Jonathan Waxman talks California cuisine and collaborations in the kitchen, interview exclusive

MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Jonathan Waxman in the “Jonathan Waxman - California Mystery Box” airing Wednesday, July 21 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX.
MASTERCHEF: Guest judge Jonathan Waxman in the “Jonathan Waxman - California Mystery Box” airing Wednesday, July 21 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. © 2021 FOX MEDIA LLC. CR: FOX. /

Jonathan Waxman has held many titles, awards and accolades. As he joins MasterChef Legends as the ambassador for California cuisine, the culinary sage reveals some insightful thoughts on food and cooking. While his legendary status has long been solidified in the culinary world, Waxman welcomes those willing to collaborate to this bountiful table.

Recently, FoodSided spoke to Jonathan Waxman ahead of his appearance on FOX’s MasterChef Legends. While a few tasty chicken cooking tips will come at a later time, the conversation played like a great melody that invited you into the whole experience. More importantly, the food concepts that he shared are ones to build on for a long time to come.

Although the term California cuisine seems to be having a moment again thanks to the Wolfgang Puck documentary, MasterChef Legends, and other food trends, the concept of this style of cooking isn’t just limited to a particular region. In some ways, it is an application of food ideas that are vital to creating any memorable dish.

Waxman shared a long detail explanation for California cuisine, but the story begins in the 1970s with Alice Waters. Her passion for French techniques with American ingredients was the first step into the concept of what has become labeled California cuisine. As other chefs, like Waxman himself, Puck and Nancy Silverton, began to evolve the concept, it became more. Taking ideas from Water’s “food sensibility” and fusing with food on the grill, the culinary genre began to grow.

While the locale is in the name, California cuisine is more about the ingredients. As Waxman shared, there is that component of “going to the local farmers market without a recipe and using what is available.” In many ways, it is about highlighting the fresh, seasonal, local bounty in the best way possible.

With his upcoming appearance on MasterChef Legends, home cooks will be watching for a few food and cooking revelations along the way. Simply stated, Waxman’s best advice is abundantly clear. When you’re at the market “let the food talk to you.” All of those vegetables and ingredients asking the cook to “do the best you can with me.”

Although many home cooks have been told this concept over and over, the reality is that the advice is always pertinent. In season ingredients are always best. As Waxman shared, “you don’t look for tomatoes in the middle of winter, when tomatoes aren’t good.” Fresh, seasonal, best ingredients are “one of the tenants of California cuisine.”

What advice does Jonathan Waxman offer about cooking mistakes?

For many home cooks, cooking mistakes can be disheartening, but Waxman wants home cooks to re-think that concept. He said, “I always remember that Julia Child said that there are no mistakes.” Even Waxman admitted “I’ve made some tremendous mistakes in my life, and I’ve really benefited from learning from those.”

But, it is important how you recover from those choices. Waxman shared, “I just tell my cooks just don’t make the same mistake twice.” At the same time, Waxman believes, “you really need to challenge yourself and push yourself and not be happy with the status quo.” Sometimes there is perfection on the plate and other times the result is not quite as appealing. Both scenarios are vital to honing that cooking craft.

Since Waxman is a musician and has even founded a music and food festival in Nashville, the idea of embracing and learning from mistakes can be applied to the improvisation qualities in some music collaborations. When asked about how kitchen collaborations can be similar to musical collaborations, Waxman offered his poignant take.

He referenced how when he was trying to play solo, he didn’t always sound as good as he could have been. Candidly admitting, “I sounded terrible, I didn’t know what I was doing.” In part, “it was because I hadn’t practiced enough” So, he practiced and practiced, but it wasn’t an overnight success to making that perfect melody.

Waxman said, “the same thing is with cooking. You have to keep making the same things over and over again till at one point you could throw away the recipe, you can throw away all that stuff, and in the end you learn how to improvise.”

Jonathan Waxman reveals what he thinks makes a great chef.

Simply stated, Waxman believes that a great chef has an ability to improvise. Being able to “create new dishes” is how a chef keeps “dishes fresh and new again” through improvisation. At the same time, the collaboration with others keeps the excitement moving forward.

More importantly, Waxman believes that “there is a magic where you get together with other people that kitchen” As everyone puts in their culinary note, that dish is a celebration of “what we made together.” For Waxman, the ultimate success in cooking is bringing all those elements together.

While the MasterChef Legends home cooks are looking to find that perfect melody in their mystery box, the words of wisdom from Jonathan Waxman should be playing in their minds. Even if that dish isn’t perfection on the plate, there is a lesson to be learned in the experience. The chance to play another tune awaits and next time that note will fit in perfectly.

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MasterChef Legends airs on FOX Wednesday nights at 8 p.m. ET. Jonathan Waxman is an award-winning chef, restaurateur and cookbook author.