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Jonathan Waxman on Expanding to Nashville and Toronto

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[Photos: Daniel Krieger]

Earlier this month, NYC chef Jonathan Waxman revealed massive expansion plans. After 10 years of only running the acclaimed Barbuto, Waxman is now working towards opening two restaurants outside of New York: Adele's in Nashville and Montecito in Toronto. In the midst of working on getting those restaurants open by this Summer, Waxman also learned he is a finalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: New York City. (He was also a finalist last year).

Last week Eater caught up with Waxman at Barbuto. In the interview below, he explains why he thinks expansion is a "silly" word and what his role in the two new restaurants will be. "If I'm not a good teacher, and I'm not a good mentor, then I'm not a good owner," he says. Waxman also reveals details about the menus in Nashville and Toronto (there will be chicken), plus plans for chef's tables and counters, huge wood-burning grills, and plenty of local character. Here now, the interview:

Barbuto recently turned 10. Did hitting that milestone influence your decision to expand now?
No. I've been thinking about expansion for a long time. It was a conscious decision not to do anything for 10 years, because I wanted to spend quality time with my family ... I really think I didn't want to waste those years.

Now that my children are getting older, and let's face it, with college $60,000 a year now, something has to fund the operation. Unfortunately, sadly, one restaurant just doesn't do it. That's the truth. If Barbuto would satisfy all my economic needs, I would be very happy staying here and doing nothing else, because it's such a great place. It really is.

I'm sure you've gotten offers to expand before. What's the craziest thing you've said no to, and why?
Oh, God. The craziest thing, that's a funny question. I've had offers from London, from Hong Kong. That's pretty crazy, you know? Hong Kong sounds crazy to me. I have other friends like Nancy Silverton and Mario [Batali], and other people that have done that. Those are long flights. David Chang and I were talking about his expansion to Australia. David's single, he's young, he's strong, can hop on a plane and not feel the jet lag.

I've been in New York since '83, and you establish yourself in a neighborhood, and it takes time to develop a neighborhood connection. I think that's really important as a restaurateur. I think it's not the food, it's not the service, not the location, it's the people that come to your restaurant. Servicing those people takes a lot of time. It's important.

I think I've made all the mistakes in the world. I could probably make some more mistakes.

I was looking at that Torrisi article today in the New York Times, they remind me of me when I was 32 years old. I opened five restaurants in three years. It's tough to understand what the future's going to bring. But now that I've done it before, I think I've made all the mistakes in the world. I could probably make some more mistakes. I wanted to have a carefully curated expansion and something that I was comfortable with.

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How involved will you be in the day to day life of these two new restaurants?
In Toronto, I'm an owner, not the chef. I'll make that distinction. I'm doing it because I'm friends with Ivan Reitman, the director. He asked me to make sure that he'd have a good restaurant in Toronto. He and I see eye-to-eye culinarily, we have very similar ethnic backgrounds. Will I be spending a lot of time in Toronto? As much as I think I need to, but it's not going to be something that I need to babysit. We have really fantastic local chefs, amazing guys.

Because I have such a great connection in Toronto, it was easier for me to find some great candidates. My faith is in them, they'll do all the hard work, they'll make me look good. That's the point of being owner versus the chef. Everybody thinks that when I come to Barbuto, that I cook every dish. That's simply not true. I want my people that I mentor, my mentees, to do the work. Because it's important, that's how the industry grows. If I were to cook everything and all of a sudden drop dead one day, well, Barbuto would die. That's not how things work.

In Toronto it's the same thing. I'll mentor these people but I'm not going to babysit them. I want them to have it. I really believe in autonomy for all employees, whether it's a waiter or a bartender or a cook or a dishwasher, they should feel that number one, that I trust them. Number two, that they can perform their duties and their craft as individuals. That's so important, I think. I don't want automatons. I don't want robots. I want people that really think for themselves.

In Nashville, are you making that same distinction about owner/chef?

If people expect me to work the line at 63 years old, they're f*cking out of their minds.

Absolutely, 100 percent, yeah. If people expect me to work the line at 63 years old, they're f*cking out of their minds. What I'll have is some great people, and we already hired some really great people. I have lots of friends in Nashville, so everybody's telling where to get the great purveyors ... They're happy, because it's good for them. The more people that use the purveyors, the happier the purveyors, they make more money, the purveyors are going to expand. It's a good cycle of life...

Like every town, Nashville's got room for lots of different styles of food and I think they have room for me. Remember, you can't eat at the same restaurant every night no matter what you believe. Diversity is everything. That's what the whole food revolution in America has been about. It's not LA, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Miami. You go to everywhere in America. You go to Memphis, you go to Charleston, you go to Sacramento, San Diego, Boston, Nashville. All these great towns that for a long time were looking for their culinary identity. All of a sudden they woke up one day and said they had it, they just didn't realize it. It took a lot of people rethinking the process ... I think it's beautiful. These towns aren't known for one restaurant, they're known for lots of different restaurants. Each town has their own restaurant community. To me, that's the greening of restaurants in America. We're the second biggest industry in America, except for the government.

I think if I can help promote the individual restaurateur, whether it's a chef, or the front of the house person, or a group of people, I think it's a great thing. Because it means all the guys, those ranchers who have grass-fed beef and the guys raising lamb, and the fisherman that couldn't make a living a few years ago, now have a source for their bounty, it's great.

I know with Nashville, you've been a pretty outspoken fan for a while, and you were involved in Music City Eats. I'm wondering, can you tell me how the concept for Adele's relates to the city of Nashville?
Caleb [Followill, from Kings of Leon and co-producer of Music City Eats] started coming to Barbuto every day for about a year. He and I developed a friendship that was based upon two things, music and food. It evolved to more of a real relationship, we talked about everything. Kids, money, family, war, movies, et cetera.

When I started going down to Nashville and hanging out down there, I fell in love with the city. It's a great size city. Let's face it. The music is so amazing down there. I remember [I went to] a club, it cost like five bucks to get in, the beers were $3, the music was free. I said, "You know what? This is heaven." That really inspired me a lot of ways.

Then going, eating at other people's restaurants, Rolf and Daughters, City House, and Sean Brock's new restaurant, this new Pinewood Social. All these different satellite restaurants that have popped up. They have this great coffee coming called Crema, oh my god, it's to die for. Plus the old traditional places like Arnold's and Prince's. I thought it was a good place for me to expand.

Expansion, I think, is a silly word. I think it's more like I'm just duplicating my brand, whatever my brand is, the Waxman brand. That's the great thing about my brand, because I'm not stuck on Italian, French, I can do whatever I want to do.

I love the Southern mentality. My wife is from Wilmington, North Carolina. I love going down there .... I love going to get boiled peanuts. I think hush puppies are the greatest food in the world. It's not a food culture I grew up with, but it's a food culture that I really love and relate to ... But my food is really just seasonal food from the marketplace. It's taking a piece of lamb and not screwing up.

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I hear you're going to have a wood burning grill at Adele's?
Huge wood burning grill. Huge wood burning oven, we have almost fifteen feet of wood burning ovens.

Whoa. Have you started planning what dishes you're going to make?
Never. You want to hear the goofy thing? Don't laugh. When I built [Barbuto], there wasn't much to build, but when we did build it I didn't have a menu when we opened. We just figured it out at the last minute... What you do is you walk into a space, and the space will speak to you. It sounds moronic, in way, and it sounds a little bit antithetical to how to do a business. How do you work a business like that? But it's the way it is, and you know what? Your customers help you, too. You put 20 things on the menu, they might only gravitate toward 12 of them.

I would say I'll have a chicken in Nashville, and Toronto. That's a no-brainer. We'll probably have a couple of things, I've got two full cookbooks. Who knows about cookbooks? I got a lot of recipes. Let's face it, each book has over 125, that's 250 things that are printed. That doesn't mean all the things I've done before and after. I've got a good repertoire...

I had a dish recently that I thought was the best dish I've eaten in years. It was at Joe's Stone Crab in Miami, everything about Joe's I love. They serve these artichoke hearts that have been steamed halfway, the choke pulled out, cut in half and then charcoal grilled over wood grill with olive oil and sea salt. I'm sorry. That's me ... That's the kind of food that I do. And I think that I can't do anything but that. I'll go to market and for instance, I'm hoping there's going to be baby collard greens, and wonderful kinds of nuts, and things for me to play with. I wouldn't be surprised if I'm totally surprised by what's down there. Especially when we're opening up, everything is going to be in season...

That's my food, that's who I am. I take a leg of lamb and butterfly it, marinate for a couple days and throw it on the barbecue. Roast some potatoes. That's what I do, and I hope people like it. That's all...

Before I move away from Nashville, have there been any surprises or challenges in working towards opening the Nashville spot?
No. None. Having Ken Levitan as my partner in Nashville gives me a certain amount of legitimacy before we even start. He's the guru of Nashville, he knows everybody ... so if I want to know anything I just ask Ken.

How did you guys get partnered up?
From Caleb ... Ken and I became friends ... It's really kind of a beautiful thing. I'll tell you, people are so great down there, they really are. Thoughtful, considerate, and all my friends, when I ask them for something they say, "Jonathan, whatever you need." And that's the way I think the world works, at least I hope it works that way.

In my business, it's about colleagues that embrace each other. There's a great love amongst chefs and restaurateur, it's really an important things. I say this because I want my industry to grow. I think the Food Channel and everything else attracts people, but I want them to understand how much fun it really is. It's hard work, it's sweaty, dirty, greasy, long hours, all that stuff.

When you come and say, "Look, Jonathan, I just had a great meal," you know how good that makes us feel? You have no idea. It's such a sense of satisfaction, and it's a gratification that's immediate. Somebody says, "That was one of the best things I ever ate," there's nothing better than that, that's as good as it gets in life.

I wanted to move on to the Toronto project. You mentioned David Chang earlier, he's up in Toronto, Daniel Boulud too. I was curious, you mentioned that Ivan brought you into Toronto, is that what sparked the idea for you to say, "Hey, Toronto is for me"?

I'm lucky, because people know my name.

It was a very direct connection to go to Toronto. Luckily, I have a lot of friends, as like Nashville. Actually, I have more friends in Toronto than I do in Nashville. At least initially, not any more. It was relatively easy for me to get connected in terms of purveyors, chefs, and local restaurant community. I'm lucky, because people know my name. It helps open doors. I think that's an important thing. I try not to act with hubris, because I want to listen to my friends there, what their clients are like, what sells well.

I had the best beef I've ever had in my life. I did a special dinner up there about four years, five years ago. That's actually what sparked all that. I did a dinner at Ruby Watchco for the James Beard House. I went up there, and I did this dinner. They said, "What do you want to cook?" I said, "Do you have a local forager?" "Yeah, we've got this person." I call the forager up ... I ordered a bunch of stuff, I'd never seen it before, and it came in. I almost fell over backwards. I had these New York steaks, grass-fed from Saskatchewan. Oh my god. You could eat just fat, it was so digestible. When I was slicing it for the dinner, I kept eating every piece of it. And I said, "Oh my god, this is different than what we get in America. This is really cool."

Then I've done some exploratory trips up to Nova Scotia, and to Vancouver, places like that. The seafood is just remarkable. I've been buying chickens from Giannone from Quebec for a long time. I don't buy them anymore, but I did before. They were some of the best chickens I've ever had in my life.

Slowly but surely I was building up a vocabulary of what might be available there. The next two months, we're going to start really plumbing the local purveyors. I will say they've had a crappy winter, as we have. There's nothing in the marketplace. It will be really interesting what happens in May, June, July up there. I think it will be amazing.

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Have you thought about what the kitchen would look like, or what the sort of concept will be?
The kitchen is all planned. It's actually a beautiful kitchen ... I always do the same thing. I like the open kitchens. I love the connection between the chefs and the clients. I think that diners really are interested in how cooks do things these days, they want to see the show. Also, logistically, you want the kitchen as close to the clients as possible. You want the least amount of distance from the stove to the table.

It's quite a wonderful open kitchen. There's actually a chef table right in the middle that we planned. In Nashville, there's actually a chef counter. I didn't want to do a chef's table there, I wanted people literally to be in the kitchen, which I thought would be kind of fun, watching the chefs cook.

Will the Toronto restaurant have some sort of hearth as well?
The Toronto kitchen, unfortunately because of local restrictions, won't have the wood burning.

How has the hiring been going for that one?

I'd be stupid to bring someone from outside Toronto.

Great ... Local is the key. If I were to bring someone from outside, number one, it's the wrong message. Number two, I'd be stupid. I want someone who's grown up in Toronto, maybe worked in France or England or America. Come back with a bunch of ideas, but know the local market, that worked in restaurants for years. They know everything. Makes it easy for me. "Jonathan," they can say, "I want to get this." "Well, I know where to get that." Or, "Do you know that we have this great Arctic char from this little purveyor, and it's the best char you've ever eaten in your life?" Bring it on.

That restaurant is quite large, and I'm curious how that will impact the menu.
That's a good question. It's the same thing. I always make menus fairly finite. Like me and Barbuto, we only have six entrées, but we have four pastas. There's like eight or nine starters. It won't be much bigger than that because I don't want to handicap the cooks. I want the cooks to be able to do a good job. When I had Table 29 in Napa Valley, we had 250 seats. It's funny, it's not the amount of seats that's daunting, it's the organizational point of view.

I was just about to ask you. When these two restaurants open, you'll be responsible for three restaurants all at once.
Been there, done that.

What are some of your strategies for doing that?
Been there, done that. Way back there, I was the executive chef for Ark Restaurants, I had 35 restaurants. Delegation, delegation, delegation. And trust. Trust and delegation. It's everything ... It's about style, how to teach people style. That's really what it comes do. Serving a little bit of my DNA. If I'm not a good teacher, and I'm not a good mentor, then I'm not a good owner.

For instance, next week I'm going away for a week from Barbuto, on vacation. I'm not going to call them one time.

And it's going to be fine.
They love it. Because you know what? They grow a little bit. They feel comfortable in their own skin. They love proving to me that they can do a great job. They love it. That's how the industry grows.

That's like April Broomfield. She's got a restaurant in San Francisco. She wants to open London. She works hard opening restaurants, then she's in this more of a supervisory capacity. Those Torrisi guys, what, are they going to be in every restaurant, every night, running around like chickens? No, no, no. They don't want to see you, by the way. They don't want to see you. They want to know that you have the confidence in them, that they're doing a good job. That kind of thing's important, it really is.

There's no reason that this industry can't embrace really good food and expansion.

There's no reason that this industry can't embrace really good food and an expansion situation. You just have to be smart about it, not bite off more than you can chew. Planning is everything, by the way ... Every square inch has been carefully planned out. It may not seem like that to you, and it should be a little smoke and mirrors. You, as a customer, should never know how difficult it was to plan it.

You mentioned how you've been talking to chefs and your friends in Toronto and Nashville. Has there been any standout pieces of advice? Like, "Oh, if you're in Toronto, never do this in your restaurant," or "If you're in Nashville, you have to do this"?
The one thing that stands out, always, which is a no-brainer, you have to approach it with humility. I always approach it with humility. It's really funny, when I did TV shows and people would say, "Well, you're in competition with other people." I said, "No, no, I'm never in competition with other people. I'm in competition with myself. I want to make myself better."

I think that's where humility comes from. It's respect for the place, it's respect for the environment. Even though I think I know how to cook, I'm in 40 years, I got a lot of things to learn. I love that. I love going to people's restaurants. I love stealing shit all the time. I had a seat at Bobby Flay's new restaurant last week, and I learned a couple things that night that were really cool. It's nice, isn't it? That's the great thing about an industry, we can all learn from each other all the time.

Is there anything else you want to add about either project?
No, I'm super excited. I just want to say that Barbuto is first and foremost in my heart and always will be. Something really crazy that happened here, you know? It's weird ... It's just something that's really important to me and it's like one of my children. Restaurants don't always work. For whatever reason, they don't always work no matter how much time, effort, et cetera. But I think if you're honest, you have humility, you have great people you hire, you put your trust in them. Find great purveyors. You respect your clients, you don't make it too expensive.

You know the most important thing by far? If your restaurant does not have a sense of humor, if it takes itself too seriously ... Like the old days, I used to worry about a scratch in the table and now I think it's fantastic ... Now I know. Now I understand that perfection is unattainable. What is attainable is your own style. Your own way of doing things. If you can feel comfortable in your own culinary skin, you'll do a good job at that. That's it. Fun.

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Barbuto

775 Washington St, New York, NY 10014

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