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Jonathan Waxman on Fads, Seasonality, and Future Plans

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Photo: Daniel Krieger

Since it might be unfair to call Jonathan Waxman an elder statesman, it will suffice to say that he's one of the guys cooks look up to. A self-described California boy, Waxman landed in New York in 1983 after several big successes on the West Coast, and since then, he's served as a symbol of seasonal and deceptively rustic cooking. For the past nine years the restaurant Barbuto, in the West Village, has remained his "main thing." In the following interview, Waxman talks about current and future projects, reflects on his time in New York, and shares his thoughts on trendiness in the world of food.

Let's get the newsy stuff out of the way first. I read recently about your interest in going back to L.A. to open a place. What's the status of that?
That's right. I am a California boy at heart, and while I love New York, I think that L.A. has some overwhelmingly compelling product. You go to the Santa Monica farmers market, and it's a chef's wet dream. It just beckons you. I have a nice clientele there, and a lot of my New York clients are also out there.

What kind of restaurant do you think it'll be?
That's the hardest question of all, kind of like sex: where do you start? I think, and this is an obtuse way of answering your question, that it's site-specific. The space has to be compelling first, and then I kind of let it go from there.

So at this point it could end up being anything?
It could be anything. I've done a lot of venues in my life and will continue to do other venues. Barbuto has been my main thing for the last nine years, since I wanted to be around and be a good dad and raise a family. But there are other things to do.

And the other item: you're consulting for Rosa Mexicano. On its face, that's maybe a headscratcher.
I grew up eating Mexican food, I love Mexico, my friends are Mexican. Back in the day at Michael's, I'd incorporate molé sauces and tortillas into the food; I had burritos and tacos on the menu. It's also kind of my go-to cuisine at home, so it's a nice fit. Also, since Marcus Samuelsson calls me "the market chef" or something like that, that marries very well with Mexican cuisine, which is all seasonality. We don't yet have that sensibility in the States, I don't think.

You just hinted at something I wanted to discuss. Trevor Gulliver from St. John recently said that so many restaurants these days bang on about seasonality but don't get it. Would you agree with that?
Oh, 100 percent. It's not that they don't get it. Here's the drill: most chefs are trained to receive food in a box. It comes from a purveyor or a salesperson. Chefs are not trained to go out in the field and pick their vegetables. They're not trained to go to the farmers market. They weren't trained by Alice Waters. I mean, Alice Waters beat the crap out of me about being seasonal. She didn't yell at me, but she said, "Honey, don't you think that that's a better way of doing things?" It takes a long, long time to learn that stuff.

I was talking to someone the other day about menus. In the old days, at steakhouses, they had asparagus and tomatoes on the menu all year long. That was just how they did it, and a lot of chefs have been trained that way. They didn't know that striped bass had a season, for instance. It's certainly gotten better, but I still see corn on menus in January.

Since you just brought her up, why do you think certain people mock Alice Waters?
I think the problem, Gabe, is trendiness versus longevity. The whole thing about being trendy — certain chefs coming in and out of popularity, certain styles drifting in and out — it's always going to be with us. I would hate to be in the fashion world, because I really don't know how they do it! But there's lots of that in food. Look at it from your point of view, as a journalist: you guys want to sell words. So, you need to have new ideas and new stories to tell.

I adore Alice, because she has never changed her tune. She never wavered. I think for a lot of chefs, unless you're touched by that, it's very difficult to understand it. Here's an analogy: I used to play the trombone, and at one point during a practice, the trumpet player said, "I don't understand Miles Davis. It sounds like he is telling white people to fuck off." I told him that he completely misconstrued it. You need to listen harder sometimes. There's a reason why Chez Panisse has been there since 1971. It has staying power and resonates with people. How many restaurants are like that?

In a lot of ways, Alice has become more of an icon than a chef. You know, I saw Julie and Julia and went up to Nora Ephron and thanked her for bringing Julia back to life. What I really meant is that I like to have Julia with me all the time, I like to have Alice with me all the time, and I like to have Jacques Pepin with me all the time. They touch you all the time. Are they the most current? No, but that doesn't mean anything.

What happens is that we want to go to these seminars and listens to these people from the Fat Duck or elBulli or Noma, because they are the leading edge. Well, in a way they are, but in a way, they aren't.

Elaborate on that.
They're the trendiest and considered the best right now, but are they the most important? That's something that we have to think about. Again, I bring in fashion: something that sells for 85 grand will get more press than something that's maybe 150 bucks. But what I do love about our business is that dichotomy: you can go to Per Se in New York or Gjellina in L.A., and they're very different experiences. But they are both restaurants.

Do you look at restaurants like that with resentment or can you appreciate what they do?
I think there's a tendency in our society to go for what's trendiest or considered the best at that moment, regardless of whether or not in resonates with you. But I love the stuff that Blumenthal and those guys do. Without them, the business just stays static. I think there's a place for everything. I think the problem arises when you start talking about whether some kind of restaurant is better than another. It's the idea that you'll go to Copenhagen and only eat at Noma and not be interested in anything else. That's when it gets silly.

Going back to what you mentioned at the top of the interview: do you really think that product is far superior out in California? There are cooks that would probably argue with you on that.
I think there's an argument on both sides of the fence. But I tend to think about microclimatology here, like wine. How do you compare California to Florida or how do you compare Michigan to Maine? You can't do it in specific terms, but you can talk about it generally: California has an advantage because they grow 250 or more days a year. In New York, you can only grow 100 days a year. Is it better? Well, there are strawberries in California that will beat the crap out of anything you get in New York, but I will tell you that corn from Connecticut is the best I've ever tasted in my life. It's hard to buttonhole that question.

Finally, a sappy, silly question: do you consider yourself a New Yorker?
My father just died at ninety, three months ago. He lived in the Bronx, my mother in Bed-Stuy, and they moved to California. When I moved to New York in 1983, he looked at me with this quizzical expression on his face. Why would you go back to a place that was a difficult place to live for them? It was a place that my father loved and would go back to 10 times a year. I think — yeah, I'm a New Yorker, whatever that means. Do I love every minute of it? No. Do I hate it sometimes? Yes. Are there days of spring when the weather is perfect, I'm at a nice restaurant, and I'm with my wife? Yes. It's been amazing raising kids here.

If I move back to California, it'll be when I retire. Michael Symon recently said to me, "You're a legend." I told him I hadn't died yet [laughs]. I think there's more to learn and to do, but I must say that I enjoy it now more than I ever have. I love this universal fervor for food. It used to be such a bleak landscape, and now it's beautiful.

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