As his restaurant Craigie On Main approaches its fourth anniversary, and after having received nearly every imaginable accolade for his cooking, Boston chef Tony Maws is taking stock and figuring out what comes next. "It's not a midlife crisis," he assures, instead pointing to how important it is to have the space and liberty to ask, "Who do we want to be and how do we want to do it?" To that end, he already has a few things in mind: a casual new restaurant that will recall his first (which was called Craigie Street Bistro) and a change in management philosophy. What remains murky is navigating the frenzied world of PR and food media. Here's the full interview:
The last time we spoke was over a year ago, when you had just won the Beard Award. What has been going on at the restaurant?
Craigie on Main is about to be four years old, and the idea of Craigie is almost ten years old. Ten years ago, I opened up a hole-in-the-wall that ended up changing my life. That's crazy to think about. Now, after ten years of craziness, I've really been thinking about "What are we?" I didn't get into this to win an award or be a flash in the pan. I got into this because I love my job, I love cooking food, and I plan on doing this for a long time. How are we going to do this for another ten years without putting ourselves in the hospital?
Have you come up with some answers?
A lot of what we've been doing right now is thinking about that next step. One of the things is growing the team within the restaurant and creating opportunities outside of it. That's the logical progression for any small company — finding a way to grow at a sustainable rate. That's been high on the agenda recently.
Another topic of discussion is that we've been shaking up the management structure at the restaurant. I'm definitely a product of old-school kitchen mentalities where you come early and stay late and don't complain, but that doesn't work for everybody. As a company right now, we're trying to make this — and this is a word I hate to use — a more "sustainable" place.
Can you explain what that means in your case?
There are a bunch of people that have been with me a very long time, but then there are others that haven't. It's demanding, and we're very fortunate to be very busy. It's hard to find people that want to work half a million hours, and I don't blame them. I gave away half of my life and I'm not saying everyone else should. So, we're adding a sous chef role, a new kitchen operations division, an HR component, and things like that. Old school me was maybe kicking and screaming — I'm the product of people that trained me. I'm not so sure that's effective anymore. I'm maybe a little late to embracing that model, but I'm excited about it.
What, beyond the anniversary, made you start thinking about these things?
It wasn't the four-year mark. Something happened around the James Beard Award — not the award itself — but everything around it. You cook, you cook, and you follow this path, even if you don't want to, and it's actually quite liberating to get a few awards and realize that it's wonderful, but that it's not what drives you. You just want to be a better restaurant. You have to figure out what you need to do to stay on top. If not today, I would go down if I thought to myself that we'd been around for ten years and we didn't need to keep adjusting and working.
What are you thinking about for the next project you'd like to open?
For all of these years, and I think I talked about this with you last time, is that I'm a jeans and t-shirt guy who likes champagne and foie gras. That's where Craigie on Main came from. I had worked in France at great restaurants and at new bistros where great chefs weren't going for Michelin but for something that resonated with people. That's what I want to continue working on at Craigie on Main.
We make a tremendous amount of sausage and charcuterie at Craigie on Main, and I'd think of doing that elsewhere. I saw a guy write that charcuterie was "so 2010" somewhere, and I was like, "Fuck you." It's been around for thousands of years. I want to cook the food I make on Mondays at home or on Martha's Vineyard. It's not better and it's not worse than Craigie on Main, but it doesn't have the swoosh on the plate or the fancy little green on top. I want it to be fun, I want it to be loud, and I want it to be high energy. In many ways, I want to go back to what Craigie Street Bistro was.
You've always been a one restaurant guy and have seemed very happy with and immersed in that idea. I have to ask if part of the reason for expansion is to make a bigger name for yourself, beyond just the desire to explore another concept.
That's a really good question. I can't speak for other people, but it's really confusing to me sometimes, the way the food world works sometimes. When I talk to you, my PR people — the world of food is so crazy right now. There's a ton of that that is very positive, but trying to find your place and be secure with all that stuff is pretty challenging. Fifteen cookbooks came out this week, there are a bunch of Twitter accounts, so much stuff, and it's very hard to follow it. And I'm in it, so I need to figure out who I am and what I'm supposed to be doing. Do I care if someone knows my name? I know there's going to be a line out the door at 5:30 PM today, but there are people who don't know what this restaurant is. Should I care? Is that going to make my life better?
I have so many things that are so important to me that I just have to be okay with who I am as a chef and as a restaurateur. It's not like a midlife crisis, but it's certainly something I think about. Who do we want to be and how do we want to do it?
And the book that was mentioned a while back?
I'm still thinking about it and talking to people I might write it with, but most of my time has been devoted to Craigie on Main recently. I wouldn't say it's on the back burner, but we'll get around to it eventually and it'll be fun, whatever it's going to be.