Waxing Nostalgic: Jonathan Waxman helped invent California cuisine

And 40-plus years later, he’s still perfecting it.

“California cuisine” is a curious term. Rather than signifying food sourced and prepared in the Golden State, the phrase exists more as a catch-all for dishes with a focus on seasonal ingredients and a penchant for presentation. Seem broad enough for you? It should — in 2017 San Francisco, the category is pervasive enough to be rendered effectively meaningless: It’s hard to imagine that these now-universal concepts were ever foreign to fine dining.

It’s even harder to conceive that the most recent high-end eating experience you enjoyed wasn’t — at least indirectly — influenced by Bay Area-native Jonathan Waxman. Alongside Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in the early 1970s, he pioneered and popularized California cuisine. In 2016, nearly 40 years after he left, the prodigal son returned to San Francisco to open his eponymous eatery within newly revitalized Ghirardelli Square. What took him so long?

Like many a kind soul who has reached his stratum of success, Waxman devotes significant time and energy to giving back. We meet in Indian Wells, where he was hosting the resort town’s first Taste of Tennis. It’s a roadshow of gourmet restaurants and noted personalities, traveling the country in lockstep with the sport’s biggest tournaments and benefiting regional charities along the way.

“I spend most of my time on an airplane these days,” the bi-coastal celebrity chef laments. “It’s kind of crazy.” Waxman still allocates a fair share of his schedule to New York, where he’s chef-owner at Barbuto, a critically acclaimed Italian eatery in the West Village. But as that lease comes to a close, he’s readying himself for a more stationary existence here in San Francisco.

“Listen, I was born in Oakland — MacArthur and Broadway,” he says. “And I loved it. My family’s all in the Bay Area. New York is getting very difficult to do business in. It’s great. But I’m sick of the weather. I’m sick of summer. I’m sick of winter.”

He certainly isn’t sick of cooking, however. It’s obvious in the giddiness he wears on his face while leading a demonstration. One of Taste of Tennis’ sponsors is the Thailand Ministry of Tourism, and tonight, he’s experimenting with flavors beyond his typical toolbox. He works fresh Thai basil and lemongrass into the pan with the ease of an old pro. Infectious confidence inspires his on-stage pupil, San Francisco-born tennis star Sam Querrey. Just two Bay Area natives holding court in the Southern California desert, all smiles and stir-fry.

“I did [Taste of Tennis] in New York, at the U.S. Open,” Waxman recalls. “I love giving back. It’s a great charity, and I play tennis, too. It’s a win-win for me.”

When opening up about the next chapter of his life, Waxman’s trademark exuberance parks itself on local pride.

“I was out the other day with a friend walking from the Square down over to Fort Mason, around the point, over to Crissy Field,” he says. “It doesn’t get any better than that. It’s magical.”

When his restaurant opened, its setting seemed peculiar to some. But to San Franciscans of a certain age, it marked a historic return to form.
“When I was a kid, it was the Mandarin, Magic Pan, Senor Pico,” Waxman says, rattling off the ’60s-era eateries that once anchored Ghirardelli Square. “It was an amazing San Francisco food center. You youngsters don’t realize that!”

As excited as he is to be back home, Waxman is acutely aware of the challenges that plague the industry.

“It’s a tough job market; it’s hard to find people,” he points out. “Cooks have to come from San Leandro, from Vallejo. It’s a big schlep for these guys. I don’t envy the cooks. In New York, they have to come from Queens or from Hoboken — which is difficult. But, oh my God, the transportation in the Bay Area sucks!” Compounding the more common socioeconomic and infrastructural hurdles is a distinctly San Franciscan obstacle: “It’s hard to compete with Google and Twitter and the big Silicon Valley guys. They offer nine-to-five jobs, and for a cook it sounds great.”

Nevertheless, Waxman is assured in his sense that these problems are solvable. The atmosphere of the aspirational chef, in a culture he helped to form, benefits from increased inclusion across gender, racial, and even generational divides. And, of course, it helps to have access what he calls “the best food stuff in the world.”

About the typical farmers market, he says, “It’s like you died and went to heaven. There’s nothing better than that. I was getting some fish from one of my purveyors, and I never get fish like that in New York. Never get fish that’s in rigor mortis. The Sonoma lamb, squabs from Carpinteria, or those great quail from Fairfield. And apricots, all the time. I love apricots, I see them for about a week in New York and they’re gone.”

A testament to his legacy, Waxman returned home to a robust restaurant scene where the hallmarks of California cuisine are all but taken for granted.
“There’s so many new and exciting places,” he says. “That’s the thing: The diversity in restaurants here is remarkable. From Leo’s [Oyster Bar], to Nopa, to Cotogna, Trick Dog. You got the higher end with Saison — I love Saison.”

“I want a sugar daddy!” he adds.

With the good vibes surrounding this particular event, and the ineffable rapture of the desert at dusk, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Waxman’s beaming smile was more or less a function of this special evening. But this is the very same joy and passion he’s demonstrated throughout his legendary career; it’s the very same attitude that drives his greatness. Now is his time to bring it all back home, even if he doesn’t have it completely figured out — yet.

“In California, everything’s great,” he says, eyes wandering off into the distance. “Now, if I can just find that little house in Kentfield, I’ll be all set.”

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