The type of northern Californian cuisine that Jonathan Waxman will serve up at Jams when it opens on Wednesday could be called the new culinary norm in New York: meticulously local, hyper-seasonal, vegetable-centric. The difference between his restaurant and the others (see: ABC Kitchen, Blue Hill, Gramercy Tavern), is that Waxman can take credit for making farm-to-table the standard. When Waxman opened the original Jams in 1984, he didn’t set out to start a movement. His backyard barbecue brand of cooking, finessed under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, had people swarming to the Upper East Side — Andy Warhol came twice a week with a full entourage. Andy Rooney came for a solo meal every Sunday.
“I was trained by Alice Waters to not serve asparagus when they weren’t in season,” says a jovial Waxman, who’s sitting in the new incarnation of Jams — all high ceilings, exposed brick and beach wood — located off the lobby of the new 1 Hotel Central Park. “It’s a simple thing.” The way he speaks about it, the restaurant business as a whole sounds like a simple thing. “I cook the way I cook,” he continues with a shrug. “I don’t think it’s very complicated. The whole tweezer thing, I get it, I get why cooks want to be artists. I’m very happy eating that type of food once in awhile. But on a regular basis I want the kind of food that I serve.”
That food is equal parts rustic and refined — slightly more elegant than his other perpetually packed haunt, Barbuto in the West Village. “Not that this is totally elegant, but Barbuto is pretty rough and tumble,” he says. Sourcing locally by however means possible (he has a runner meet fisherman in places like Montauk or Asbury Park every morning), Waxman will serve things like a shaved vegetable plate with zucchini and carrots, swordfish with grilled pineapple and fennel, and pork chop Milanese. Some items will be lifted directly from the Eighties menu, such as the Jams’ red pepper pancakes, served with smoked salmon, crème fraîche and caviar and his famed chicken with tarragon butter. “They’ve been out of circulation for a long time, so they are new to most people, but they’ll be nostalgic to others,” says Waxman. “And I think that’s a really important piece of the puzzle.”
Some items will be entirely new, like the breakfast menu (a necessary addition for a hotel restaurant) which will feature international-style breakfasts. The Japanese version for example will include custard, poached fish, rice and pickles, while the New York has scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and bagels. Anyone staying at the hotel, it should be noted, can order off the menu anytime via room service — a compelling reason for a staycation if there ever was one.
Not to say this will be his last restaurant, but in a way, Jams has bookended Waxman’s career. He made his name with the first one, and this go-round is a homecoming. “I always felt that it was an aborted mission,” says Waxman. “I was young and impetuous, I had hubris, and the stock market crashed in ’87 and things got tough. I opened Jams in London, I had Hugo’s, I had Bud’s on the Upper West Side, I opened too many restaurants. But Jams was always my first love.” And with the eminent closure of Barbuto, the newest iteration has him feeling especially sentimental.
“Do you know what the word restaurant means?” he asks. “To restore one’s spirit. And that’s what a lot of people go to restaurants for — it’s not just sustenance of the body but sustenance of the soul. You want to gather around and chat, talk about s–t, leave all your cares and troubles behind.”
He thinks to himself.
“And the alcohol doesn’t hurt.”