A main course of roast chicken and French fries, audacious in its simplicity; salads that appear to have floated down from the sky and landed gently on the plate; an improvisational chef; an open kitchen; a wood-fired grill. When Jams opened in 1984, it introduced a radical new kind of restaurant experience to New York City and a style of cooking dubbed California cuisine. Jams closed after only five years, yet it made a lasting contribution to the very definition of American food. The recent reboot of the restaurant at New York City’s 1 Hotel Central Park invites us to remember how we began to eat the way we do today.
Jonathan Waxman, like many of his chef contemporaries, took a circuitous route to the kitchen. By the time he was 24, he had been a trombone player, a Ferrari salesman and a barman. For kicks, he took a Bay Area cooking class; the instructor, sensing Waxman’s inner chef, nudged him to matriculate at La Varenne in Paris. Arriving in France in 1976, he discovered nouvelle cuisine, which moved French gastronomy away from a codified repertoire toward more personal, seasonal, lighter dishes. Waxman returned to California with a vague notion of how to apply the nouvelle ethic: “What if we took all the sort of classic regional foods of America and did what they did in France?” he mused. “Lighten them up? Make them more accessible? Make them different somehow?” In particular, he envisioned deep-fried strips of abalone tossed into a salad to wilt the greens.
- Roast Chicken with Salsa Verde and Roasted Lemons
- Red Pepper Blini with Creamed Corn and Smoked Salmon
- Snapper with Black Beans and Bok Choy
- New York Steak with Roasted Chiles
- Tarte Tatin
- Swordfish with Romesco Sauce
- Macadamia and Milk Chocolate Peppermint Cream Sandwich Cookies
Waxman did a stint at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, then headed south to Santa Monica and Michael McCarty’s influential New American restaurant Michael’s, where he assumed command of the kitchen in 1979. This is where he began to hone his experimental, stripped-down food, most famously a half-chicken with tarragon butter and fries that slyly drew on bistro convention. The legendary California chef Jeremiah Tower, on his first visit to Michael’s, found that roast chicken to be “the most perfect reproduction of the best effort the French had ever done.” After his meal, he marched into the kitchen and demanded, “Who is responsible for that?”