As soon as we got the morning call sheets for Surprise in a Box, I began to obsess. One of the competing Top Chef Masters would be Jonathan Waxman. I’ve known Jonathan since he came to New York bringing a breath of the West Coast – cool white walls, a collection of bright abstract paintings and his own special style of minimalism on the plate to Jams on West 79th Street. He stood out from so many local chefs, straining to outdo each other with nouvelle cuisine by using French technique but with a Californian passion for ingredients, rarely more than three or four of them on a plate. Grilled or roasted fish in a puddle of beurre blanc, perfect chicken under a haystack of fries. (Indeed, those addictive fries set off a new passion for potatoes in New York that has never ceased)
And it was meeting Jonathan and Chef Larry Forgione (An American Place) at Wolfgang Puck’s first Meals on Wheels benefit in the parking lot at the old Spago that led to the two chefs founding role in our own first Citymeals on Wheels fund-raiser honoring James Beard in the Garden and restaurants of Rockefeller Center – an event that both chefs continue to grace with their presence even now in our 25th year.
Of course I wondered if Jonathan might choose Citymeals as his charity. Nothing was said or even hinted. But as the board chair and co-founder of Citymeals-on-Wheels I had something to gain and much to lose. I worried that my judging might be influenced by my admiration and affection for him. Or the reality of just how much the final $100,000 prize might mean to our goal of bringing weekend, holiday and emergency meals to the city’s 17,500 homebound elderly in a year when we had lost many donors, including a most generous foundation and a major corporate benefactor.
I had recently been to a product launch in Art Smith’s house in Chicago and we’d met before but only for minutes and I knew him as Oprah’s chef. I would not have called him a master, but rather a homey Southern cook, as he styled himself. Of course I was aware of Roy Yamaguchi’s extraordinary success as the owner of 37 restaurants but I had never reviewed his spot in Manhattan. And I knew nothing about Michael Cimarusti.I was a little bit tense as I tasted. Quite clearly improvisation was not Roy’s strength as he confessed on the show. Pairing shot ribs and mahi mahi as a first and second course on the plate was not especially impressive though he’d done wonders with that mahi mahi. As I watched the show myself last night I wondered how long it had been since Roy and Jonathan too has actually been in a supermarket. But I loved the sense of camaraderie – none of them was trying to sabotage the other, quite the opposite, giving Art that chicken was indeed a blessing. It was a chance to do the Southern comfort food he can do with his eyes closed. Michael produced the most refined plate but too much salt lowered his score.
Listening to the chefs respond to our questions, I was won all over again by Jonathan’s laidback style and philosophy. He struck me as wise and funny and charming. I was put off by the way his sauce pooled all over the plate and by the look of grated black truffle (it does have more flavor than slices but it looked a little like cigarette ashes).
And then there was Art’s glorious fried chicken – I couldn’t remember ever loving any fried chicken more. It was odd that he took the skin off his smothered chicken (A dieting Oprah touch perhaps) but I didn’t mind chicken two ways on the plate. His smoked cheddar grits were sensational and that little mango tartlette pretty much seduced us all. That meant Art would win.
Watching the show itself, seeing the by play back in the kitchen, hearing the chefs' thoughts as they shopped, and dined together, as they cooked and waited for our votes. I liked Jonathan even more and I berated myself all over again worried that I had leaned back too far to be fair. Given the way all the votes lined up, I hoped it was not my vote that made the difference. It was only afterward by accident that I learned Jonathan had indeed chosen Citymeals as his charity. Now I have to face my board who won’t care about pork chops or fried chicken. And Jonathan. I’ve already seen him just recently cooking at our Citymeals garden party. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s not about winning,” he said. “It’s about playing the game.”
Gael Greene, www.InsatiableCritic.com