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Jonathan Waxman on 'Food Pioneers' and Coming to NYC

Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, a new interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs. In part one of Andrew's interview with Jonathan Waxman, the chef reflected on 10 years of Barbuto. In part two, he looks back on the early days of his career:

[Daniel Krieger]
Andrew Friedman: You're considered one of the first "celebrity chefs." I just was reading an old article the other day that said when people used that term, Jonathan Waxman is who they had in mind. Was there a moment in the early- to mid 80s, where you realized what the hell was going on? People who started cooking when you did, almost to a person, did not see it coming.

Jonathan Waxman: Well, that's kind of patently untrue, and I'll tell you why. I arrived in France on my birthday in 1976, so I was 26-years-old. And there was a Paris Match that came out, and on its cover were the chefs from, you know, Bocuse and all the nouvelle cuisine guys lined up. And I knew I didn't think it would happen to me, but I knew that there was something happening, that chefs were becoming important.

Was that part of the appeal for you?

Not at all. It was kind of a byproduct. I was glad the French guys got it but I didn't think it was something that would happen here. And all of a sudden when I got back to the US, you know, I worked at Domaine Chandon the first year it was open and Bocuse and Vergé were the consulting chefs, and when they came into town, the French all bowed down, but no one else knew about them. There were some journalists that were really excited to see Bocuse and Vergé, but for the most part the general public had no knowledge what a chef was or what the popularity of chefs would become. And then when I went to Michael's and Ruth [Reichl] wrote that article about Michael's, the opening of Michael's

The New West piece.

There was also a big thing in LA Magazine. It was actually a somewhat negative review of Michael's, but again, it gave us a lot of publicity. And then the LA Times review, and then we started getting all the national press. And at that time, I didn't think anything of it. But when I came to New York —and I was totally naive about this — I didn't realize the power of the New York press.

I got street cred without earning it.

You mean this being the epicenter —

— of the publishing world. And all of a sudden, I get asked to be in Life magazine. I get asked to be in the cover of Esquire magazine. All these different crazy things were happening and it was almost like a dream.

It seemed surreal to you?

One hundred percent surreal.

Did it seem to happen fast?

Extremely fast. I got street cred without earning it. You know what I mean?

I don't, actually. You didn't think you'd earned it at that point?

No, I didn't think so.

You didn't think Michael's gave you the...

No, because I still had the sensibility of what French chefs had accomplished, and it took them 20, 30 years to get where they were.

It seems to me that the relationship between chefs and the media has changed dramatically. You just mentioned Ruth. You look at Ruth and Colman Andrews and their place in Los Angeles back in the day. I was talking to some sports writers recently. It used to be not uncommon for reporters to go down to spring training and stay in the same hotel as the athletes and be poolside with them drinking a beer after practice. I know a tennis writer who shared a condo with Jimmy Connors at a tournament once. Similarly, it seems like there used to be less of a barrier between media and chefs.

I think there's food criticism and then there's food journalists. I think they're very different. I think there are the critics that, number one, will always pay for their own meals, always want to remain anonymous, and create a sense of objectivity about their restaurants and reviews. And there was a very strict line about that.

And then there were the people who were real journalists or what we call food media, or food and wine media (because I think wine is an important part of the whole thing), that want to be chummy because they wouldn't get the information that they needed unless they had street cred and there was a camaraderie that existed like you're talking about with baseball or tennis. That's just the way things worked, because the artists trust the journalists. Alice and Ruth are very good friends. I know Ruth is staying at Nancy Silverton's house for a month. I remember when Colman invited us to go to Spain with Alice Waters and Ruth and Bradley Ogden and Mark Miller and Lydia Shire and all those people. It wasn't as journalists and chefs; it was kind of like food pioneers, people going and discovering, for them, a new cuisine that we had no clue about because we were just moronic.

You all were there together at the beginning.

I mean, it's better for you, right? As a journalist, I think it's good for you to become friendly with guys because we trust you.

It's better but it's harder because everyone now has handlers. They're lawyered up.

Well, they're lawyered up. But I'm always going to be honest with you. I'm always going to tell you the good, bad, and otherwise, because I don't give a shit. I mean, at some point in your life you have to be comfortable in your own skin. And I think that journalists and their subjects can be chummy without being stupid, you know? Let's face it: For cooks, it's all out there on the plate, you know? We can't hide. You know, we have a transitory art form, you know? It's about what you remember of what we did.

[Daniel Krieger]

You're as good as your last plate.

Exactly. But it's also as good as what you [know]. I love reading Elizabeth David. She takes me back in time. Richard Olney did the same thing for me. And you know, good food journalists, a writer, does the same thing in the present day — you write down stuff that hopefully people go back to and say, "God, that was really cool." And I think what a lot of young chefs really need to understand is the place and time where we evolve from. Who was James Beard? Who was Richard Olney? Who was Julia Child? Who were these great legends? Who was Joe Baum? These people are so, so important. Without these people, none of this stuff would exist. I think it's so important. Things haven't changed. It's a little bit like musicians, learning the scales like they did four hundred years ago. Learning the scales. What you do with them, well, it's up to you, you know?

People think about your food as being, you know I mean this as a compliment, very simple.

Simple is hard.

But you trained at La Varenne. You spent time cooking in Europe. When you have an idea for a dish, do your ideas tend to come to you more complicated than they end up? Is there a stripping-down process.

It always works both ways. Sometimes it gets complicated and you've got to go backwards; sometimes it's too simple and you've got to add something.

What you put in your head doesn't mean anything, because it never works out the way you want it.

Can you work that out in your head or do you have to get to the stove?

You have to get to the stove. You have to put it together. What you put in your head doesn't mean anything, because it never works out the way you want it. It must be a little bit like dog trainers. Every dog is different, you know? You've got to work with what you've got. You look at one dog, that dog needs something different, and you have to be quick on your feet to realize what the dog needs. Same thing with food. I got confronted with a dish I made in Hawaii earlier this month with these beef cheeks that came from this grass-fed beef in Hawaii. And they were unlike any other beef cheek I've ever had in my life. They were weird. But I had an intuitive process about how to deal with it. And the chef started taking all the veins out and all the sinew. I said, "Stop! They're going to disintegrate in the cooking process. They'll melt away and they'll become part of the luxury of that dish. They'll become the umami of that dish." He gives me a look like he didn't believe me. And I didn't believe myself. But I had an intuitive feeling that that was going to happen. So we cut the pieces very small, rather than large, and we made a traditional style stew and we cooked it longer than we normally would have done. We cooked it for eight hours, but really low, low, low, low, low temperature, almost 175 to 190 degrees. Just above the health department, you know, safety code. And doing it the slow way and with the acid of the wine and the other ingredients that were involved, it was fantastic. I could have failed. It could have come out like crap. But I intuitively understood that beef by looking at it.

I love that about food. And the same thing about people: You get two cooks at a side table, you give them the exact same ingredients, you give them the same recipes, and two completely different dishes will come out. Why? Because we're human.

It reminds me of boxing, where you have two people who are the same weight and one of them can clobber the other one. But it's the same amount of person.

It's so fascinating. And that's why people say, "Well, they go to school to learn how to cook." I always laugh. Where you go to school is in the street. Where you go to school is going to other people's restaurants or going and working at other people's restaurants or going to people's homes or going to the supermarkets. Cooking is so much about just living. And you know, for years before people wrote down recipes…. you know what a recipe means? It was a receipt. So it'd just be what you bought in the store. Go to the store, buy stuff, put the list of ingredients down on the table and that's what you make that day. Don't go pre plan. People say, "No, no, no. We've got to pre plan." And I always laugh because I could never do it that way.

I remember [An American Place chef] Larry Forgione laughing at me when I was making croquettes for the first time. He just didn't say a word, just watched me fail time after time, and finally comes over and he says, "Wax, let me show you how to do it."

Where was this?

It was at Jams. Because he and I, we were at each other's restaurants every night, and kibitzing and just fooling around, misbehaving. But his background and mine were so different that it was always a pleasure to be able to plumb his vocabulary. And then I think he appreciated my spontaneity, my improvisation method.

Lennon and McCartney.

(laughs) It was a good Yin-Yang thing, you know? It drives my wife completely batty. She'd go, "Honey, what are you going to make?" Now she knows. She puts the stuff on the counter and all of a sudden, I want to try stuff out. Sometimes it just doesn't work.

I love mentoring people, because I think if I impart that to other people, then our industry will get better. Because people didn't help me along the way.

You're known as a spotter of talent, and a connecter. Is there something about you, do you think, that's intrinsically interested in doing that for people?

I purposely try not to be a user even though I was at certain junctions in my life, selfishly. And I think that in trying to not use people, but reverse, try to always bend over backwards to help people and try to realize people's full potential. I love mentoring people, because I think if I impart that to other people, then our industry will get better. Because people didn't help me along the way. I had to find out for myself. I think everybody needs a helping hand. And one person that did that for me very unselfishly was Andre Soltner.


Andre Soltner was kind of my culinary uncle when I first moved to New York. And if I needed anything from a health inspector, to expediter, to a lawyer, to a source of anything from rabbits to scallops to anything else, I'd call up Andre, and he'd say, "Come over and have coffee."

How did you know him?

I just had met him eating at the restaurant.

When you moved here or before?

Before, when I would come to New York for visits.

Was he receptive to what was happening? All the new young American cooks?

Incredibly so. He knew that New York needed fresh blood. He was extremely wise about that. And also I think he related back to when he started opening his own restaurant and he didn't have the resources and he needed stuff, and he wasn't going to let me suffer the same fate that he had to suffer. He understood the community of chefs, and that's really what we all want. And that's why I love my business. I mean, I don't know any other business where people from all walks of life get together in a kitchen and we start laughing. It's pretty cool.

Head over to Toqueland for more of Friedman's thoughts on Waxman's career, and the 10-year anniversary of Barbuto.
· Part 1: Jonathan Waxman Looks Back on 10 Years of Barbuto [~EN~]