On the Occasion of Barbuto’s Tenth Anniversary, a Few Thoughts about Jonathan Waxman
[Note: This is the first in a series of symbiotic pieces I’ll be posting with Eater as I round the homestretch on my forthcoming book about the American chefs and restaurants of the 70s and 80s, due out from Dan Halpern’s Ecco Press in 2016. Periodically, Eater will feature an interview between me and a seminal figure from the era under the banner Kitchen Time Machine (click over to Eater to read my interview with Jonathan Waxman), and Toqueland will feature a complementary sister post. – A.F.]
NEW YORK, NY — The first time I met Jonathan Waxman was at Washington Park, his long departed restaurant on lower Fifth Avenue. I was working on a cookbook with Gotham Bar and Grill’s Alfred Portale and, as was customary for us, we’d grab a bite somewhere near Gotham after we finished the evening’s interviewing.
As soon as we were seated, Jonathan approached our table and visited with Alfred for a minute. Amidst the bustle of the dining room, he exhibited a singular, chill demeanor befitting his California roots. He seemed to be operating on his own rhythm rather than that of the room, and the city, around him, a stark contrast to the wound-up personalities that usually materialized at the table when we were out in Manhattan.
“You in for dinner,” Jonathan asked. “Or –”
Alfred was expert at cutting off the possibility of an unwanted feast, always a possibility for a chef of his stature. “We’re just looking for a bite.”
“A snack?” said Jonathan.
Jonathan swept up our menus with an impish smile that I knew meant a mere snack was out of the question, then moseyed away. Minutes later came two identical plates bearing reddish rectangles of rib-eye steak, sauteed escarole, and golden roasted potato coins.
Two things struck me about that evening. First, of course, was the food. It was as simple as can be, but I can still picture, smell, and taste it today. Simplicity has always been a hallmark of Jonathan’s style, but of course it’s harder to attain than most people realize, which is why his chicken, a version of which was first introduced at Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica (that’s a young Jonathan in the upper left corner of the black and white picture in the margin of this webpage) remains a standout more than thirty years later.
The other thing that lodged in my memory was the image of Jonathan mingling along the bar, hugging and kissing more than a dozen patrons.
“What’s up with all the people at the bar?” I asked Alfred.
“That’s Jonathan,” he said. “Those are friends of his.”
“All of them?”
“Yes,” said Alfred. “He stays in touch with people. It’s admirable.”
Jonathan’s latest restaurant, Barbuto, turns ten today. When it first opened, nobody quite knew what to make of it. Jonathan had wandered a bit after his wildly successful runs at Michael’s and Jams in the 1980s, then emerged with this place, the name of which means “beard” in Italian, a nod to the style of food and to the fact that Waxman and his business partner, Fabrizio Ferri, both sport facial hair. It seemed like a bit of a career afterthought at the time: it didn’t quite make sense that Waxman was cooking Italian, and the location was in the way West Village, across the street from Tortilla Flats. (All of this is discussed in my recent interview with him.) But it built slowly over time, and has developed a loyal following, including a number of chefs and industry figures, both local and long distance. On various evenings there I’ve sighted everybody from Ruth Reichl to LA’s John Shook, of Animal and Son of a Gun. (Of course, Jonathan’s 2010 stint on Top Chef Masters didn’t hurt the cause.)
It speaks to both the restaurant’s popularity and to Jonathan’s that, a few weeks ago, when Barbuto blast-emailed notice of an anniversary celebration on Tuesday, February 11, the evening sold out within hours. He and his casually brilliant general manager, Jennifer Davidson (the yin to his yin, you might say), added two nights of additional celebrations–an à la carte menu on Wednesday, and a menu featuring guest chefs Marc Vetri and Tom Colicchio on Monday.
I popped into Barbuto last night, just to say hi, grab some quotes from Marc and Tom, and a photo or two, then run home to write this post. But something funny happened: The place was packed with friends of the house: in the open kitchen, Jonathan was kibbitzing with Ted Allen, Marc Murphy, Margaret Zakarian, and other friends, all of whom were to be seated at the chef’s table for dinner. The whole scene had the air of a dinner party as things often do at Barbuto, where one is just as apt to spy Jonathan in the kitchen as roaming the dining room with a glass of wine or – as he was doing one night a few years back – offering nibbles of an improvised pizza to friends and other diners. In the dining room, a steady proliferation of industry folk paraded through the front door: Food & Wine‘s Kate Krader, chef manager Scott Feldman, Anna Weinberg (Barbuto’s former GM and emerging Bay Area restaurant mogul, who had traversed the nation to celebrate), Michael Murphy (also in from San Francisco), Adam Sachs and Evyn Block, Tasting Table executive editor Karen Palmer, Arnold Rossman (perched on a barstool in a vest and bowtie), YC Media’s Kim Yorio, and the Men Who Dine (and Photograph and Tweet).
It was quite a showing, especially given that this was the “extra, added evening,” and my first-ever encounter with Jonathan was brought full circle when Alfred Portale showed up, with his wife, Sophie.
“You here for dinner?” I asked.
“No, we’re just here to have a drink and toast the occasion.”
I should have known better than to think I’d be able to pull a hit and run. Weinberg, who I have a funny habit of bumping into at lunch at Zuni Cafe, insisted that I join her table for a drink. Next thing I knew, it was salumi, then salads, then pasta. After about 90 minutes, Jonathan appeared over my shoulder to chide me: “I called your wife, just to let her know you’re still alive.” (Little did he know I’d been texting her. She’s wiser than I am: “I knew this would happen,” she wrote me. “Have fun and say hi to everybody.”)
As we ate, Jonathan walked the room: visiting some tables for a few minutes, stopping for photos with friends and fans, lingering for a tête-à-tête at the bar, operating on that comforting, casual rhythm of his. He seemed to have all the time in the world, and to know everybody in the joint, and I mean that literally.
It also speaks to Jonathan’s sense of culinary self that he’s been able to flourish for decades without jumping on any trendy bandwagons. Said Vetri: “Whenever I’m in town, I always eat lunch here. New York has a lot of good restaurants, but this is like home. It’s always ‘the guarantee.’ I could see how this restaurant is or that restaurant is, or I can go to Barbuto and have a great meal. It’s just him. There’s nothing to hide behind. When he does a shaved Brussels sprout salad, you don’t look at it and wonder what it is. Whole roasted fish or chicken is exactly what it is, but cooked with skill and precision. You know it’s going to be moist, juicy, the outside is going to be crispy, the salad is going to have the right vinegar. That’s his style and it’s refreshing, even nowadays when everything is over-thought. ”
Colicchio, freshly returned from his appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher in LA Friday night, didn’t just make a token appearance; he was at the pass all night, and personally delivered food to the dining room throughout the evening. The first time he met Waxman was in another kitchen, across 12th Street: “I first met Jonathan thirty years ago at Gotham Bar and Grill. I was a 22-year old. We were doing an event for Meals on Wheels. There were about 24 chefs in the kitchen. Jonathan strolled in, a little late, and he had 300 black bean cakes that needed to be sauteed off. Alfred pulled me over and said, ‘Help this guy out.'”
Colicchio, whose first Craft opened a few years prior to Barbuto, sees a kinship between what his flagship restaurant brought to the dining landscape and what Barbuto did: “I think that what happened was there was a lot of talk about ingredients and simplicity. We decided to really jump in and make it simple. There’s a certain honesty that people like. We’re less concerned about bells and whistles. Both of our restaurants are more in the Italian tradition than in the French tradition.”
Another remarkable aspect of the evening was how many diners also had tables booked for tonight: Yorio will be back, and so will Weinberg. I’ll be sitting down to dinner at 7:30 myself, and my wife, Caitlin, will be along, sparing me the (self-imposed) guilt, and any further jibes from the chef.
After two hours, I looked up and saw that Alfred and Sophie were still there, sucked into the Barbuto-Waxman tractor beam the same as I’d been. Things haven’t changed: a mere snack was out of the question all those years ago, and a quick drink wasn’t in the cards tonight. This was the place to be, and resistance was futile.