How do you keep your reservation book full for over a decade? Ask Jonathan Waxman. He’s managed to turn his West Village restaurant, Barbuto, into a vibrant New York staple. An outstanding roast chicken might have a lot to do with all of the success. Ironically, that’s the one dish he’d like to take off the menu, but it’s just too popular. The California-raised chef worked in the illustrious kitchens of Chez Panisse and Michael’s in California before moving to New York to revolutionize the food scene with his seasonal American cooking.
Waxman’s written two cookbooks and was also a contestant on Top Chef Masters season two. Not bad for a former busboy who dreamed of hitting it big as a funk-rock musician. More importantly, he’s one of the few chefs that’s managed to do it all. When you run a successful restaurant, something’s gotta give and that’s often family. Yet, Jonathan’s happily married with three kids and even finds time to cook at home. He’d love to have a cooking show and open another restaurant, but he seems content with his current success. In his free time, he devotes himself to charities like Citymeals on Wheels and Alex’s Lemonade Stand, raising money to cure childhood cancer. Where does he eat when he’s not at Barbuto? En Japanese Brasserie, Little Owl, Perry Street and Red Cat to name a few.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A Rock and Roll bass player in a major band.
What was your first job in food and what did you learn?
I was playing in a funk-rock band in Hawaii and the band broke up. So I became a busboy at the Rusty Harpoon in Kaanapali Beach, Maui. I learned how to filet Mahi Mahi, cut steaks, wash dishes and tend bar.
You worked at the legendary Chez Panisse in the 1970s, serving seasonal and local food far before it became fashionable. Why do you think it’s been so influential?
The model is all about Alice [Waters]. She is truly a genius, capable of influencing not only the food world, but the world at large.
What compelled you to move from California to New York?
I was the chef at Michael’s and [owner] Michael McCarty wanted to open a branch in Manhattan. When that did not go through, I decided to make the move myself in 1983 with my partner Melvyn Master.
Were people immediately receptive to your style of cuisine?
It was crazy. It was like no one had heard of seasonal offerings, wood-grilled food, emphasis on a changing menu and chilies. When Andy Warhol and Woody Allen were there three nights a week, something wild was happening.
How do you think the culinary world has changed since you began your career?
When I started out, a chef was like someone who changed the oil in your automobile — essential, but hardly noteworthy. Now, people think of chefs as cultural icons.
Which emerging chefs are you most excited about?
Oh my God, there are so many. Jonathan Sawyer in Cleveland, Trey Foshee in La Jolla, Jennifer Puccio in San Francisco, Jimmy Bannos Jr. in Chicago, Travis Lett in Venice, Marc Forgione in New York, etc.
Your distinct culinary style focuses on respecting ingredients and simple plating, so what do you think of the modernist cuisine that’s become so popular in recent years?
All is good. The philosophy that I adhere to is that passion, intelligence and technique should guide chefs. And if that leads them to paths yet discovered, as long as the intent is pure, who am I to disagree? To do it gratuitously does no one any good.
How do you keep Barbuto relevant in New York’s fickle restaurant scene?
I don’t consciously follow any trends or compete except to always better my own game. What happens without my walls is of no consequence, I am my own critic.
What’s your favorite dish on the menu?
I love ‘em all, just like my children.
Is there any dish you wish you could take off the menu, but it’s just too damn popular?
What are some of your favorite neighborhood restaurants?
Little Owl, EN Japanese Brasserie, Perry Street, Wallse, Standard Grill, Red Cat.
What do you usually cook at home for your family?
Whatever my beautiful wife Sally buys at the farmers’ market. She buys, I cook, she doesn’t let me clean.
Have your three children expressed interest in working in the restaurant business?
Alexander, my eleven-year-old, says he is taking over.
We heard you’re hosting Alex’s Lemonade Stand benefit for childhood cancer cures that you’re hosting in December. How did you become involved with this benefit?
I love this charity. It is an amazing, real charity that I immediately connected with. I cried hearing about Alex Scott’s noble cause to eradicate childhood cancer, so I had to volunteer. I have riffed on the event that Autism Speaks does, one chef per table of ten. However, since this will be a family-style event, only platters of food will be served. We are doing it upstairs at Industria on Greenwich Street and we are having members of New York City Ballet perform. I hope to raise a ton of cash for this very worthy and wonderful cause.
Following your appearance on Top Chef Masters, do you have any interest to return to TV to host a cooking show?
Going strong for nearly a decade, Barbuto’s become a New York staple. So do you have any plans or aspirations to open additional restaurants?
Address: 775 Washington St. between W. 12th and Jane streets
Phone: (212) 924-9700