, Jeremiah Tower.
“I was very lucky to be mentored by Alice Waters. It doesn’t get any better than that. She was very gentle, never dictatorial,” says Waxman, who is known for his own mellow demeanor in the kitchen. “My first day at Chez Panisse, I was scared to death. [Executive chef] Jean-Pierre Moullé asked me to make artichokes à la Grecque, and I froze. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t ask. And I couldn’t Google it. It was one of those classic dishes I learned how to make in cooking school but wasn’t enamored of. I decided I had to go to the bathroom and grabbed a cookbook on the way.”
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Waxman was in town recently for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, where he was honored at a $500-per-plate tribute dinner cooked by some of his closest food-world friends: Bobby Flay, Tyler Florence, Marc Forgione, Marcus Samuelsson, Aarón Sánchez and Nancy Silverton. Tom Colicchio emceed.
“It’s a big honor. But it’s also a little bit embarrassing,” says Waxman, whose cooking philosophy matches his personal style: He keeps things simple and pretense-free. “And Giada [de Laurentiis] did yell at me last night because there aren’t enough women on the roster of chefs preparing the dinner. I didn’t pick the chefs, and it’s a legitimate beef, but I can’t argue with Bobby and Tyler and Marcus and Nancy and the others who were chosen.”
His career has spanned more than four decades, but at 66, there are no signs he’s planning to slow down. After the stint at Chez Panisse, he went on to develop his own signature California cuisine at the famed Michael’s in Santa Monica, owned by restaurateur Michael McCarty. He reached true celebrity status in the early 1980s, when he opened Jams in New York City. Waxman recently opened a reincarnation of Jams at the 1 Hotel Central Park. But his beloved Italian eatery Barbuto, which opened in the West Village in 2004, is not long for this world.
“The building was sold about a year ago, but I’m not sure when we’ll have to be out,” he says. “Could be six months, Could be a year. Property values in New York are ridiculous right now. We bought our apartment more than 20 years ago. Today, I wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
He won’t recreate Barbuto elsewhere, he says. But in late March, he opened his first San Francisco restaurant, Waxman’s, in Ghirardelli Square. Last fall, he launched Brezza Cucina in Atlanta. And a year before that, Adele’s in Nashville.
Sitting at Joe’s just a couple of days before the tribute dinner (Martha Stewart, Nigella Lawson and other food stars attended) he’s happy to spin yarns and act like he doesn’t have anywhere else to be, or endless industry people to connect with at the festival.
He orders creamed spinach and “those terrible Lyonnaise potatoes that are so bad,” and he sips a little rosé, his shaggy white hair set off by a blue polo shirt. “You can get stone crabs outside of Florida, but I think you have to eat them right here. It’s like Dungeness crabs, which are the pride and joy of the Bay Area. They just lifted a moratorium on them, which is great. But I don’t think they travel so well. They’re too fragile.”
This leads to a whole discourse on the tastiest varieties of crabs. “In England they have this crab that is similar to stone crabs but has this brown meat. It’s remarkable. And in Italy they have this softshell crab, moleche, that are only available for a few weeks a year and are to die for.”
He’s all about honest ingredients and rustic cooking: Wood-burning ovens and charcoal grills are his passion. You admit to using a gas grill.
“I won’t judge,” Waxman says. “But there’s nothing better than cooking over a wood fire. When I was around 12, my father made a marinade — sherry wine, olive oil, garlic and onion. He put it all in a blender. He marinated this big chuck steak for a couple of days and then put it in the fireplace over a grill he took from the oven. It was the best thing I ever ate.”
Is there a method of cooking he can’t abide?
“I was part of a food symposium at Princeton recently and they were talking about sous-vide. I said, this is Princeton. You cook food in plastic? Are you out of your minds? There’s just something weird about the texture of food cooked that way.”
One of the most challenging meals he ever ate?
“Years ago I was in Spain with [food writer and Catalan cuisine expert] Colman Andrews. We had been eating pretty heavily for a week and now we were at Arzak. And Arzak was at his height, cooking better than anyone. He serves us ortalan. It’s a baby bird. There’s a whole cult around eating them. You roast them and eat them whole, guts and all.’’
But Andrews, who would have otherwise indulged in the delicacy, suddenly was feeling too sick to eat anything at all.
“He was just really sick. He looks at me with these puppy-dog eyes and I say, no f-ing way. But he says, way. So I ate my bird and his bird, and all the other dishes that came out. I have to admit it’s a little off-putting when you crunch into the head. But Arzak had gone through all this trouble to get the birds. He had gone up a mountain.”
Waxman is no vegan, but he says Americans need to modify their diets for the sake of health and sustainability.
“We eat way too much protein. The Asians have always been smarter. Do you really need to eat a 16-ounce steak by yourself? You can slice it up and eight people can get a couple of perfect bites, along with, say, a roasted pumpkin casserole with shaved carrots and raisins braised in Zinfandel vinegar.”