Chef Tony Maws: The Outlaw
“What I’d love,” Maws says, “is a restaurant without menus. You sit down, you eat what I cook.”
Even I could see that it was wrong. The idea was to slice the rectangle of fish into paper-thin slices that would then be put on a bed of watermelon radish wafers, after which a yuzu vinaigrette would be sprinkled over everything. This was a perfect idea for a dish, with a relatively simple technique required to create and assemble it. There was only one catch. “Nobody knows how to cut fish in my kitchen,” Tony said.
This was a surprising and honest admission, especially considering the high prices being charged, but Tony explained as he went to the cutting board to show Danny how to do it right. “This is why,” he said, leaning in, putting the right amount of pressure on his knife so that it glided in, “I am”—moving with the blade—“here”—and now pulling back—“every night.”
Danny stood by his side. It was clear he knew what was required of him, that his efforts were inconsistent, and that this predicament was a source of tension between the two men. I found it stunning, given the time they had spent working together, that they had still not ironed this out.
“C’mon, Danny,” said Tony. “C’mon. Got to stay focused. Get your head out of your ass!”
Exasperated, Tony turned to me. “Some of them have the skills,” Tony said, “but they just don’t use them without me teaching them constantly. Plan B: From now on, I cut all the fish. Nobody else will cut the fucking fish. Done!”
“Why not just do the burgers?” I said, half-seriously. “That’s something you can teach and your crew can do. They would fly out the door. You’d be able to spend more time with your wife and son. Less stress, more fun.”
“Because we should aspire to do more.” He had a steely look. “When my crew is on, we’re the best in the city. No compromise!”
As we talked, the cooks behind us struggled to keep up with orders, their focus and speed becoming more intense with every minute.
“When you’re working the line, you can feel rhythm and speed,” Tony said. “One reason it’s hard to relax after work. It takes discipline to establish focus, maintain it, and then find ways at the end of the night to let it go.”
“Sex and drugs and rock and roll.”
“Exactly—back in the day,” Tony said.
“No, man,” he said. “Can’t. We’ve got work to do. We’re the best. Craigie is the best. We can’t play around with that.”
Tony had just lived through two banner years. He had been written up in GQ, the New York Times, and Bon Appetit, and had been named a James Beard winner for Best Chef Northeast. People were coming in these days with higher and higher expectations. He was no longer the chef at the cozy basement bistro he had opened years ago with two cooks. The Craigie on Main that customers now were seeking out had 10 cooks, 12 waitstaff, and two managers. On weeknights it averaged about 140 covers, and on weekends it averaged 160 to 180.
“I was always ambitious,” Tony said, looking over his shoulder at the cooks as he plated a beautiful-looking dish of pork three ways. I hung back, so as not to interfere with his efforts to expedite orders. He motioned me back.
“You don’t mind?”
“No. I like talking. I mean, you see what goes on here. Nobody talks to me! Not a rock star among them.”
“No one,” he said. “Not yet. Maybe Jess. We’ll see.”
Jess was Tony’s pastry chef. A bio major at Stanford, she had decided against applying to medical school and chose instead to pursue a passion for baking. With her hair pulled back, pale blue eyes, and a ready smile, she had great social confidence. She fit in, but she also conveyed a mature perspective that made others around her try to gain her favor and respect.
Until Jess arrived at Craigie, Tony concocted all the dessert recipes, which was extremely unusual for most chefs, who instead hired those with requisite skills in order to build teams. Jess was different from Danny, who, although an intensely hard worker and a mensch like her, had little desire to invent. He loved who he was and what he saw, not what he imagined he could be.
“Can’t you teach them what they need to know?”
“It’s complicated,” Tony said. “The short answer? No.”
“So what’s your plan?”
“I’m trying to get Danny to do what I do, so that once a week I can get a night off.”
Danny heard us and looked over. He smiled sweetly and then bent in, shoulders caved, to season a huge, beautiful Vermont chicken that had been cooking, sous vide, for hours. The bird was now ready for final, high-temperature roasting. Its aroma was intense.
“Danny,” Tony said. “Take over.”
Danny stopped what he was doing. Turning the job over to a line cook, he wiped his hands on his apron and took Tony’s place at the pass, game face on, as always.
“Let me show you around,” Tony said.
As we walked through the open kitchen to a narrow staircase leading to the basement, Lydia, another sous chef, brought Tony a plate of Portuguese sardines to see if they had the right texture.
Tony took a bite. She stood before him, plate in her palm, expressionless.
“Fucking awesome,” he said.
Tony led me through the commotion of the basement prep area, where a half-dozen prep cooks and line cooks were grinding meat, making stock, breaking down fish and pork and chicken, cutting up squid, and stirring sauces. The vibe was outlaw, as it often is in restaurants, with beards, tats, profanity, dark comedy, and threats. Watching everybody at work, I realized that most of these cooks would be incapable of fitting into a 9-to-5 setting. Like so many restaurant workers, they saw life very differently from most people. Their self-sacrifice set them apart.
Beyond the prep area was Tony’s office, which resembled a cave. It had a low ceiling. The only light came from a small lamp on a long wooden worktable. We reached a tiny room next to the wine cellar, where a recent culinary school graduate handed Tony a plate of uncooked pasta he’d made in house.
The pasta was to be a new dish for the bar, and maybe even on the tasting menu. Tony rolled it between his thumb and index finger.
“What do we call it, Chef?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. “Penne? Pennette? Rigatoni?”
“Garganelli?” I asked.
Tony clearly made things up as he went along. It was the opposite of being in a French restaurant, where there are usually well-defined rules.
“At our first location,” he explained, “when I first opened, I changed the menu literally every day. No limits!”
This made no sense to me. Most chefs I knew wanted their crews to cook food with repetitive precision. But Tony prefers experimentation. Some items on his menu stay the same for weeks and even months, but not his six- or eight-course tasting menus, which often change nightly, even hourly, and are called, accurately, “Chef’s tasting.” Swordfish wrapped in guanciale? Why not? Slow-cooked Spanish sea eel? Sure!
“You know, Tony,” I said, “one reason many chefs focus on creating a well-defined, relatively unchanging menu is because that’s what their cooks are capable of doing.”
“Right,” he said. “Of course. But I believe we can take it to the next level at Craigie.” He then launched into a refrain I’d heard from many other chefs. “What I’d love to do is have a restaurant without menus. You sit down, you eat what I cook.”
“Many people feel that deciding what to eat for themselves is part of the dining experience.”
“You don’t drill your own teeth, do you?” he said. “You don’t repair your car engine. Why should eating in a restaurant be any different?”
He gave the culinary kid a thumbs-up for the still-unnamed pasta, and took me back to the prep area.
At prep, vision met chore. We were knee-deep among plastic trays holding squid, peeled potatoes no bigger than casino dice, and the nightmarish, residual, unidentifiable byproducts of creatures that not too long ago had probably been given organic feed while roaming free range, until the moment they were separated from their sustainable herd or school, and slaughtered humanely.
“Beautiful tautog,” said Matt, one of the prep cooks.
“Blackfish,” Tony explained to me.
Matt, a tall, bearded man with a huge grin, had on a pillbox hat that kept his long hair from falling into the food. He was using a pair of tweezers to extract tiny bones from the fish, but wasn’t having an easy time of it.
“Here, look,” Tony said. “Let me show you again.” He sighed, running low on patience, then held the fillet in place and swiftly pulled out tiny bones that were as thin as dental floss.
“I got it, Chef,” said Matt.
“I’ve got to work with Matt on this fish,” Tony said. “It’s an ongoing problem.”
Matt worked on the fish. After a few minutes, brow furrowed, he presented the finished product again to Tony, who found tiny bones still apparent. “Fuck!” he said, anger suddenly turning his face red.
“I’m. Going. To. Show. You. Again.”
He shook his head and pursed his lips, then stepped up to where Matt had been and began the extractions. A moment later, he had lined up a series of little bones alongside the fish.
“That’s how you do it, Matt. Okay?”
I couldn’t get over this. We were in the middle of dinner service, and the fish needed upstairs still was not ready. No wonder Tony was upset. Why didn’t his cook know what to do?
Danny had come downstairs. “Chef?”
He had a spoonful of stock for Tony to sample. As Tony tasted it, he stared at the spoon and rubbed his chin.
“It’s missing something,” Tony said. “I’ll give you two guesses. You have to guess. I’m not going to tell you.”