Jonathan Waxman was a Berkeley, California hippy who fell into the restaurant trade, running the kitchens at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in the late 1970s and palling around with culinary rock-stars like Jeremiah Tower and Michael McCarty. Together they brought a relaxed, ingredient-focused sensibility to eating that came to be known as “California cuisine.”
Waxman’s seminal restaurant Jams closed in the ‘80s, but he kept in the game. He’s been running the more Italian-focused Barbuto in New York’s West Village since 2004 and last year opened Adele’s in Nashville, Tennessee, which is named after his mother and features a giant wood-burning oven at its center. He’s become the gentle grandfather of a new generation of chefs. As he prepares to reopen Jams in 1 Hotel Central Park this month, another Adele’s in Toronto and a possible return to his home turf in San Francisco, Bloomberg Brief’s Peter Elliot caught up with him at Barbuto.
Peter Elliot: You’re a grilling master. What’s the best advice for home grillers??
Jonathan Waxman: Don’t get the fire too hot or too low. Fill the chimney up, get it hot and dump it out, then add fresh coals immediately. Number two, if you’re using a gas grill everyone turns it on too full and that just makes for [food] fires. Or they turn it way too low because they are afraid. So, medium on a gas grill.
PE: Your rule on gas vs charcoal?
JW: Never use gas and only use charcoal. I recommend a Weber-style kettle grill. That’s all you need.
PE: And what’s your grilling technique?
JW: Let’s say you want to do steak and potatoes; keep it simple. The trick is to wrap the potatoes and throw them in the bottom where the coals are — but double wrap them with tinfoil so they don’t get burnt. Then you can grill the steaks after about 20 minutes. Here’s the trick: make sure when you grill them you’re doing that over the hot parts of the coals. If it’s not hot you have to push the coals to one part of the grill to really get intense heat. Grill the steaks 75 percent on one side. Everyone wants to flip their meat back and forth, but put it in one place and forget about it. It’s important for chicken, it’s important for fish, it’s important for vegetables. Seventy- five percent.
PE: The Waxman 75/25 rule, I like it. What about the rest of the meal?
JW: When you want to get ready for your meal, you want to get everything ready at the same time. Let’s say your potatoes are done, you pull them out and your steak feels a little rare to you, put some fresh coals on, get the potatoes ready, get your salad ready, get the wine ready, throw the steaks on for two minutes a side to reheat them and you’re good.
PE: Explain the transition from being the father of “California cuisine” to Adele’s in Nashville and Mr Barbecue.
JW: Four years ago this rock and roller, Caleb Followill [Kings of Leon lead singer] started coming into Barbuto a lot. One day we started talking about rock and roll, food, everything. We got to be very good friends. One day he looks at me and asks “How come I can’t get this food in Nashville?” I said, “Well let’s do something about it.” He’s represented by Ken Levitan who’s one of my partners and I have other amazing partners who are local Nashvillians.
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