Source: Adele's via Bloomberg

Barbuto Chef Jonathan Waxman Has Two Rules for Grilling

The chef of the soon-to-be re-opened Jams in New York talks about his charcoal strategy, and how he handles business

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." His seminal NYC restaurant Jams closed in the '80s, but he kept in the game. He's been running the more Italian-focused Barbuto in the 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.

You're a grilling master. What's the best advice for home grillers? 

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.

Jonathan Waxman was a Berkeley, California hippy who fell into the restaurant trade.
Jonathan Waxman was a Berkeley, California hippy who fell into the restaurant trade.
Source: Barbuto via Bloomberg

Your rule on gas vs. charcoal?

Never use gas and only use charcoal. I recommend a Weber-style kettle grill. That's all you need.

And what's your grilling technique?

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.

The Waxman 75/25 rule, I like it. What about the rest of the meal?

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.

Barbuto in the West Village is an Italian-focused spot that opened in 2004.
Barbuto in the West Village is an Italian-focused spot that opened in 2004.
Source: Barbuto via Bloomberg

Explain the transition from being the father of "California cuisine" to Adele's in Nashville and Mr. Barbecue.

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.

So at age 65 you're making more Adele's and reopening Jams. Aren't you supposed to know better?

Let's just be completely transparent here. I've got one child who is going off to Princeton in the fall, thank God, but it costs serious dollars. I've got one son up in Groton, Massachusetts, I've got another son in the wings ready to go to school and I'd like to not be poor when I retire in three years. But the other sad thing; the location where we are at for Barbuto has been sold and it will go away. I've known about this for a while now. I have to live with it, that's reality. Onwards and upwards.

Adele's in Nashville, which opened last year, is named after Waxman's mother.
Adele's in Nashville, which opened last year, is named after Waxman's mother.
Source: Adele's via Bloomberg

You've had and lost restaurants but you're still Mr. Mellow. Is theresomething in all this experience that will help you deal with a famously powerful guy like Barry Sternlicht, chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group, your new partner in Jams?

I've only had a one-on-one with Barry. He seems like a straightforward kind of guy with a lot of money and a big vision. He and I get along fine. It's really going to be about whether our visions marry up and I think they will.

Re-opening Jams, moving back uptown: Are you nervous at all?

Nervous? What is that?

Barbuto's pizza uovo, featuring oven baked eggs, salsa verde, and pancetta.
Barbuto's pizza uovo, featuring oven baked eggs, salsa verde, and pancetta.
Source: Barbuto via Bloomberg

A great lesson for future chefs and restaurateurs. Any others?

Don't sweat the small sh*t. Listen Peter, I say this truthfully, a long time ago I worked with a chef who said "If you sweat the small things you're going to go crazy and the big things will just happen by themselves." He said "you've got to trust in your mistakes and you’ve got to trust in yourself. Things will come out."

A lot of people just get nervous about the immediacy and I never do. I love serving people, that's my job. I guess I was born for the hospitality business. I think that's the best message I can get across.

So when does Barbuto close?

I'm waiting for the powers to be to tell me. It will be sooner rather than later, unfortunately and it is sad. We've had 11 great years, amazing customers. This part of town has changed dramatically. Who knew? I'll see you uptown!

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