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Jonathan Waxman: The Life of a Chef

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Father of Alex Waxman ‘18 and Foster Waxman ‘21, Jonathan Waxman is a pioneer of California cuisine and founder of many restaraunts. On October 2, he captured the attention of Groton students in a Circle Talk that was both witty and informative. Through his Circle Talk, he raised students’ awareness in fundamental cooking principles such as deglazing, caramelization, and sautéing by cooking succotash, a dish of corn and beans which makes use of much fall produce. As Mr. Waxman said, “cooking is about building flavor.”

Mr. Waxman was born in Oakland, California in 1950. He first lived in Albany, then El Cerrito, both of which are bedroom communities in the East Bay region of San Francisco. As a young boy, Waxman says he loved the San Francisco Giants, Oakland Athletics, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. Waxman liked his childhood home; he calls the Berkeley area a “wonderful” place in the 1950s and early 60s.

Although he did not initially pursue cooking, Mr. Waxman had moments in his childhood that laid the foundation for his culinary success. He says restaurants were a “big part” of his early years. Because his parents actively sought out new restaurants, Waxman sampled Mexican, Spanish, Italian, French, Classic Californian, Japanese, and Chinese cuisine at a young age. His childhood spent sampling food and exploring relatives’ farms sowed seeds of knowledge that Waxman could rely on later in life.

As a teenager and early adult, Mr. Waxman largely focused on music. In the 1960s, Waxman describes how the Vietnam War and Free Speech Movement “shifted the landscape” and played a major role in his formative years. Moreover, Waxman regards the “burgeoning Rock & Roll scene” in the Berkeley area as a major influencer, one that compelled him to join a rock band named Lynx. Waxman later entered the workforce as a Ferrari salesman. At this time, Waxman began to take cooking lessons with a colleague and noticed he had an aptitude for these culinary pursuits. The spouse of his colleague referred him to Tante Maire Cooking School in San Francisco. After his time there, he attended La Varenne Cooking School in France, where Waxman believes his career “truly began.”

In 1979, Waxman opened Michael’s Restaurant in Santa Monica as a joint venture with restaurateur Michael McCarty. Now he is the chef and owner of Barbuto in New York City’s West Village, Jams in New York City’s Midtown, Brezza Cucina in Atlanta’s Ponce City Market, Adele’s in Nashville, and Waxman’s at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. Waxman’s, his latest restaurant, opened in 2016. His son, Alex, says he was grateful to be a part of his father’s operation and describes helping get ready for the grand opening as the moment of his father’s professional career that stands out to him the most.

Along his culinary journey, Mr. Waxman believes his greatest obstacle was “self-doubt” at key junctures. However, with the help and enthusiasm of his parents, Mr. Waxman overcame his fears to build the multi-restaurant empire he manages today.

Over the years, Mr. Waxman has gathered a wealth of cooking knowledge, culminating in his winning the James Beard award for the best chef in New York in 2016. His youngest son, Foster, remarks that he enjoys learning from his father’s vast experience in cooking, especially when they visit restaurants together. Alex says that he enjoys meeting prominent characters in the restaurant scene as a result of his father’s work. But, he dislikes the fact that he and his family cannot eat a meal in public without someone interrupting for a photo or asking what it’s like to be the son of a chef. In the end, however, Alex enjoys the good food he has on speed dial.

The life of a professional chef also requires frequent travel – an obligation which can, at times, become burdensome and cause undue stress. While the cooking game does involve long, hard nights, Jonathan Waxman overcame his challenges and successfully created the multi-restaurant empire he owns today. With his perseverance, creativity, and determination, Mr. Waxman serves as a model and guide for Groton students –– he is a true master in the art of “building flavor,” both in cooking and in life.

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