interviews

The Indefatigable Jonathan Waxman

After 50 years in the fire, what could the chef possibly have left to prove?

Chef Jonathan Waxman, inside his restaurant Barbuto. Photo: Mark Sommerfeld
Chef Jonathan Waxman, inside his restaurant Barbuto. Photo: Mark Sommerfeld
Chef Jonathan Waxman, inside his restaurant Barbuto. Photo: Mark Sommerfeld

Over the years, there have been chefs in town with grander gourmet reputations and more hit restaurants to their credit, but it’s fair to say that none of them has prospered longer or been more influential in his laid-back, unobtrusive way than Jonathan Waxman. Beginning with his first New York restaurant, Jams, which opened back in 1984, he’s pioneered a whole variety of durable trends — “California” cuisine, wood-fired Italian cooking, roast chickens, the almighty kale salad — many of which seem to have even more resonance and durability in this comfort-hungry, COVID-addled dining world now than ever before. I talked to Waxman the other day about the travails of the pandemic age, the endurance of his Barbuto franchise, and his tips for survival in the rough-and-tumble world of New York restaurants.

In the 1980s, in a review of the original Jams, Gael Greene described you as “an elder statesman of the new California cooking.” You were 33 at the time. How should we describe you now?
You know, Adam, I like to think of myself as an aging toddler. I know the date on my birth certificate says 71 years old, but I’ve always been a late bloomer, and lucky for me I don’t feel very old. I try to maintain a youthful perspective.

Why do you think Barbuto has managed to remain as popular as it is? The original location opened nearly 20 years ago.
I guess you could compare our kitchen to an old rock-and-roll group or a jazz band. You have your core audience, you have your fans who love what you do, and over time, if you’re lucky, a new audience comes along and discovers your music for the first time, like it was new.

It’s the power of a good roast chicken. I also imagine it’s the power of a certain kind of elegant comfort cooking, which is especially resonant now as we hopefully emerge from the dark COVID years.
New York is a fickle place. The customers are fickle, the market is fickle. We need change, otherwise we wouldn’t be New Yorkers. I’ve always liked to cook for people at my restaurants like I’m cooking for them at home, like it’s a kind of party. There’s a lot of shit going on right now, not just with COVID. I think people want a kind of straightforward comfort in their restaurants now, and what I like to cook at home has always been pretty straightforward, going back to the ’70s when I was at Chez Panisse. You need the best ingredients, but the ingredients shouldn’t be altered too much from their primary state. You find those perfect ingredients. You find perfect asparagus — why torture it? Why touch it 25 times?

So you’re not a fan of the fussy “gourmet” style of cooking?
Oh no, I love it. At Chez Panisse, my dream was to work at Lutéce. I was about to get on a plane to fly to New York to do just that when somebody convinced me to go to L.A. instead to work at Michael’s. I was at Daniel Bouluds new place, Le Pavillon, the other night, and I really appreciate what Daniel does. I love going to see what Jean-Georges is cooking up at his great restaurants. But for me, it’s always been about finding perfect ingredients and letting them speak for themselves. Also, I have to be honest, I don’t want to work that hard.

What about kale? How do you turn that into a best seller?
I had a chef named Melissa Lopez, who’s now in Los Angeles. She’s the one who said, “I think we should do a modified Caesar dressing.” And so we did that, and it was okay. The big change was when we had the idea to massage the kale with a dressing. So my guys, they put the gloves on, put the dressing on top of the julienned kale, and then they crushed the crap out of it with the dressing. The kale exudes this kind of, um, moisture and that mixes with the dressing, and it just creates this magical thing that people can’t get enough of.

The key detail is that the kale-ness is being killed.
I guess you could say that. It used to be, I wouldn’t touch kale in any form. But now I love everything about it.

So what’s the secret of the perfect non-gourmet roast chicken?
I’m actually pretty maniacal about chickens, as you can imagine. At Jams in the ’80s, Larry Forgione was on this quest to produce the perfect facsimile of the French poulet de Bresse bird. We got these great yardbirds from upstate who were allowed to roam outside and had long healthy lives. I would debone them except for the wing joint, cut them in half, sizzle them skin side on the charcoal grill, and finish them with a brown-butter tarragon sauce. The Barbuto birds are from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and we wanted something a little more naturalistic, so we came up with the idea of salsa verde. We roast the chicken at about 425 for 25 minutes then we rest it. Then we put it in the grill section of the oven to get that crispy parchment-like skin, although the time varies according to how much the bird weighs. It’s tricky. You need the right kind of oven. Every bird is different. It probably sounds weird, but after 50 years of cooking chickens, sometimes I feel like I’m a doctor with his patients.

Presumably, the Chicken Doctor and his family roasted many delicious birds at home during the COVID crisis.
Mostly fish and vegetables, actually. I lost 32 pounds. Every day I walked from our Upper West Side apartment down to the empty restaurant, which is exactly six miles. I’d sit in the empty dining room by myself, literally for months. For all of us in this business, it’s been a frustrating and incredibly debilitating time, but my landlord was understanding, my partners were understanding, my employees were understanding, although many of them have gone, and my wife was super-understanding and patient with me until finally, after 18 months, I put my big-boy pants on and said, “I think it’s time to get back to work.”

Obviously the dining world is still in a delicate stage of recovery around the city. Does it feel like we’ve finally turned some kind of corner?
I’m mildly optimistic with severe trepidation. You know, there are these little pockets of normalcy that are creeping in. But we also have to be ever-vigilant. I got my booster, I’ll take another booster, I’ll take anything.

What are the key ingredients for a successful restaurant these days?
You know, the word “restaurant” means “to restore.” What restaurants have always done is to restore the spirit, among other things, and I keep that at the top of my brain all the time. How do you restore people’s spirit when they walk into a place, especially after this debilitating COVID time? How do you make them feel comfortable? How do you make them feel happy? The last thing a restaurant needs to be, these days, is controversial in any possible way. I think people want the familiar pleasures. I think they want the comfort level to be as high as possible. That’s what I want when I walk into a restaurant; I want to feel that positive energy, and with a place like ours, let’s face it, even though we have different things on the menu, you know you’ll be getting the familiar specialties, the gnocchi, the pizza with salmon, the chicken with salsa verde, the kale salad.

These California-style dishes are the Waxman specialties, but you’ve lived in the city for many years now. What are your favorite comforting New York pleasures?
I’m not a bagel man, but my dad grew up in Bushwick and I love a good bialy. A fresh bialy with sable and salmon for breakfast in the morning, or even for lunch, is there a more quintessential New York pleasure than that? I don’t think you can beat a burger at the bar at JG Melon on the Upper East Side. They’re not the healthiest thing to eat, but I’m not afraid to say I raised my kids on hot dogs from those Sabrett carts.

You’re beginning to sound like a crusty old New Yorker.
I love New York and I love California, too. I love the light in L.A., I love the sun, I love going to Malibu, and I love the Santa Monica’s farmers’ market, which might be the best farmers’ market in the world. I ran a restaurant in Napa for a while, but there’s nothing like the excitement and the intensity of New York. There’s so much choice here and there’s so much variety. New Yorkers dine out every night of the week. New Yorkers are nutty about their food, they really are. I’m not taking anything away from L.A. or anyplace else in the world, but there’s something really magical about having a restaurant in New York City. I’m very lucky. I really am.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

The Indefatigable Jonathan Waxman