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Barbuto's Jonathan Waxman Talks Music City Eats, Maintaining Momentum

Calling Jonathan Waxman a veteran of the restaurant industry would be, to say the least, an understatement. A pioneer of 'California cuisine,' over his nearly 40 year career he has worked in such seminal restaurants as Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Michael's in Los Angeles, among others, and has now helmed Barbuto in New York City for nearly 10 years. As one of the driving forces behind the upcoming Music City Eats Festival, he spoke with Eater about the evolution of food festivals, the similarities between chefs and musicians and 'keeping a foot in the door' on expansion.

Music City Eats is coming up, and you're a veteran of these festivals, so what is the lead up like? Is it more hectic than usual because you're one of the driving forces behind it?
To be one hundred percent honest, this is not my first rodeo. So you just get on the bull and ride it. I'm ready. Honestly, the most important thing is to have a great team, and having C3 Presents, Vector Management, Baltz and Company, it's a really great team that knows how to do this stuff. We know how to work together. The hiccup is just making sure everyone gets to town! But everybody's excited. When Caleb [Followill of Kings of Leon] and I were first talking about this, it was a no-brainer. He said "Jonathan, how come we don't do a food festival in Nashville like down at South Beach?," because he had been down to the South Beach Wine and Food Festival. It was as simple as that kind of conversation, we didn't have to really think about it, we just said, "Let's do it."

What are you hoping that people will take away from Music City Eats , in terms of Nashville and what's going on here culinarily?
The obvious factor with Nashville is music. You talk to musicians of all different types, the mecca is going to Nashville to make it or break it. So there is this strong musical line that just goes back forever. And I think part of what's happening is that musicians like food. So Nashville food-wise, like Louisville, Charleston, Atlanta, it's about all of these communities embracing lots of different kinds of food. Just because your in the South doesn't mean you have to just do southern food. You can do Italian, French, Laotian, Cambodian, you can really go where your passions lie. And that's what's happening in Nashville, and I think it's really going to demonstrate to the world that it's not just about music, but it's about food and music.

Speaking of music, I read where you were once in a rock band named Lynx.
Yeah, I played trombone professionally. I went to the University of Nevada-Reno, I played in pit orchestras, played with Sammy Davis, Jr., some jazz bands and rock and roll bands, it was my first passion. There is a strong correlation between music and food, you spend a lot of time woodshedding, just chipping and chopping and butchering before you get to the real thing.

I also read where LA Times critic Jonathan Gold has referred to you as the "Eric Clapton of Chefs."
[Laughs] I wish.

It seems like the music component has definitely been following you throughout your career.
They are so symbiotic. The collaboration between the two arts is pretty phenomenal, and what better place to showcase that than in Nashville? To have Caleb and Nathan [Followill] just say, "Yeah, let's do it," means that their passionate about what I do, and vice versa. And we're not just celebrating individual chefs here, we're celebrating the city of Nashville.

What do you think of people giving you and other chefs the stamp of "rock star" status? You have fully seen that transition, so what has it been like adjusting to your new roll, so to speak?
I think like in any profession, it's gratifying to have accolades, it's nice to have your name in lights, so to speak, but if you let it get ahead of you, if you get consumed by hubris, then it's a really ugly thing. I always tell everyone, even myself, if you believe your own press, you're an idiot. That's one of the danger signs of thinking your shit doesn't stink. It's a really bad scenario. I always tell my cooks, you have to stay humble. Bobby Flay worked for me for a long, long time, and I think one of the things he took away from the whole thing is that he realized it's just a lot of repetitive work, it's doing the same thing over and over again, and that's how you get comfortable with yourself. You can't be egotistical and do that night after night, it just doesn't work. I love that though, the whole repetitive task thing. Basting that chicken perfectly every time to make sure that customer is going to enjoy it. The consistency of what we do is just like musicianship, and you gotta do it. I was talking to a friend of mine who plays for the New York Philharmonic and he said this trombone player missed one note in an orchestra setting and he wasn't asked back. One note. It's ruthless, but you have 200 other people waiting for the opportunity to take your place. And it's the same with chefs. You've got 200 hungry ones that want your job.

I think it's fair to say that Music City Eats is one of the biggest food events ever to happen to Nashville in terms of national attention and bringing chefs here that otherwise might not have a reason to come to Nashville and showcase what they do.
I think you hit the nail on the head. Michael Symon's son, for instance, is a rock and roller in Cleveland. And so, Michael just loves rock and roll, so for him to come here and be a part of it, he's almost humbled in a way. That's how a lot of us feel.

With Nashville given the 'It City' label this year, in terms of food, what needs to happen going forward to sustain that momentum? I know there is some worry that it will bring in a lot of chain restaurants and others that just want to take advantage of the foot traffic.
That's an interesting point. I was just at the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival talking to someone in a very similar type of situation, saying that they don't want to have chains coming into their neighborhood. I went up to this little neighborhood in Hawaii kai and there are all these great little restaurants popping up and it's just wonderful to see. I think what happens is you have people that are independent, and they have their own style of food, and those people will prevail. I think the people of Nashville will continue to embrace it, I really do. It honestly all starts with farmers. You've got so much great stuff coming in, that's what really makes things work. The genre doesn't matter, it's really the intent.

Do you see the focus on southern cuisine continuing to grow, or do you see it starting to even out and something else stepping to the forefront?
It's a great question. Hunter Lewis [Executive Editor for Southern Living] used to work for me, I kind of trained him as a cook. Hunter and I talked about this a lot, and he's obviously from North Carolina so he brings a lot of that sensibility, and now he lives in Alabama. I said "Hunter, you live in Birmingham, it's two hours from Atlanta, three hours from Nashville, you guys are so close to each other, it's such a great community in that sense." Chefs are like musicians in that we're always checking each other out to see what's going on. Plagiarism among chefs is the highest form of flattery, so I think that the whole Southern tradition, the renaissance of heritage pork and heritage vegetables will just keep growing.

You opened Barbuto in 2004, so the 10 year anniversary is coming up. Are you ready to take on any new restaurant challenges?
I could be, could be. Something could happen.

Earlier this year you were quoted in the Tennessean as saying "I don't think you have to talk me into it. It's one thing I've been sort of thinking about[,]" when asked about the possibility of opening a restaurant in Nashville. Any updates on that?
[Laughs] Just keep a foot in that door for me, would you?