Jonathan Waxman: A Great American Cook


A Great American Cook, by Jonathan Waxman To write or not to write, that is the question facing many chefs.

Writing a book of recipes is a huge undertaking if you do it yourself, and the rewards are mixed. You might create a permanent record of your philosophy and best recipes, you might generate publicity for your restaurant, you might generate criticism, and, in general, you won't make any money.

Jonathan Waxman has taken a long time to publish his book, A Great American Cook: Recipes from the Home Kitchen of One of Our Most Influential Chefs (Houghton Mifflin 2007). It is easy to see that he has worked hard on the book, along with co-writer Tom Steele. It is handsome, well laid out and easy to read. There is a forward by Bobby Flay, one of his proteges, which connects him handily to the new generation of chefs. A Great American Cook is at once a bit pompous but general title, one that appears, in one form or another, in quotes about him. It describes him well. He is a great cook, and he cooks American food.

Like other prominent chefs of the 70s and 80s like Robert Del Grande and Mark Miller, Jonathan didn’t start off as a chef. His first love was jazz trombone. The idioms of jazz, its essential American-ness translated directly into his new passion: food. He writes in the introduction about a meal with Jean Troisgros and the passion, dedication and fearlessness of his cooks:
From that moment on, I was determined to acquire as much skill and experience as it would take to translate what the Troisgros brothers had accomplished into an American idiom. Food at home had grown timid, conservative, and, overall, boring. These Frenchman has used their classical training to break the rules, and above all, they had learned to improvise. How Fantastic! (p. 2)
Jazz, Jonathan points out, is about practice, repletion, and improvisation, the same elements he finds in the kitchen.

Jonathan Waxman, Summer 2007

He goes back to America to work for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and then he became the first great chef at Michael's in Santa Monica. He takes his Californian cuisine of mesquite grilling, fresh ingredients, and flavorful food to New York. Why New York? Jonathan does not talk about the financial deal or whatever else led him away from his customer base in California...

The book that follows is committed to those early foundations of California cuisine, inspired by the bounty of the East Coast. The recipes are all for the home cook, though some are his restaurant classics. Since he moved on from Jams, Bud's, Jams London and Hulots, this isn't a celebration of the dishes of those restaurants, nor is it about his current places: Barbuto and The West County Grill.

There is a short section called Edicts on Selected Ingredients and Techniques, decrees by the chef! These are a smart collection of opinions on ingredients, like Bacon, "OK, I love bacon (and, yeah, I'm from a Jewish household)" to Knives, "For years at Michael's and Jams, a Wusthof standard stainless steel knife with a 10-inch blade was my right hand. Lately, I've become enamored with some Japanese knives."

In the forward, Bobby comments on how wonderful and addictive Jonathan's guacamole and fresh chips (p. 19). The recipe is simple, straightforward rendition, and made fresh, is exactly what Mexican guacamole should be. There is plenty of frying in this book, like Deep Fried Squid with Chipotle Mayonnaise (pp. 38-39) and Fried Shrimp with Caper Mayonnaise, but Jonathan introduces excellent technique to make the seafood is fried in small batches to keep the oil hot so the seafood doesn't absorb much grease.

Harry's Bar Each chapter starts with Jonathan's musings about how he came to love a kind of food and how important it is to cook it well. For Sandwiches and Pizza, Jonathan writes:
The Harry's Bar sandwich had character. The sandwiches in this chapter are in that style. I like crunch (in the bread), spice (in the sauce), and crispness (in the filling). (p. 96)
His sandwiches range from the very unusual Soft-Shell Crab and Aioli Sandwich (p. 102) that calls for roasting the crab instead of frying it, to Pulled Beef and BBQ Sauce Sandwich (p. 109) which really is a versatile recipe for beef stew with lager, that is used as a leftover in a sandwich. What practical cooking!

Jonathan is well known for the famous chefs he has taught, and in a sense, this book is an extension of that enterprise. He is a great teacher. The recipes are easy to follow, and the techniques carry over, adaptable -- improv -- by any good cook who reads this book. Think of cooking as music, and let Jonathan show you how to perform a great song.

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