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.
Silence. This went on for longer than Tony thought to be necessary. The frustration showed on his face. He rolled his eyes.
“Okay,” he said. “We need something to cut the bitterness. Maybe a little honey. What do you think?”
“Honey, Chef,” said Danny. “Right away!”
“See what I mean?” said Tony. “They can’t figure out these things on their own.”
“They need you.”
“Right. My job is to motivate my crew. Keep them focused. Help them understand that I’m not going to praise them just for showing up. These millennials! This whole Generation Y, man, it’s like they think everyone loves them. It’s all they heard at home and in school. You can’t be critical because it hurts their self-esteem. What a fucking pain in the ass!”
“You do love them,” I said.
“Oh, I love them,” he said, “but I also want to see them working without their heads up their butts. That’s why I have a daily kaizen for them: What do you need to work on today? What needs improvement? What’s your kaizen right now?”
He went from one prep area to the next.
“James, what’s your kaizen today?”
James, one of the line cooks, looked startled. Like most of the other cooks, he was in his twenties. Lanky, clean shaven, and a man of few words, he moved with an intentionality that suggested it was best to steer clear of him.
“My kaizen?” he said.
“James!” Tony shouted.
James looked blank.
“Right proportions for the pig face, better Peking pancakes, work on the texture for the boudin noir–hoisin sauce,” he said finally. His voice was robotic.
He was referring to the confit and roasted milk-fed pig’s head (for two) with Peking pancakes, spicy cucumber sambal, and boudin noir–hoisin sauce, for $60.
“We sell about four or five of these every night,” Tony said, pointing to the pink half-face of what had once been a pig. “It’s delicious.”
“Some people got to have their pig’s head, man,” Matt said, joining us happily.
He and Tony laughed, and then Tony told me to follow him. He led me to a short, stocky man with thick black hair, a pocked face, and a thin mustache who was working at a meat grinder, not saying a word.
“I want you to meet Santos,” Tony said. Santos was the only one in the restaurant who had been with Tony for more than four years. He came from El Salvador, where he’d served in the army. “Started out as a dishwasher,” Tony told me, “and now he does all our butchering. Dude’s chill.”
Santos was grinding meat for the burger: deboned short ribs, hanger steak, brisket, and beef cheeks. He then added bone-marrow and kidney fat, and powdered miso the color of clay. He took chunks of meat from a rectangular metal tray and dropped them into the spout of a tall, churning, silver-colored grinder. The meat came out in long strands from a filter with many holes, and then fell into a large stainless steel bowl.
Why not buy prime beef or Waygu?
“How long does this take?” I asked him.
He averted his eyes and showed little emotion.
“You do this every day?”
“Except Monday.” He smiled. “Monday we’re closed.”
“Good that everything has to be perfect,” he said.
We left Santos with the meat and walked upstairs.
We returned to the pass. “I’d like a sidekick,” Tony said. “Someone I could bounce ideas off of, someone who is at my level in cooking. There’s no one like that at the moment here.”
I told him I was heading out for the night. As I left, he already had open a book called Encyclopedia of Pasta, by Oretta Zanini de Vita, and was leafing through it to find a name for his new pasta.
“More coffee?” Tony asked.
It was early afternoon, before service. Tony was in the outfit he wore each day when he was not on display at the pass during service: cargo shorts, T-shirt, sandals. A few staffers in the front of the house were polishing glasses, vacuuming, and setting tables. Hip-hop played on the sound system. Prep was going on downstairs. Upstairs, the kitchen was gleaming, empty, and quiet.
“I thought it would be a good idea for you to come to Craigie during the day,” Tony said. “That way I can show you what’s involved in the early prep.”
Cooks were arriving through the open door in the bar area. They waved and went downstairs to change out of street clothes. A few remained in the prep area below. Others came back up to the main floor and began cooking sauces and placing chickens in the low-heat oven in the open kitchen.
“I have to see what my cooks are up to,” Tony said.
We got up and went from station to station. The aroma of leeks sautéing in butter hit us. We smelled pork belly frying. We were hit by the scents of cumin, anise, and sesame seeds. We watched Matt make venison sausages. I held the menu and took notes while Tony tasted sauces, stocks, and butters.
On the menu I found tsimmes, barley, couscous, grilled tongue, and a brunch item of a bagel with salmon and smoked bluefish, house-brined corned beef, and horseradish cream that went with a potato galette.
Tony sipped a spoonful of pistou-dashi broth brought to him by a tall, very thin cook named Dakota.
“Delicious, man,” Tony said.
“Needs more salt,” Dakota said. He was bouncing up and down on his heels.
“No, it’s good,” Tony said. “The miso we’re adding later will take care of that.”
“Thanks, Chef,” Dakota said. He spun off.
Downstairs, Matt, Danny, Lydia, James, and a couple of others were working hard, sleeves rolled up, wearing aprons and caps.
Tony went from one to the next.
“You ready to go?” he said to Matt.
“I have to finish the dressing and taste it.”
He turned to James. “Ready to go?”
“Working on the miso and the greens.”
“No way,” Tony said. “What do you miss every day?”
“What do I miss?”
“What do you miss?”
James stopped stirring the broth. The other cooks stayed on task. Danny ran over to answer for him: “Razors, clams, crabs.”
“Right,” James said.
“C’mon, man,” Tony said. “Get it fucking right!”
I took Tony aside. I asked if he was worried about James.
“You mean, will he work out at Craigie?” Tony said. “I’m not worried, I’m pissed off! He’s been here two months and he still doesn’t get it.”
James was in his own world, so limited in his responses to what people said that often directives had to be spoken to him twice. He kept making the same simple mistakes.
“He can be offbeat,” Tony said. “I don’t care. A lot of my guys are offbeat, but they cook. James isn’t cooking.”
Danny brought Tony a long list of dishes that would be served that night: skirt steak, swordfish, pork, chicken, tongue, sweetbreads, salmon tail, and boudin noir.
“This is good,” Tony said. “Are you on it?”
“I’m on it, Chef,” said Danny. “I’m very excited!”
The team went back to work. The delicious aromas of the food were intoxicating.
Tony scanned the room, then addressed a question to everybody.
“We all good to go?”
Already at work, they all responded in unison, without even looking up.
Adapted from Back of the House by Scott Haas, by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2013 by Scott Haas.