First he sold Ferraris. Then Jonathan Waxman learned to cook3 min read . Updated: 09 Dec 2020, 07:10 PM IST
How a matchbook kicked off the celebrity chef’s culinary career
Jonathan Waxman, 70, is a chef and pioneer of California-Italian cuisine who owns restaurants in Nashville, Atlanta and New York. He is the author of “The Barbuto Cookbook" (Abrams). He spoke with Marc Myers.
My first restaurant meal came with tea. I was about 7, and my family drove into San Francisco from El Cerrito for Chinese New Year.
At Sun Hung Heung, just off the main square in Chinatown, my father insisted on sitting upstairs. There, Chinese families ate at large, round banquet tables.
In the center was a lazy-susan loaded with amazing dishes. My favorite was deep-fried parchment-wrapped chicken with peanuts and chile peppers. I still remember the smell, the noise and food spinning left and right.
My parents had moved to Berkeley in 1950 from the Bronx, N.Y., months before I was born. When I was 5, we moved nearby to El Cerrito to an adobe-style house with a very steep driveway near the top of a hill.
My father was a TV technician. In the ’50s, when you bought a television, the store delivered and set it up. They also serviced it in your home.
My mother, Adele, was an amazing cook. She was adventurous and found most of her recipes in Sunset magazine.
One summer, while my younger brothers, Richard and Michael, and I were in camp, Mom went down to Tijuana to the Hotel Caesar. She came back with the recipe for Caesar salad.
In junior high school, I played baritone horn and fell in love with music. At El Cerrito High School, I switched to trombone.
My best friend, Tim, a sax player, and I won music scholarships to the University of Nevada at Reno.
I was a lousy student. I didn’t go to class. Instead, I played in the pit orchestras at Reno casinos. Tim and I joined an R&B band and shuttled between college bands in Reno and Lake Tahoe resorts.
Eventually, I lost my scholarship and moved home to Berkeley. One of my best friends, Ricky, was the lead singer in a rock band called Lynx. I joined and toured.
The next year, I joined another band and we wound up with a gig on Maui in Hawaii. The band broke up, but I didn’t want to leave.
I became a busboy at the Rusty Harpoon in Kaanapali Beach. Over the course of six months, I wound up in the kitchen cleaning and fileting mahi mahi. Then I was a prep cook, bartender and manager.
In 1974, I moved back to Berkeley. My father insisted I get a real job and wrote a guy’s name and number in a matchbook and handed it to me.
When I called Jerry, he said he needed someone in sales. I asked what kind of sales. He said, “Come in and see me."
It turned out he managed a Ferrari dealership. At age 24, I had a pair of Gucci loafers, hair down my back and any Ferrari I wanted to drive.
The wife of the owner was a foodie and we’d often talk food. Eventually, she asked if I’d take a cooking class. I said I would.
So the head mechanic and I took a class with Mary Risley at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco. That was a big deal. At the end, Mary signed me up for a cooking course in Paris, at La Varenne. I borrowed the $6,000 tuition from my parents and off I went in 1976.
I went to many of France’s leading restaurants and worked at one with a Michelin star as part of the curriculum.
One day my father called to tell me Mom was very ill. I returned home. She had breast cancer.
I worked at Domaine Chandon in the Napa Valley and then with Alice Waters at her restaurant, Chez Panisse. At that point, I realized cooking could be a career.
In 1979, I became executive chef at Michael’s in Santa Monica. There were no rules. Rising in the kitchen was about chutzpah, drive, verve and vision. Coupled with the hippie revolution.
Nouvelle cuisine had emerged in France and farm-to-table was evolving in California. I wanted to do the same.
Today, my wife, Sally, and I live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We bought our apartment in 1995 and the one next door in 2001, turning two kitchens into one. I have a great Viking stove.
Chinese food is still my weakness. Peking duck is the greatest dish. I try to make my own. My mother’s old lazy-susan is someplace at Richard’s house. I have to ask him to dig it out.
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.