2007_12_waxman.jpgChef Jonathan Waxman is known for many things, but the benchmark of his cooking over the years has arguably always been his roast chicken. The cover of his new cookbook A Great American Cook depicts Waxman slyly drawing a Lavazza espresso cup to his mouth, wood-burning oven full flame in the background and a sliced open cheese pumpkin in front. The book also features the chef’s roast chicken recipe. “My culinary anthem,” Waxman waxes in the recipe’s preamble. “There’s nothing else like it,” we were told by a stranger at a party last week celebrating the release of said book. “You really have to make it,” said someone else, emphasis on really. And so we did (results pictured here).

The recipe involves a few unusual techniques, notably dunking the pre-roast chicken in a bowl of warm water for a few minutes before a good towel dry and flattening on a cutting board. Medium heat broiling causes the chicken fat to simultaneously crisp the skin and cook the bird. Waxman suggests tossing whatever fresh herbs you may have lying around into some melted butter, and pouring this mix over the finished chicken.

Other than an effusive “My number one mentor” front cover blurb from Bobby Flay and the quasi-cryptic “He is one of the great cooks I know” back cover plug from Alice Waters, Waxman’s multi-decade contributions to the New York restaurant world are often glossed over entirely, save for larger, Bright Lights, Big City style reminiscing. Neither formats do justice to the chef, whose famous chicken dish – if examined in variations and in retrospect – may provide some kind of key to understanding restaurant culture in the city.

In 1984, when Jonathan Waxman’s first opened JAMS, his legend-in-the-making chicken cost $23. Then it shot to $30. When Barbuto opened twenty years later, the same roast chicken cost a mere $17; two years previous at Waxman’s Washington Square, chicken was $25. These days, “Roasted JW Chicken” is $19 at Barbuto. All told, and all through the years, it’s like the pricing scheme of the chef’s chicken plate reflects a secret stock exchange, or a hidden barometer of restaurant culture in New York.

The chef promoted his new book last week at Barbuto walking around the dining room with a glass of wine and a sweater tied around his neck. The lights were dim, and Jeffrey Steingarten ate chicken liver toast at the bar. Waxman’s PR people delivered friendly “can’t confirm or deny” responses to the rumors of a new Barbuto opening near Columbus Circle next year. Shot down and with no news to report, it can probably only be said that Waxman’s chicken will likely cost more uptown.

In other corners of the dining room, however, a few of Waxman’s former cooks recounted some sharp advice doled out through the years, from a half dozen of the chef’s former kitchens. Sample: “If a entrée plate has more than three ingredients on it, it’s just jerking off.” While this exact sentence may not appear in the sort of humorously titled A Great American Cook, it is exactly the type of maxim and underlying philosophy that makes this cookbook such a good read.

Grilled (or Broiled) Chicken
from A Great American Cook by Jonathan Waxman
4 servings

Note: Waxman recommends serving this chicken with salad and homemade fries, the recipe for which is in the book.


1 3½ - 4-pound free-range, corn-fed, or naturally raised chicken
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil (if broiling the chicken)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, and parsley – whatever’s available


Soak the chicken for 5 minutes in a large bowl filled with warm water to cover, to relax the flesh. Drain and dry the bird thoroughly with paper towels.

Butterfly the chicken by cutting down both sides of the backbone with poultry shears or sharp heavy scissors and removing the backbone (freeze it to use for stock). Open out the bird, place it skin side up on the cutting board, and press down firmly with the palms of your hands to flatten the bird as much as you can. Pat dry again.

To grill the chicken:
Prepare a fire in a kettle grill, such as a Weber. Fill a chimney starter all the way up to the top with hardwood charcoal. Light the chimney as usual. When the coals are white, dump them out and place the grate over the coals. Wait for 10 minutes.

It is important to begin grilling the chicken with the skin side down – if not, the skin will not crisp well. Liberally salt and pepper the chicken and place it skin side down in the middle of the grill. Cover immediately and open the vent holes in the lid. Grill for 3 minutes, then turn the chicken 90 degrees, still skin side down, to create crosshatched grill marks on the skin. Cover the grill again and cook the chicken without moving it for an additional 6 minutes.

Turn the chicken over, cover, and grill until cooked through, about 15 minutes; an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh should register 165 degrees. (Or you can move the chicken off the direct heat to cook more slowly and give you time to make any accompanying dishes.)

To broil the chicken:
Heat the broiler. Rub the chicken with olive oil, season well with salt and pepper, and place it skin side up in a shallow baking pan.

Place the pan under the broiler 4 inches from the heat source and cook until the skin is perfectly golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes. Turn the chicken over and cook for 5 minutes. Then turn the chicken skin side up again and cook until the skin is really crispy and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh registers 165 degrees.

Just before serving, melt the butter in a small skillet and stir in the chopped herbs, along with a little salt and pepper.

Quarter the chicken. Place on a platter, drizzle the herb butter over it, and serve right away.

A Great American Cook
Houghton Mifflin, $35