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.)…