Dietro l’uomo barbuto (Behind the bearded man): An interview with Chef Jonathan Waxman

‘Barbuto’, the Italian word for ‘bearded’, serves as both a proper noun and an adjective. Well, at least it does within the context of this particular interview! Barbuto is the name of one of New York City’s best restaurants, serving up Italian inspired dishes that might make your nonna a little jealous. It is also the culinary home of chef and owner Jonathan Waxman, ‘barbuto’ adequately describing the man as well, though many who know him or know of him would likely prefer to use the phrase ‘master chef’.

Having learned his craft in France, Chef Jonathan cut his teeth in the kitchens of some of California’s most well known restaurants. While well versed in French, and California cuisine, he is, at his core, an Italian chef. For an easy example of it, look no further than his signature Pollo al Forno (get a glimpse of this dish on the Simon Schuster YouTube channel).

During my interview with Chef Jonathan we discuss how he ended up in the food industry (need being the ultimate motivator!), the hard work required of both musicians and chefs, and one of his favorite food memories.

Jonathan Waxman – Photo by Jeff Prehn

Foodie Journal: Passion and love for food seems to be a must for any successful chef. When did you discover that you really had a love for food?
Jonathan Waxman: I think that’s always a hard question, and was there an epiphany? No. Were there many bright moments, yes. I was raised by food loving parents who were not daunted by anything. We were exposed to Cantonese, Hunan, Japanese, Mexican, Italian, French and a plethora of others. In this fashion I discovered how much I enjoyed food.

FJ: How did you get your start in the industry?
JW: Honestly, my journey to the chef world was mandated by fate. I was in Hawaii playing in a rock & roll band that broke up, leaving me stranded, with no cash. I was told by the locals that I could either sell drugs or work in a restaurant, I chose the latter. So I was introduced to the industry in a very back handed way.

FJ: In doing a bit of research about you and you’re career, I came across an article in the Times from 2002 that said “whoever said chefs in the 80’s were like rock-and-roll stars had Jonathan in mind.” Is that something you embrace? Being a rock-star chef?
JW: Music and food have a lot of similarities. They both broker many hours of practice, practice and more practice. They both are part entertainment, part craft and they both have a lot of fans. I would say a chef doesn’t perform for 50,000 at one time, but over a year, yes.

FJ: It was around the late 80s and into the 90s that there was a real shift in how people perceived chefs and the food world, so much so that now everyone is aware of celebrity chefs. Do you feel that the attention has helped the industry or hurt it at all?
JW: When I was in school in Paris in the 1970’s, the chef movement there was well under way. It crossed the ocean in the 80’s but TV has pushed it to a logarithmic height. In some ways this is good and other ways it isn’t. It’s not as healthy an environment, mainly because some newbies think that stardom is an easy ride.

FJ: Your personal website, and the Barbuto site talk about the charities you’ve supported and continue to support. How important do you think it is for chefs, and everyone really, to give back to the community?
JW: I can only speak from a personal perspective. I enjoy giving back. I was blessed in my career, and now I have the ability to raise awareness and money for good causes, which I think is important.

FJ: I know it can be tough to pick just one, but is there a particular food memory or experience that you’ve had that really stands out to you that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
JW: My meal at the Troisgros restaurant in Roanne in 1976 was earth shattering. It opened a door to a world where chefs could be creative and have excitement. It was a triumph of sheer magic, and a celebration of the bounty of France. Mostly, it was a demonstration of how French culinary art was progressing and they were at the forefront.

Barbuto is located at 775 Washington Street New York, NY. You can check out some of Chef Jonathan’s amazing recipes in his latest cookbook “Italian, My Way”.

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