Until Top Chef Masters 2010 season, Jonathan Waxman was like the Joe Ely of chefs. Don’t know who Joe Ely is? I rest my case. Jonathan has been called “the vegetable whisperer,” and “one of America’s first celebrity chefs.” He has influenced some of America’s most influential chefs, and yet… nobody except the people who knew him, revered him, and called him their mentor, hero, and god, knew who he was. But that was then.
I don’t remember the first time I met Jonathan Waxman, though I do remember it was with his pal, my then editor at Saveur, Colman Andrews and what I remember distinctly is that restaurant people fell on their faces for him. This was before Jonathan opened Barbuto or the restaurant that came before, Washington Park and as far as I knew, he didn’t even have a job. After Julian Niccolini at the Four Seasons restaurant handed Jonathan and the rest of our party flutes of champagne, got down on his knees and bowed at Jonathan’s feet, I turned to Colman and said, “Who is this guy and why do people treat him like God?”
As usual, the missing piece to the puzzle was my own ignorance. Jonathan Waxman is largely responsible for bringing California ethos of fresh, local, seasonal, which he cultivated at Chez Panisse in the 1970s, to New York. In the food world, it’s like six degrees of Jonathan Waxman. Bobby Flay considers Jonathan his mentor and well he should. It was Jonathan, after all, who introduced the red-headed Bronx boy to the then-obscure chipotle pepper. (The chipotle pepper! Bobby Flay! I mean next thing you know he’ll be saying JW introduced him to the squeeze bottle!) Jonathan gave Nancy Silverton her first pastry job at Micahel’s in 1979. Sara Foster, owner of Fosters’ Markets in North Carolina, and Mary Wagstaff, the mega California-based publicist worked for Jonathan. Jimmy Bradley, Joey Campanaro, the brothers behind Blue Ribbon, Bruce and Erik Bromberg… It never ends.
At the party in New York two weeks ago to celebrate Jonathan’s latest book, Italian, My Way, everyone came out to show their support and respect: Ruth Reichl was there, and Michael McCarty; Florence Fabricant, came out, Jamie Oliver, Tom Colicchio, Nancy Silverton, Sara Foster. They were all there. While he signed books, Jonathan and I had a moment in which we talked about how weird/funny/ironic it was that, after all he’d accomplished, all the cooks that consider him a mentor and a hero, he got famous from, of all things, a (sort of silly even though I love it) TV show. “Yeah!” he laughed. “I was on a plane recently and the flight attendant said, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy… from that show…?'”
“Yeah, I’m that guy,” he said. And then the flight attendant said, “I guess you won’t be having dinner with us then?” And Jonathan laughed the relaxed laugh that, in essence, informs his cooking style, and said, “No. I won’t be having any dinner, thank you.”
Smoky JW Chicken on the Grill
Forget Bobby Flay and his chipotle pepper, Jonathan changed my life when he taught me, by email, how to cook a half chicken on a wood-fired grill, which, considering JW’s relationship to half chicken, is sort of like Jesus teaching you how to walk on water. Talk about ecstatic! Below, straight from the fingertips of JW.
U wanna do it right?
Use a 4 pound fresh, organic bird. Use a scissors or poultry shears.
1. Cut out the back bone. Heat charcoal for at least one hour in a Weber.
2. Put the chicken on a board and press the breast plate so the bird
is flattened somewhat. Bend the wings over themselves. Sprinkle with
olive oil. Season both sides with sea salt and fresh black pepper from
3. Put the grill on the Weber and make sure it is very clean.
4. When coals are white and no flames, put the bird skin side down on
the grill. Immediately (!) place the dome on the grill. Open the ports
to let a small amount of smoke out. Insure that the bottom grate is
closed by 3/4’s.
5. Cook the chicken for 20 minutes (don’t look inside!). After twenty
minutes, have a grill fork ready. Take off the dome and carefully flip
bird over. Wait 3 to five minutes for coals to reignite and then cover
again, but have the port holes open.
6. Cook for 10 minutes more.
7. Repeat the flip process and close the ports.
8. The Bird will rest in the grill until ready to be served.
I like to serve it with this Salsa Verde. Better yet, to use JW’s Salsa Verde recipe, buy the book.
1 cup loosely packed arugula
1/3 cup pitted green olives, such as Picholine
¼ cup fresh oregano or marjoram leaves
¼ cup fresh mint leaves
3 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves
½ teaspoon red chile flakes
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, cut into eight wedges
Combine the arugula, olives, oregano, mint, anchovy fillets, garlic, and chile flakes in the jar of a blender or bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Pulse to puree the ingredients to a paste. Add the olive oil in a thin steady stream while the machine is running. Transfer the salsa to a bowl and stir in the lemon juice, salt, and pepper.