Jonathan Waxman loves it when things go wrong in his kitchen, when somebody burns something. "I love it when it's bad. I get even more calm," Waxman says, well, calmly. The Berkeley, Calif.-born-and-raised chef tranquilly surveys the scene at his new Toronto restaurant, which he co-owns with film director Ivan Reitman, as if he were taking in a sunset in Santa Monica.
Waxman, credited for introducing New York palates to California-style cooking, doesn't have the ego-fed intensity of the stereotypical celebrity chef. "I'm always chill," he says, "always." The latest star chef to touch down in Canada, Waxman, like his feel-good food, has a welcoming, unpretentious ease. After decades in a cutthroat industry, he could be the role model for how to succeed without selling – or burning – out.
It's not to say that Waxman isn't excitable. During our hour-and-a-half-long chat, he talks passionately about peaches from Northern California's Brentwood country ("They taste like peach ice cream. Just not real"); the first time he saw nasturtium blossoms used in a salad ("An amazing moment"); a chicken dish, wrapped and deep-fried in parchment paper, he ate at a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco when he was four years old ("Oh my God, it was so delicious. So delicious! I can see it and taste it right now"). If others might measure their lives in milestones, professional and personal, Waxman's seems signposted by milestones of deliciousness.
Waxman, who worked at Chez Panisse for a year, credits Alice Waters as his greatest influence. Like Waters, Waxman's cooking, with its refined rusticity, puts the spotlight on seasonal ingredients. (It makes him crazy, he says, to see, say, asparagus on a menu out of season. And he hates seeing an ingredient appearing more than once on a menu. "Ingredients need to speak to you, and you need to respect them," he says.)
His culinary credo is simple. "A lot of people are fussy about food," he says. "Fussiness doesn't work for me. I don't make tweezer food. Tweezers are for eyebrows. Or splinters." What he is fussy about, or at least emphatic about, is the importance, as well as the difficulty and deliciousness, of simplicity. "Simple is like the Chanel black dress. How many times did she have to cut it to get it perfect? A billion times, right? It's the same thing for food."
What he has surely prepared a billion times – and perfected – is the roast chicken he has long served at Barbuto, his 11-year-old Italian restaurant in New York's West Village. The now-signature dish inspired New York Times critic Frank Bruni to describe it as "… so impressive that it's arguably cause for scientific study." The famous fowl has found its way to Waxman's menu at Montecito – a grandiose, two-storey affair located next to downtown Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox (land long-owned by the Reitman family). Named after the almost objectionably idyllic suburb of Santa Barbara, Montecito bathes in perfect, buttery lighting (presumably among the perks of having a renowned film director as a business partner). The restaurant's grandness provides a theatrical, if contrasting, backdrop to Waxman's cozy, patch-to-plate cooking.
If other celebrity chefs have debuted restaurants in Canada, those satellite restaurants (consider Scott Conant's short-lived Scarpetta in Toronto's Thompson Hotel) have also, largely, disappointed and flopped; the food, atmosphere and service lacking in the finesse and magic of their New York originals. The chief ingredient to the success of this sort of venture, Waxman feels, is in mentorship. "You have to find the right individuals who understand, and get a piece of your DNA," he says, "That's why I settled on [executive chef] Matt [Robertson]. He finished my sentences." Some of what Waxman imparts to the protégés that he calls "my kids": Don't cook with your eyes ("Most chefs cook with their eyes because they want to make it pretty. First, make it taste good. Alice taught me that my job is to taste"); and "You have to be able to improvise. Improvisation is the highest form of flattery in the sense that you want to please your audience, you want to come up with something unusual."
Improvisation is something Waxman learned as a young musician. Before he found his way to the stoves, Waxman played the trombone and landed a scholarship at the University of Nevada, later playing in casino pit bands with the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. It was only when he found himself gig-less in Maui that he took a job at a beachside restaurant, the Rusty Harpoon. "My buddies said, 'You have two options: Sell drugs or work in a restaurant.' I'm going, well, I don't want to sell drugs, I can get them for free.'"
Waxman eventually enrolled in cooking school in San Francisco. Of those early student days, he recalls: "I remember the first time we made chocolate roulade. And I said, 'This is better than sex.' It really was." He arrived in Paris in 1976 on his 26th birthday to start cooking school at La Varenne. "I only knew how to say 'Bonjour,'" he says. And roulade. A vocabulary that, as it turns out, served him quite nicely. He lived in an apartment with the editor of Marie Claire magazine and various fashion models. "It wasn't so bad," he offers summarily, smiling slyly and savouring the extravagance of the understatement.
Although Waxman is now, at 63, savouring his grey-bearded role as wise paterfamilias, he is no stranger to faster, flashier lanes – even literally (he used to drive a Ferrari). And he was known to fly to Paris for the evening just to dine at Taillevent. As the late Michael Batterberry, founder of Food & Wine and Food Arts magazines, said: "Whoever said chefs in the eighties were like rock-'n'-roll stars had Jonathan in mind. The talent, plus the hair, the girls, the cars. It was quite new and very Rolling Stone."
I bring up the fact that the L.A. Times once called him the Eric Clapton of chefs. "It's very flattering. But it's embarrassing. Very embarrassing," he says looking, as he always does, fabulously at ease. But he prefers to turn the conversation to the talents of others: "Great chefs in France like Michel Guérard, those guys are the rock stars, they're the Claptons, I just don't think I'm as good as they are. Michel Richard, he cooks better than anyone I've ever known. Jean-Georges [Vongerichten], a great friend, is a phenomenal cook. He cooks circles around me. That's okay. Wolfgang Puck? Circles around me!" he says, enjoying this line of discussion, almost taking pride in his own humility and self-awareness. "I don't think I'm insecure. I know my place."