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Tony Maws on the Beards, Boston and Why Chefs Cook

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Photo: Michael Piazza

Tony Maws, chef at Cambridge, Massachusetts' locavore, nose-to-tail neo-bistro Craigie on Main, is confident but soft-spoken; a nice guy. He's just been named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation, and for quite some time now, people have lined up on a nightly basis to try his food. But none of this seems to give him any time to breathe, much less gloat.

Yesterday, in between services during which his restaurant was packed with recent college graduates and their families, he took some time to discuss being true to yourself as a cook, what it's like to be both chef and owner of a restaurant, the Boston dining scene, and his upcoming book project with writer Scott Haas.

So what's up?
Let's see. It's the middle of graduation season right now. We're in Cambridge so we have a month of a lot of fun stuff like that. It's a different vibe. A lot of people from out of town who are excited to eat at a new place. That sort of swells for a few weeks and then you look forward to the end of it so we can have a few months of normalcy and can actually find a parking spot.

What's your clientele usually?
We're a little bit of a lot of things. We have a very open kitchen, so I literally can stand at the pass and see the entire restaurant. One of the great things about being in Cambridge, aside from having educated people, is also having really well traveled, cultured people. People who appreciate great food.

I'll see people in ties and I'll see people in t-shirts and flip-flops digging into insane things, doing ten-course tasting menus. We have people who appreciate things that are a bit off the beaten path. I talk to a lot of chefs who often want to commiserate: "Oh, I tried to put the veal tongue on my menu and it didn't move." I'm like, "Shit, I just sold 30 orders of veal tongue last night."

To the obligatory, obvious question: notice anything since you won the James Beard Award, or is it pretty much business as usual?
Well, I guess I'd say both. I've noticed something and I've noticed nothing. We're a busy restaurant as it is, knock on wood. People reaching out has been phenomenal; people coming into the restaurant and coming up to the pass congratulating me. People I didn't even know, people I do know, people online. It tickles you, it's kind of funny. I never have cooked for that medal, but obviously any time that you receive acknowledgment you feel a huge sense of pride.

But it doesn't change anything. My joke is that I wish I could wave that medal above my leaky pipe or something and make the problems go away. But you don't get the get out of jail free card with it. It's a solid recognition, but we've got more to do. Not a whole lot of time to breathe.

Do you have any thoughts on Anthony Bourdain's criticisms of the organization?
Food is expensive. It just is. And it's getting more and more expensive. Only a certain population can really afford to eat in my restaurant — the irony of course is that cooks don't get rich. People driving up in really beautiful Audis often eat at my restaurant. Not always, though. But there's definitely a population that can afford to eat fine dining more than others.

I've been relatively impressed with the way the Beards single out family restaurants, which is really fantastic. These are not necessarily people and places that I've heard of before. Ultimately, I don't want to jump all over them. You can pick apart anybody you want to.

Tell us a bit more about the book Scott Haas will be writing about Craigie on Main?
The process is just starting, so what I do know is just based on my conversations with Scott. I like Scott, I've cooked for him for a bunch of years now. He has his foot in the door at a number of pretty incredible kitchens, so I'm honored he thinks we're interesting and stimulating enough to write about.

Tony Bourdain wrote the book, slightly embellished, of what cooks do. Scott wants to write a book — and this is something in its infant stages — about why cooks do what they do. There's stuff that gets glorified and there's stuff that doesn't get glorified. And what we do every day is a pain in the ass, and you have to have a certain mindset.

It's certainly not that other people don't work as hard we do, but I'll let you know about my profession: you do the crazy hours, make the sacrifices, hone your skills, deal with the pressure. There are completely easier paths to follow — even within the industry. He's really fascinated with that why, he's a clinical psychologist. I don't think it's going to be a psychology book, because he's got a great sense of humor, and that's one of the things that made me say yes to the project. It's not my book at all. I'm merely the subject, not even a collaborator.

So Craigie on Main will definitely be the focus?
Oh yeah. He's not going to just be observing. He's going be on the line. He wants to get burned. He wants to get yelled at. He wants to see the successes and the failures.

Do you think it's possible to give someone who doesn't do that for a living an authentic experience in a kitchen?
Completely? Who knows. Heat did a really good job through one lens, and Tony Bourdain did a pretty good job through another. My restaurant is my restaurant, and it's not someone else's. Every other restaurant is going to have their own issues, their own visions, their own challenges, and their own successes. This will be truly unique to us, though he is probably going to pull in some anecdotes from other chefs. This restaurant is a beast. It's not bigger structurally because we can't be any bigger than what we are. But it's way more than I thought it would ever be. In a good way.

A lot of chefs refer to their projects as beasts or monsters. How do you see it in your case?
Definitely file under "be careful what you wish for." To do a restaurant like this, which is totally subjective and where we have our own opinions, philosophies, and politics behind it which not everyone agrees with, you have to put yourself out there to do it. You've got all these moving pieces. I mean, I've got sixty employees that work at Craigie on Main for ninety-something seats. Some are getting here at six in the morning and some are leaving here at three. Not quite 24/7, but pretty close.

And I'm the chef/owner. One of the things I joke about with my wife — not to put anybody down, because if anything, I'm envious of people that are just chefs — I kind of wish there was a separate category for chef/owners at the Beards. Because we don't get to only focus on the food.

Can you talk a little bit more about the "refined rusticity" of your food, that marriage between locavorism and nose-to-tail that your restaurant has become known for? Where does that come from?
People often ask me what inspired me or why I do what I do, and I wish I had one succinct answer. I didn't wake up one day and have a random epiphany that I was going to cook this food at Craigie on Main. But I'm certainly a product of everywhere I've ever been. And one of the things that really influenced me, besides my grandmother's cooking, which is huge, and a lot of my travels, was growing up in Chinatown. When I was really young, my parents bought a bombed-out brownstone in the South End which, when they were rebuilding it, didn't have a kitchen. So we ate in Chinatown all the time. I had to use chopsticks at three years old and I saw all of these ingredients — I grew up eating everything. From a Jewish grandmother who had bone marrow and oxtail and giblets to the Chinese food to who knows what else.

And then I was in France working at a little Michelin one-star outside of Lyon called La Rivoire. Classic, classic, classic place: waiters in tuxedoes, a guy who was a third-generation chef who had studied under Bocuse. The thing that I took out of that was that chefs would go to the market every day, come back with a van filled with stuff, and we would unload it all at like 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning. Everything we'd take out of there had hooves and horns and feathers and scales. Nothing was processed or cryovaced. And we used everything.

So these little bells started going off in my head: I thought also of my grandmother and Chinatown, and realized that all this shit tastes good. Why, in other restaurants, would I get pre-portioned anything or just a strip loin that someone says they know how to butcher when they're not butchering it. They're just slicing it. They don't even know which part of the cow it comes from. So that helped formulate a lot of the way I was thinking.

And then I read Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything, and he's got this chapter called "Hauts Bistros," where he talks about these great, great restaurants of Paris that have come out of two or three-star Michelin restaurants like Le Crillon. And they're basically giving their finger to the star system. "I'm going to cook great food, it's not going to be on Bernadot china because I can't afford it, I'm not going to buy thousands of dollars worth of flowers because it doesn't make my food taste better. I'm going to buy the same ingredients that Alain Ducasse is buying but I'm going to have it in a bistro setting, and it's going to be terrific."

All of these things came together and made me think that that was what I wanted to emulate. This is me: I'm a jeans and t-shirt guy and I love champagne, caviar, and foie gras. So why do I feel like I have to be in this pristine, quiet, staid setting? But I do love eating Michelin three-star meals. I just did two weeks ago.

Where?
At Le Bernardin, the day of the Beards. What's the best way for me to not think of all this crap? I sat there for four hours, drank a ton of wine and champagne, and had a great meal. It was perfect.

Going back to what we were just discussing. How do you think you can connect the personal history you just explained to a plate of food you serve at Craigie on Main?
I'm not afraid to put a bone on the plate. I'm not afraid of making people use their fingers. I'm not afraid of there being fat and gristle in a dish, because it adds flavor. But there's also a lot of finesse in our cooking. We have all of the equipment and a lot of the tricks that other people are using, but I also just feel that the food has to look like the food. I appreciate food that I have to think about, but that's not what comes out of me. And I think that it's important for a cook to be true to themselves.

So what Grant [Achatz] does is what Grant does, and I love his cooking. But I would have to think too hard to do that. It comes naturally to him, not to me. We're using a lot of the same modern equipment and modern ingredients, but the way it comes out on our plates at Craigie on Main...it's food. It looks like food on the plate. You can recognize the ingredients. You put it in your mouth, and I think it's very true to those ingredients. Our thing is to make it delicious.

That comment reminds me of something I read recently where you criticized the need to be innovative. Do you think your food isn't innovative?
One of the things that happens with the press right now is that they really hone in on certain things, especially in this day and age when you can get information so quickly. The idea of a trend is remarkable. If all we're doing is seeking out and following trends, we're going to be screwed. We're going to be done in two months. So, I think you have to have a little bit of confidence. I'm not cooking for the next year. I'm cooking for the rest of my life. So if I'm worried about what other people are doing or whether I should be doing new, I'll do that new thing because it's neat and fascinating and because it will make the food I'm already doing taste better.

Safe to say, then, that innovation isn't the goal but could be a byproduct of what you do?
Exactly. I think I've been nothing short of lucky because people seem to agree with what we are putting on the plate. I remember having a conversation with people that were important to me when I first opened Craigie Street Bistrot, and they were saying, "What happens if they don't get it? Will you put more of this on the menu? Will you take that off the menu?" And completely honestly, I said no. I'm not trying to be a bad business person, but this is the only food I know how to cook. And if it means that I put my tail between my legs and go home, then so be it. I'll do something different. I can't be someone I'm not. I'm going to be as honest as I can.

So you don't cook down to people?
I want to make people happy. It's a fine line. If someone says, "Can I have those beans from the chicken dish and put them on the steak dish?" I will often say no. I'm not trying to pull a fast one on them, but those beans were cooked in a certain way to go with that chicken. If I think that they will work together, of course. I'll offer it as a side. But I'm not going to just dump it on the steak, because it won't taste right. It may actually not even taste good, and they're going to walk out of the restaurant and say "Jeez, that didn't taste very good. I'm not going back there." But we say yes to a ton of things.

At the end of the day, if they don't like it, I'm going to do something about it. I'm not going to cross my arms and say, "Tough."

Ever feel that Boston doesn't get enough love as a food city?
I'm a very competitive guy. I think you need to be. Half of my kitchem is ex-athletes. I can't speak for all the restaurants in Boston, I can only speak for mine. I've eaten in my fair share of restaurants around the world, and I can gladly and confidently say I'll put Craigie on Main anywhere in the world.

Do I think that we don't get enough attention? Well, the food world is pretty New York-centric, and I can't fight that. The next outer rung is going to be Chicago, San Francisco, L.A., and maybe some other places. Yeah, it's too bad. At the end of the day, though, there's a line out of the door for my restaurant. So I don't give a shit what San Pellegrino wants to tell anybody. I don't know what best is. If I make the food delicious, the people are going to come. And that's all that matters.

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Craigie on Main

853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

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