The Man Who Loved Vegetables … and Farm-Raised Beef, Chicken, Etc.

Mr. Waxman’s is a fashionable approach to cooking these days, but he’s been doing it this way for years. He’s quick to explain that his focus on the purity and quality of ingredients just better serves his flavor (and hey, he’s gotta sell the stuff), and in this way he makes the whole eco-consciousness project sound refreshingly modest. While he’s genuinely concerned for animal welfare, seeking out poultry and veal and beef that has been properly fed and raised, he seems equally concerned for tomato welfare. “I don’t want to eat anything that’s been treated poorly, whether animal, vegetable or fish,” he said, adding, “There has to be some kind of respect.” He comes off not as a zealot, or even an environmentalist, but just as a person of eminent good sense: thoughtful, practical, vaguely surprised that the rest of us are just now catching on to what he’s always known—local food is best.

The rest of us may dote on our miniature Chihuahuas and choose not to contemplate the origins of our dinner, but there is no avoiding where something comes from in Mr. Waxman’s kitchen. It’s the only thing that matters. That, and the knife technique, which ensures that once you are in possession of the perfect ingredient, you actually use the right parts of it. Most people don’t do this, he explained, “which is why there are so many shitty tomato salads.”

 

MR. WAXMAN DOESN'T SPEND much time cooking at Barbuto anymore—“My world’s a little different now. I put in my years behind the stove,” he said—but he’s at the restaurant most days nonetheless, chatting up the regulars, popping in and out of the kitchen and overseeing the menu, which changes daily based on the seasonal availability of ingredients, all of which he tries to source from within the aforementioned 250 miles of the city (this is possible for everything except olive oil and wine, he said. Olive oil because they don’t make it in these parts, and wine because “if I was stuck with the wineries just in New York, I wouldn’t be that happy”). His food, he will tell you, is more the simple sum of the best ingredients than the expression of any sort of culinary genius. Or rather: “Boulud is a surgeon. I’m a pharmacist!” Mr. Waxman thinks of himself more as a “home cook” than a big restaurant chef—hence the name of his book—and he has tried to channel that vibe into his latest publishing effort, which features recipes he makes at Barbuto but also some he makes at home for his three young kids: Everything from Crispy Chicken and Goat Cheese Burritos to Lobster and Potato Chip Salad to Pizza with Bacon, Scallions, Parmesan and Tomato.

The prevailing sense is of a man who loves to cook, and who has spent upwards of 30 years laboring contentedly away at his life’s calling. Food, he thinks, should be a casual, participatory social experience. He has little use for the “chemist” chefs currently fixating the international food scene, disciples of Spain’s Ferran Adrià, who have popularized the idea of foam-as-food. “I’m intrigued by it from an intellectual point of view,” he said. “And I’m the last person to want to stymie creativity. But I also fundamentally believe that there should be as few steps as possible—that it should come from the field to the plate with the least amount of fuss. I think people are going to come around to the way I think. I think they’ll get sick and tired of it.” And while he claimed he would be nowhere without his French technique, Mr. Waxman still departs from the Jean-Georges’s and Daniel Boulud’s of the world in one important way: “In the old days, if you’d go to Bouley, you sit down and eat from six to twelve,” he said. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to eat that long. The last concert I went to was Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and that was six hours, and that was too long for me, too! The whole religious aspect of dining—I’m over it.”

Which brings us back to our salad: laboriously, if clumsily, cut; casually assembled and jumbled together by hand; and then, while Mr. Waxman watched carefully, drizzled in olive oil and balsamic vinegar and “broadcast” with sea salt (the recipe calls for red wine vinegar, but Mr. Waxman believes in improvising, and besides, he had great balsamic that day). He had his chef whip up some pizzas as an accompaniment, and we hunkered down at the picnic-style table in the middle of Barbuto’s kitchen—which Mr. Waxman said he seats twice a night—to eat. It all suddenly seemed rather easy. The Greenmarket, the slicing, the drizzling: Farm cooking in Manhattan! It was, we think, the best pizza and tomato salad of our life. Was it just that we were sitting right in the kitchen, 10 feet from the oven? Was it the breeze? Or was it the tomatoes, which an hour earlier had been sitting over on 14th Street at the market? Mr. Waxman clearly had his ideas. “I’d rather drive 100 miles to the farm, pick up squash, eggplant, strawberries, pile in the car with it all, bring it back, throw it on the table and cook it than go to Whole Foods,” said Mr. Waxman, reflecting on his ideal meal scenario. “But that’s just me.”