Jonathan Waxman is an award-winning chef, restaurateur and cookbook author. The chef-owner of NYC's Barbuto, he competed on Top Chef Masters to raise money for the charity Citymeals On Wheels and made it to the semi-finals before being eliminated last week.
All kinds of people end up in kitchens but you're the first chef I've ever heard of who made the transition from professional trombone player. How'd that happen?
Funny story. I played in many venues: with Sammy Davis, Jr, in a casino, with Lenny Pickett (Saturday Night Live band director) in a funk-rock band, and jazz big bands. By 1973, disco was huge and there wasn't a lot of call for musicians, especially trombonists. I was playing in Maui with a small band that broke up. My pals, all wild surfers, said I could either sell pot or work in a restaurant; I chose the latter.
Later, upon returning to Berkeley, I sold Ferraris and the dealer's wife noticed my passion for cooking. She suggested I attend Tante Marie cooking school in SF. I fell in love with cooking! Mary Risley, the owner of the school, pushed me into attending La Varenne in Paris and that was it, no more trombone playing!
You were probably the most laid back chef on the show and yet you ended up in the semifinals with the three most competitive chefs. If you had to do the show again, would you approach it more strategically the second time around?
I was totally comfortable with my dishes all the way through. I am not a competitive chef in the sense that I want to trump anyone. I am competitive unto myself, I always push myself. I think a fair assessment was that I was exhausted and honestly felt I did a good job.
Just like Susan Feniger did last week, you got flack from Jay Rayner at the critic's table about your dish not being ambitious enough for such a late stage in the competition. Do you think that was a fair assessment?
Jay seemed to want see a heightened push towards some ethereal goal, as if the competition was pushing towards Olympian heights. I looked at it differently, I wanted to show my philosophical take, that food does not need razzle-dazzle to be great, that a simple approach for me was best, and he had another notion.
You've trained so many chefs over the last thirty years and are one of the most influential chefs in America for that reason. Who was your most influential teacher?
Hard to say. The great Ferdinand Chambrette at La Varenne was amazing, perhaps though Alice Water and to a great extent Jean Pierre Moulle (both of Chez Panisse) were very important. Also, Julia Child and Graham Kerr had a huge influence on me. As did Freddy Girardet in Switzerland.
· Jonathan Waxman's Secret Chicken Stock Exchange [Gothamist]
· The Chefs of Top Chef Masters Season 2: A Field Guide [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Coverage on Eater [~EN~]
· All Top Chef Masters Exit Interviews on Eater [~EN~]