Cooking with Jonathan Waxman: A Benefit Dinner for Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Cooking with Jonathan Waxman: A Benefit Dinner for Scripps Institute of Oceanography

Jonathan Waxman and I have been friends for more than 20 years. I first met him when I was the chef at Rockenwagner in Santa Monica; he would come in for dinner and was friends with my boss Hans. Jonathan was in between jobs at the time and we did a chefs dinner with him at the restaurant. I still remember very clearly a couple dishes from that meal – a snapper with blood orange braised chestnuts and traviso and a lemon caramel cake. Of course, I also remember him making us buy live Dungeness crabs and break them apart for another dish so the crabmeat was of stellar quality. His style has always been simplicity with depth of flavor and he has not changed a bit.

After I participated in an Alex’s Lemonade Stand event at his NYC restaurant Barbuto two years ago, we began talking of a way to bring him to the West Coast to cook together again. We wanted it to be small so it would be fun and not too much work, and settled on a benefit for the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at my home for 25 people at $500 per person. This would allow for his travel expense as well as the costs associated with a dinner like this to be covered, while still giving a good chunk of money to Scripps. We scheduled it for early November and had to reschedule due to Hurricane Sandy flooding Jonathan’s restaurant Barbuto. We rescheduled for the weekend of March 9th and fortunately all the people that bought seats were able to join us.

I knew better than to try to set up a menu in advance; Jonathan works out of inspiration of ingredients and almost never knows what he is going to do. Since the event was for Scripps, we kept the seafood choices close to home and were lucky enough to have sardines, spot prawns, white sea bass and spiny lobsters from our local waters. I told Jonathan I would put the proteins together and then we would go to Chino Farms the morning of the event and figure out the rest. I also added a beautiful dry-aged Niman Ranch New York steak to the list.

I picked Jonathan up at the airport Friday afternoon and we went straight to George’s at the Cove. Jonathan had never been to the restaurant and wanted to check it out. I, of course, wanted to show him what we do and introduce him to the staff. We started with a margarita at the Ocean Terrace Bar, and after the first one he asked the bartender if it was okay if he told him exactly how he wanted it: tequila, Cointreau and lime, shaken and served up. We then went down to California Modern to enjoy a great meal prepared by our chef de cuisine, Alex. One of the courses was a very clever dish of charred mackerel with blood orange and traviso, a play on the dish I had told Alex about from my dinner with Jonathan years ago.

In the morning, Chino Farms did not disappoint and neither did Jonathan. He had never been to the farm but had worked with some of the Chino family in Los Angeles and at Chez Panisse back in the 80s. We wrote the rest of the menu right there. The sea bass would get green garlic, spring onions and turnips; the New York would get Swiss chard, purple broccoli and artichokes. We loaded up and went back to the house to begin prepping.

I brought five members of our kitchen team because I wanted it to be smooth and easy, while allowing them the opportunity to work with Jonathan. Two arrived early at the house and the others would be bringing the proteins and other ingredients needed from the restaurant. It was a great day hanging out in my home preparing dinner; chatting and having him school my cooks. He is a great teacher and really showed my cooks the importance of treating everything with respect and not manipulating it too much, while showcasing the skill that comes from years of cooking and questioning. We cooked everything in either my wood pizza oven or over my charcoal grill, not using the gas stove once, and only using the electric oven to heat plates.

The dinner was excellent – rave revues all around and Scripps was thrilled. With a 5:30 p.m. start time we were finished up and the guests gone by 9:00 p.m. After some wine, tequila and great conversation with Jonathan and the folks from Scripps about seafood populations and conservation, we called it a night. Jonathan had to be back at Chino for a book signing in the morning.

Sunday was a day of rest and recuperation. After Jonathan’s book signing he met up with a friend for tacos on the Ocean Terrace while I tended to some family duties. Later, we decided to invite some of our friends over for dinner. Jonathan prepared a stellar lobster pasta, salad of kale and beets, and a salad of bitter greens, as well as a stinging nettle soup all prepared with leftovers from our previous nights dinner. It was delicious and a great way to spend the last night together, eating great food with friends at home.

Jonathan is an inspiring cook to work alongside. Everything he does is to maximize the flavor of the ingredient, often with very few steps – one of the things great chefs work toward. If you’re ever in NYC make sure to stop by Barbuto so you can experience what he does so effortlessly.