“Relax, relax!” said Jonathan Waxman, again. Mr. Waxman, affable proprietor of the West Village restaurant Barbuto, plucked a knife out of my hand. “You want to hold it like a pencil behind the blade,” he explained, demonstrating for the umpteenth time the correct way to slice the terribly cute little heirloom tomato lying partially dismembered before us. “Draw a line around what I call the polar cap,” he instructed, gesturing toward the tomato’s top. “Point the knife almost down to the core. You’re going to feel resistance as you go along.” He relinquished the knife to me. “Hold the tomato with your fingertips, not splayed out like that,” he said, smiling. “No, no, no … there you go!” It went on like this, he and I filleting the hapless fruit in turn, until we had finally traced an entire circle. “Now stop, and you should be able to pull the top off,” Mr. Waxman said. And then: “Beautiful!” Phew.
“Knife skills are very underappreciated,” he mused with a sigh. “And yet, we have all these expensive knives out there. …” He shook his head at this sign we’ve all gone off the deep end, culinarily speaking.
Mr. Waxman opened the perpetually packed, “Italian-influenced” Barbuto in 2004. On a recent Friday morning, its massive garage-door walls open to the breeze and sunlight and its tables spilling out onto Washington Street, the restaurant felt like a paradise quite apart from Manhattan. Mr. Waxman was attempting to teach a hapless visitor how to make his Three-Tomato Salad (see recipe at right), which, despite involving very few ingredients, was proving difficult. Mr. Waxman trained in France after abandoning hopes of a career as a jazz trombonist at age 26, and ever since, he has prized two things in his restaurant kitchens: quality ingredients and technique. A proper salad therefore requires only that you get the best heirloom tomatoes within a 250-mile radius of New York (Mr. Waxman does not go for “FedExed food”) and that you cut them right.
There is more to this latter part than you’d think, but Mr. Waxman, now age 56, was a patient, if exacting, instructor, even as he moved restlessly about the kitchen. His staff streamed in and out, seeming less like members of a world-class restaurant team than like hip young neighbors. He greeted them good-naturedly. (“There’s my chef. He’s waking up!” Mr. Waxman crowed as a sleepy-eyed Justin Smillie—tall, blond, 30-ish, clad in polo shirt and cargo shorts—shuffled in. Mr. Smillie paused to greet us before heading to the Union Square Greenmarket for the day’s vegetable haul.) The smell of freshly baked focaccia started to permeate the air as a couple of cooks manned the kitchen’s large wood-burning oven, preparing for lunch. The hostess set out picnic-y red gingham napkins on the industrial-looking wood tables. Above the bar, from a large mock-up of his new cookbook, A Great American Cook: Recipes from the Home Kitchen of One of Our Most Influential Chefs (out September 12 from Houghton Mifflin), Mr. Waxman presided over the scene with a warm, slightly mischievous smile, sipping a cup of espresso.
Was this really his office, one had to wonder? Could a person spend his day like this in Manhattan—standing in an open-air kitchen, slicing ripe tomatoes in the breeze? “We had to do a lot of work to get it to where it is now,” said Mr. Waxman of the space, a former Rolls Royce garage that was leased in 1991 by his now business partner, the photographer Fabrizio Ferri (who lured Mr. Waxman to Washington Street to open the restaurant after they coincidentally moved into the same building and became friendly). One cannot imagine mornings so leisurely paced and glorious at, say, Daniel. I was reminded we were in New York only when Keith McNally drove by, presumably on his way to work. “See you tonight!” called out Mr. Waxman with a wave (he was eating at Balthazar later, he explained).
MR. WAXMAN IS A CALIFORNIA TRANSPLANT and onetime Alice Waters protégé. He opened his first New York restaurant, the acclaimed and popular Jams, in 1984, and more recently owned Washington Park—also beloved while it lasted—in the space that is now Cru. Mr. Waxman is tan, rumpled and considerably leaner than he appears on the cover of his new cookbook, but he’s a towering figure among his peers and the city’s in-the-know foodies, often credited with introducing “California” cooking—which involves grills, fresh ingredients and simplicity—to the East Coast. As Bobby Flay puts it in the book’s foreword: “The mid-1980s brought the food revolution to America—and I was working for one of its generals.” Mr. Waxman has also mentored, among many others, Joey Campanaro of The Little Owl, Jimmy Bradley of the Red Cat, and Aaron Sanchez of Centrico, whom he called “his adopted son,” adding, “I have a lot of adopted sons.”
Yet Mr. Waxman does not cultivate the public persona of a Tom Colicchio or a Jean-Georges or even a Danny Meyer. And why would he? The focus of his entire project as a chef—and, in a way, the foundation of his larger worldview—is his ingredients, and to that end, he’s quick to deflect attention off himself and onto the growers, fishermen and farmers who supply him with its raw materials each morning (Barbuto is on the “zero-inventory plan,” he explained, meaning food is brought in every morning and cleaned out entirely by night). They can be a “disorganized” bunch, he said of his suppliers, but he works hard to cultivate relationships, ensuring a constant stream of fresh local ingredients into New York City—this least bucolic of places. “There’s nothing better than going right from the yard to the table,” he said. “These tomatoes were probably picked yesterday or the day before.”
Mr. Waxman can hold forth on the tomato for hours. “Tomatoes are like little babies,” he said. “They always misbehave. They’re very persnickety. If it rains one day, they get mad. Or if it’s not sunny for them, or it’s too foggy, or the wind blows too hard. The farmers are like parents. So it’s easy to make a tomato salad, but the farmers that grew the stuff—that wasn’t easy. It wasn’t that easy to go get them. The easy part is assembling it.” Mr. Waxman buys his astonishing variety of heirloom tomatoes from a few chosen farmers at the Greenmarket (Hawthorne Valley Farm and Ryder Farm Cottage Industries are among his favorites). “Heirloom tomatoes were probably last widely popular in the 20’s and 30’s,” he reflected. “At some point, we all decided we wanted beefsteak tomatoes like New Jersey’s. So all the agricultural departments around the country said, ‘Well, let’s get a tomato that you can pick slightly green, put in a box, and send anywhere in the world.’ And that’s what happened to the tomato industry. To the point where people look at heirloom tomatoes and say, ‘What is that?’ They’re expensive because everyone stopped growing them.” It’s a phenomenon, Mr. Waxman explained, that goes far beyond tomatoes. “Everyone wanted something standardized,” he said. “You know, they wanted red snappers to be this big”—he held up his hands to demonstrate—“so if a red snapper was this big they didn’t know what to do with it. So now we’re kind of relearning everything.”