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.

By Scott Haas | Boston Magazine |

tony maws craigie on main

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.

“Chef?”

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!”

tony maws craigie on main

“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.

“Not anymore?”

“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?”

“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.

“Thanks, Chef.”

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.

“Maybe.”

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.

“See?”

“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.”

tony maws craigie on main

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.

He laughed.

“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.

“Hours.”

He averted his eyes and showed little emotion.

“You do this every day?”

“Except Monday.” He smiled. “Monday we’re closed.”

“Hard work.”

“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.

“Yes, Chef!”

 

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.

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