Chef Tony Maws: The Outlaw
Confit and roasted milk-fed pig’s head. Swordfish wrapped in guanciale. Hourly menu changes and no time off. Welcome to the no-limits world of the mercurial chef Tony Maws.
Photos by Michael Piazza
Tony Maws stood at the pass of his open kitchen, where the food is looked over before being sent to tables. Maws is the chef-proprietor of Craigie on Main, widely regarded by national critics as one of the country’s best restaurants. From 2010 to early 2012, Maws agreed to let me observe him and his staff in action at the restaurant. This was one of my first nights on the job.
“Ordering eight tastings!” he said. “Five three-way porks! Two hiramasa! One pig’s head!”
“Ordering eight tastings!” his cooks recited back. “Five three-way porks! Two hiramasa! One pig’s head!”
A ticker tape of fresh orders, known as tickets, came in. Tony glanced down. “For fuck’s sake!” he said, glowering. He was looking at the evening’s fifth order for a burger, medium rare.
Tony did not become a chef in order to cook burgers. The average tab for two at Craigie, which he founded in 2002, is about $200, and can easily reach as much as $350 or more if customers order his signature tasting menus ($115 per person for eight courses, $99 for six courses, and $67 for three courses, exclusive of tax, cocktails, wine, and tip). The atmosphere at Craigie is casual and inviting: high-end dining without the formality, where the emphasis is on the food. Which is why Tony was disappointed about the burger. He had decided he would serve them only in the bar.
This was a challenge. Many customers—especially after the Craigie burger had appeared on the cover of Bon Appetit, in September 2010—were coming for the sole purpose of having one. When making reservations on OpenTable or directly through the restaurant, they were not informed of the dining room ban. (Nowadays, the burger is off the menu. You can still get it if you ask your server and are seated in the bar area, and they haven’t sold the limited number they make each day.)
“We can move the guests to the bar area if they insist on having the burger,” Tony said. “It may be a problem at first.”
Drew Romanos, one of Craigie’s managers, approached. Tall, lean, and graceful, Drew inspired calm in those around him. Tony leaned in, and Drew spoke into his ear.
“Chef, VIP four-top, any suggestions on what to send out?”
“Send them a terrine.”
Drew conferred with one of the sous chefs, and Tony returned to the tickets, which by now were coming in fast. Behind him, in the kitchen, the pace was picking up. At the garde-manger station, where cold dishes are prepped, two cooks, a man and a woman, both medium height and slender, were assembling sets for the burgers. Four others, all men with the bony bodies of runners, were at work on two sides of an enormous contraption that held a salamander oven; several long, rectangular griddles; and multiple burners. To his immediate left: a sous chef slicing fish, another cook getting chickens ready for extended roasting.
Below us, in the basement, was the prep area, where another of Tony’s sous chefs oversaw the prep crew: all hard-core, built like boxers, with attitudes to match, most Spanish-speaking, most tat-covered. It was here that the restaurant’s engine was kept powered, from 4 a.m. until 1 a.m.
Back at the pass, Tony reigned calmly amid all the commotion. Guests were being led to tables, servers were dropping off orders, the manager was handling a disputed bill, the line cooks were moving like bees: purposeful, repetitive.
“How do you do it?” I asked.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”
“You always knew you wanted to be a chef?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Getting things accomplished. Feeding people, making them happy. The pace. The setting. Staying up late and being in the restaurant world that is so different from the world others outside of it live in.”
Tony is 5-foot-9 and in his early forties. He has a canny grin. He wears a looped silver earring and a slight beard that resembles Ben Affleck’s in The Town. He grew up in Newton, in an upper-middle-class Jewish-American household with no ties whatsoever to the restaurant industry, and attended Belmont Hill and then the University of Michigan, where he studied psychology. Although his parents encouraged his interests, they certainly never imagined they were sending him to elite schools in order for him to become a cook.
And yet here he was, one of the country’s best.
It was a Thursday night, almost 8 o’ clock. The tables were filling up with hungry customers, and the tickets were flying in. Bill Evans played over the restaurant’s sound system. The atmosphere was that of a sophisticated private party—the place to be.
The waitstaff moved crisply and confidently across the floor, but when they returned to Tony at the pass, a few appeared discombobulated, even scared. These were clearly the recent hires.
“Chef, three people at my four-top finished their entrées,” said a gangly waiter who, as it turned out, would last only a few months at the restaurant. “Should I wait to bring out dessert menus?”
“How the fuck should I know?” Tony responded.
The waiter looked as if he were going to burst into tears. Tony ignored this. He did not even look up, and instead kept crossing off orders that had been completed. Finally he lifted his head and said, “Okay, wait. Wait until the fourth cover is done.”
He shook his head.
“This is my life,” he said to me after the waiter had left. “No one can make a simple fucking decision without coming to me. They don’t take ownership. They don’t figure things out for themselves. Pisses me off! That’s why I have to be here all the time. No time off.”
Tony doesn’t have an executive chef who can run things for him, which I did not understand. Most chefs at his level have someone to turn routinely to so that they can take time off.
“Did you ever have someone? In all those years since you opened your first place?”
“Nope,” he said.
The action swirled around him.
One of his sous chefs, Danny, had appeared at his side. He was wiry, diminutive, and incapable of standing still. He’d been working with Tony for four years. He showed Tony a small plate on which he had placed a fillet of sea bass.
“Wrong,” said Tony. “All wrong. Fuck!”