A Celebrity Chef's Delicious Circle Talk

Jonathan Waxman, renowned restaurateur and chef—and Groton parent—presented an all-school cooking demonstration Monday night, filling the Campbell Performing Arts Center with mouth-watering aroma.

Mr. Waxman worked with Jed Coughlin and Julie Larocque of Groton's Dining Hall to turn an array of farm-fresh vegetables into succotash. The cooking demonstration, one of the school's Circle Talks, was tied to a summer community read, The Town that Food Saved by Ben Hewitt.

The lighthearted demo offered a steady menu of humor and helpful cooking tips—how to hold a knife, the best way to cut corn off the cob (onto a wet towel, and not too close to the cob)—while also offering a little bit of science. “Sugar plus heat equals caramelization,” Mr. Waxman explained, as he sautéed onions and used their caramelization to coax flavor from the other ingredients.

“Onions are the magic ingredient,” Mr. Waxman said. “Onions make the world happy.”

So, apparently, does food, and this chef has built a close relationship with it. “Food does talk to you,” he remarked. “What it’s saying to me right now is, ‘Stir me, stir me.’”

Chef Waxman, who is widely credited with bringing California cuisine to New York, told his own story of giving up life as a musician to study cooking in France. He has owned a number of popular restaurants over his career, and currently owns Barbuto and Jams in New York, Adele's in Nashville, and Brezza Cucina in Atlanta. Plans are underway for a casual restaurant in San Francisco that will focus on the chef’s roast chicken, for which he is famous.

Mr. Waxman, a Top Chef semifinalist himself, fielded several questions during the Q&A following the presentation about the famous chefs he knows. Bobby Flay, of Food Network fame, worked for Mr. Waxman for several years early in his career. Chef Waxman called Gordon Ramsay, a TV tyrant on Hell’s Kitchen, “a nice, sweet guy.” During the Q&A he also called his biggest challenge over the years “self-doubt” and said he was most impressed by Chinese cuisine, which he hopes to study in more depth.

As Mr. Waxman turned corn, beans, onions, and tomatoes into a succulent succotash, he continued the cooking lesson. Explaining deglazing to students, he said, “Water does something interesting to vegetables. It leaches out all that caramelization.”

Nimble chef and food philosopher, Mr. Waxman shared insights that help explain the passion that has driven him in the world of food. The word “restaurant,” he said, means “restore your spirit.”

And cooking itself? “Cooking is about building flavor. Just like life.”