Photo: Kelsey McNeal / Bravo
Readers: you might notice a couple changes to the Top Chef Masters exit interview post this week -- the title and the photo. Our goal in presenting these exclusive interviews is to satisfy our readers who are huge Top Chef fans in a timely, lively fashion. Some of you who hadn't yet watched the show were upset that the title and leading photo spoiled the show's outcome in past weeks. We will continue to do these exit interviews, but will mask the "loser" by not featuring their profile photo or name in the title.
Read on for our exit interview with the latest Top Chef Master to get the boot.
As the chef and owner of New York City's Barbuto, Jonathan "Obi-Wan Kenobe" Waxman made his mark on this season's Top Chef Masters as the mellower of the personalities, not only in personal flair but in the dishes he chose to serve. While his colleagues were busy letting their imaginations run wild, Waxman stuck to his Italian guns, showcasing traditional takes on classics, no matter what was at task-- and finished in the top four as a result.
Throughout his 40-year career, Waxman opened New York's Jams, Washington Park, Barbuto and Sebastopol, California's West County Grill and published his first cookbook, A Great American Cook. When he's not at Barbuto, he's can be found putting the finishing touches on his next cookbook, due out in 2011 from Simon & Schuster.
Slashfood spoke with Waxman about how his cooking philosophy meshed with Top Chef Masters, creating a dish around depression and the need to improv in cooking.
I think a lot of people were sad to see you go.
JW: I appreciate that, honestly, but I was so tired. I don't think I could've done the last round. I really don't. I was done. I love all those guys I was working with. One of us had to fall off, you know?
The speed and timing that's such a hallmark to the Top Chef concept, that didn't seem like it was your favorite aspect. You don't look like you enjoy being rushed.
JW: No [laughs]. Cooking should be about love and having a good time. I work good under time constraints because I'm a professional chef, but at the same time, I don't like that whole "hurry up." It's really antithetical to my being.
Over the course of the series, did your cooking philosophy not mesh well with the judges as some of the others?
JW: I would say they wanted more razzle dazzle. It's interesting, with Wylie [Dufresne] getting knocked out in the first round and not me -- I was really surprised by that, because that's more of what the judges wanted. My style of food is very rustic, it's for lack of better words, it's a little simple. There's not a lot of contrivance to my food. When I was young, I was much more edgy and I'd try a lot of weird things. But as I get older, I realized that I do things that I like to eat. It's hard for me to cook in a style that isn't comfortable for me.
The critics seemed to have a "whatever" attitude at some points, but the guests that you cooked for seemed to love what you were doing.
JW: There's a little bit of a dichotomy there. Critics have their own philosophy. I'd never want to be in their shoes and I'm sure that they wouldn't want to be in my shoes. That's the thing about our business: there has to be a balance. I really appreciate what critics do, I have to tell you. I don't always agree with them, but they perform a valuable service. Because they enlighten the audience. That's what the show really brings out. Sometimes personalities don't mesh that well, but who cares? The bottom line is, if the food tastes good, that's all I care about.
On last night's "Improv" challenge, the idea of "burnt sienna" -- was that the hardest to work in?
JW: Depression was. The other ones were fine. It was the depression part, because at that point, I was so tired, I just said "oh geez." Obviously, I have a comical side to my nature and I thought of just making a big bowl -- or a depression -- and just putting a bunch of food at the bottom. But it was at that point where I hit the wall. I think the judges were expecting me to rise to the challenge of the other chefs, a fever pitch of what the other chefs are doing. But I don't do that. I just do what I do. I respect what Marcus does, I respect what Susan does. But I can't do what they do. That's the beauty of chefs, they don't try to emulate other people's styles.
And for TV shows that showcase talent -- you guys have to really perform your profession in ways that show that.
JW: I think diversity in food is really important. You give 10 chefs the same 10 ingredients and they'll all do 10 different things. That's the beauty of what I do. It's sort of like musicians. You give them "My Funny Valentine," and they'll play it in 10 different ways. That's sort of where the improv in the chef world is important.
To get this perfected roasted chicken, with the crispy skin while keeping it moist -- what's the secret?
JW: That grill was fantastic. I was at home. I should have just served the chicken and nothing else. That's what I should've done [laughs]. That's what I do at the restaurant. I just throw the chicken on the plate and that's it. I even gussied it up more than I normally do. But honestly, I didn't think I would last that long.
What did you think was the most difficult challenge?
JW: The weird foods one was bizarre. We all got depressed. It was a collective sigh of depression. I wasn't happy with the last one. I love improv but that was sort of like, it's already improv, but it was a little mindboggling to me. I thought Susur's by far was the best. I loved watching what he was doing. And he's in much better physical shape than I am. I look at myself on TV and I was so fat. I hated it [laughs].