ALTHough Jonathan Waxman has spent the last 30 years cooking up an impressive résumé -- cutting his teeth at Chez Panisse with Alice Waters, helming Michael's in Santa Monica during its heyday, mentoring a young Bobby Flay -- he had not, until now, given us a cookbook. It's surprising, considering how influential he's been (he's often credited with bringing California cuisine to New York, at his restaurant Jams in the '80s) and how many high-profile names he could drop along with the occasional cutlery.
But open Waxman's debut book, "A Great American Cook: Recipes From the Home Kitchen of One of Our Most Influential Chefs," and the surprise is replaced by a kind of gratitude. The book reads like a catalog of Waxman's illustrious career, and it's a mouthwatering one. Waxman culls old favorite recipes from his days at Chez Panisse and Michael's. He also includes dishes from the restaurants he's opened on both coasts in the years since: Napa Valley's erstwhile Table 29 and West County Grill in Sebastopol, Calif., which opened this past spring; in New York, Jams and Bud's, both now closed, and Barbuto, his 3-year-old bistro in the West Village. (Clearly what Waxman's been doing instead of writing cookbooks is opening restaurants.)
Technique, timing needed
GOOD cookbooks, not unlike some of the recipes in them, take time to make. Perhaps because Waxman has spent so many decades in professional kitchens, his book is not for kitchen novices: Its pages often rely heavily on technique, precision timing and painstakingly gathered ingredients. But for those with confidence and some experience in the kitchen, it's a stately book, with a range of dishes and a depth that, for the patient and skilled cook, makes it well worth the wait. However, because there are problems in a number of the recipes, it can also be frustrating.
The book feels as if it's been written by someone who's been writing a lot of menus too. This is no coffee-table art book -- though there are plenty of beautifully shot, nicely lighted photographs by John Kernick -- but rather a practical catalog of the dishes Waxman has cooked over the years, from the impressive red pepper pancakes with fresh corn and caviar he created for Alice Waters to the rustic bacon-tomato-scallion pizza he now cooks at home for his three young kids.
This range is the most appealing aspect of the book. Because even though Waxman gives us "recipes from the home kitchen" (more than 100 of them), many of those that originated in his restaurants are far more involved than they seem.
The red pepper pancakes, for example, require eggs that are separated, whites beaten, batter rested. The potatoes for the French fries are first soaked overnight, then blanched in hot oil, then chilled, then refried in hotter oil. The apples, all four of them, for the apple-corn fritters must be cut into precise quarter-inch cubes (a macedoine cut; I felt as if I was being put through my paces at culinary school). The poblano-stuffed chicken breasts call for not just any chicken breasts, but ones with the wing joint still attached -- an old-fashioned airline breast -- something you need to ask your butcher to do for you, if you're not handy at fabricating (or precisely cutting up) poultry at home.
After such cheffy tribulations, it feels like a reprieve to get an easy recipe, such as the one for a simple grilled cheese sandwich with sautéed onions, goat cheese and wilted leftover salad greens he makes for a restaurant family meal. The sandwich was wonderful, perfectly balanced, redolent of the arugula, cress and romaine I used, the filling gently spiked with a dash of pepper flakes. Or something he really does make at home, such as a straightforward and kid-friendly pizza topped with diced tomatoes, raw bacon, chopped green onions and a dusting of Parmesan. Sure, you first have to make the pizza dough, but it's a good one and well worth having in your repertoire.
Most of the more elaborate recipes I tested are worth the effort too. Waxman's dishes are distinguished by their detailed flavor profiles, and he's brilliant at layering and riffing. (Not for nothing was he a jazz musician before he traded in the trombone, in his 20s, for a chef's toque.)
This means multiple ingredients are often cooked separately, as they are in a wild mushroom salad Waxman created at Michael's in Santa Monica. Croutons, pine nuts, mushrooms and vinaigrette all get individual treatment before the final assembly. This all happens incrementally, painstakingly, because Waxman knows each ingredient operates differently, and only by attention to each individual flavor can the whole function as he wishes it to. The result is marvelous, a subtle combination of terrific flavor, textures and colors.