Ribelle’s Tim Maslow on Life After Four Stars

How a perfect review made his life hell.

Tim Maslow

Chef Tim Maslow of Ribelle and Strip T’s

When Tim Maslow left New York and the tutelage of star chef David Chang at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, he was already a 27-year-old prodigy, formed from the same brash, trend-setting cast as his mentor. But Maslow needed a change, and he was determined to connect with his father, Paul, a fellow chef who was running a casual lunch spot in Watertown.

At this point, everyone seems to know about Maslow’s mythical overhaul of the Strip T’s menu, a transformation that made him a poster boy for an adventurous new era in Boston dining. In the fall of 2013, Maslow opened his first standalone restaurant, a progressive Italian fusion eatery named Ribelle, the Italian word for “rebel.” Business might have been slow at first, but after the Globe‘s Devra First gave the hip Washington Square spot a rare four-star review, things changed dramatically. Tim Maslow became the hottest chef, and Ribelle an impossible reservation to score.

It sounds like a feel-good success story, but Maslow paints a different picture: one of impossible expectations and grudging compromise. We caught up with the auteur chef to discuss his brand new tasting menu, the flawed theory of reservations, and his obsession with hostile Yelpers.

How did you get into cooking?

The easy answer is that my parents opened [Strip-T’s] together, and I started working there [and Goodnoe Dairy Bar in Pennsylvania] when I was 16. I think when I started to get into a lot of trouble in middle school and high school, it made sense for me to work in a kitchen. I was able to be myself. I was able to curse and carry on and play with fire.

What was your first job in the kitchen? 

I was a dishwasher. It was six months of that and it was brutal. Don’t let anybody ever tell you that the dishwasher isn’t the hardest-working person in a restaurant. From there I learned speed, cleanliness, and organization. Looking back, I suppose it was important to my growth.

When was your first opportunity to start cooking?

Well, that wasn’t the food I was ultimately looking to cook. A year-and-a-half later I picked up a job at a restaurant called Brick Hotel [in Newtown, Pennsylvania]. They were cooking food I hadn’t seen before; maybe just on television. At that point it was cool to be sourcing ingredients from as far away as possible. Obviously, over the last 10 plus years, that’s changed. Now everyone wants to source as locally as possible. But they were using hearts of palm and Japanese beef and all these things that were interesting to me. I think that’s what made me stick around rather than looking for work  in a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. Even after I started culinary school in New York, I was returning on weekends.

Besides David Chang, who else have you interned under?

I interned at a few good restaurants in Philadelphia. None worth mentioning. But in New York I [interned] for David and I worked for David. Later on in my career, with Dave, I spent six months at Del Posto. But Momofuku was what I embodied. That’s the culture and lifestyle I learned. It’s where I wanted to be. I left at one point in the middle of my tenure for a year. I moved to Boston and didn’t find a job that I wanted.

What didn’t you like about Boston at the time?

It’s going to sound funny, but I was looking for Momofuku in another city. I was looking for that culture that I had grown to love and had continued to be obsessed with. I was offered jobs at all the major restaurants. I just wasn’t interested. So, I spent the summer painting my dad’s house instead of cooking. It was that whole wax-on-wax-off situation.

Did something change in the Boston dining scene that made you want to come back?

The Boston scene had nothing to do with it. I wanted to come back and work with my dad. What Boston was doing was inconsequential to my decision.

How is it working with your father?

That’s a question that’s been asked many times and it’s definitely changed over the years. I wouldn’t want to run a restaurant with anybody else. I didn’t really grow up with him, so we were buddies more than anything. Moving up here and really getting to know and understand each other was worth the move. Whether or not we succeeded with a restaurant didn’t matter. It was great we were getting closer. He’s essentially the patriarch of our company. No matter how impulsive or crazy I want to be, he can always quell that and make me understand something more rationally.

Has anything changed since you got the four-star review from Devra First? Has it changed your outlook or the business?

Yeah! We were not busy when we opened. Quite possibly, we were close to going out of business before that review came out.

At first, my father, myself, and Theresa Paopao [beverage director and general manager] looked at it as something amazing; maybe something we didn’t deserve, but something that was totally necessary for us to continue doing what we wanted to do. I thought, ‘Finally, somebody trusts us.’ But what we’re finding as we move forward is that those four stars come with a stigma. People expect more than we ever intended on offering. I think Devra’s review was very straight-forward about who we are. I think it was all honest. But when people see four-stars at surface value, you’re being left in a very hard situation. More often than not, it’s a situation we can’t win. We make most of our customers happy, but there are quite a few that are expecting Per Se or Menton; somewhere that is not us. Our menus are attached to cutout cardboard from wine boxes. We play semi-loud music. There’s communal seating. We don’t have white tablecloths or four waiters per table. I think that puts us in a bit of a predicament, at least until people give us a second shot and understand that we’ve been given this rating strictly based on what we do. If you’re the best at what you do, even if you’re a hamburger restaurant, you should be able to get four stars.

I know there’s some grumblings online about the noise levels and pricing. Do you pay attention to those?

I can’t stop. Every chef loves to pride themselves on not listening to it and reading it. But I can’t help it. I think a lot of these people don’t understand that when they put these expectations on us, then they go out and anonymously blog or review about what they were expecting versus what they got, they’re affecting somebody’s business. We’re up to 65 employees at both restaurants. I don’t care about myself. What I do care about is the family we’ve cultivated, and when I read these reviews, I get depressed. They can be quite petty. For the product we offer and the lengths we go to sourcing it—80-90 percent of it is local, sustainable, antibiotic-free, hormone-free, grass-fed to mitigate the greenhouse gas effect— all the trouble we go through and the prices we’re able to achieve, at our detriment, I don’t think people understand it.

We’re making moves to let people know all of the work we put into everything. I set out with the idea not to list producers or purveyors that we use because it should just be status quo for a restaurant. It should be automatic. This is what restaurants do because those ingredients are widely available, easy to access, and it results in honest food. I never had any intention of having to prove that we do that. Now that I’m obsessed with these online complaints, that’s going to change.

What are you reading, Yelp reviews?

Yelp, personal blogs, Chowhound, it doesn’t matter. I read it all. You want to know why? I’m looking for the diamonds in the rough: the useful criticisms. I’m not going to ignore everything because what they have to say is valid. Maybe I wish they would have spoken up in the restaurant, but I know from myself, I never speak up either. I keep my mouth shut.

What is something that people have vented about online that you’ve felt the need to change?

Early on, we were very difficult about kids food and alterations to the menu and quite honestly, I don’t know why I didn’t just say yes. I had no good reasoning behind it other than that’s how I’d always been taught to operate. It’s not that hard to put up kids food or make a vegetarian plate. Now, I can’t promise you that I’ve worked on it for weeks. That’s always my disappointment with something that’s been ordered off-menu. But if it’s a dietary restriction, I profess our apologies for not having something practiced or organized and perfected for that customer. But we’ll try our best to make sure they have a delicious meal.

Something else, we weren’t taking reservations early on because I wanted to be a neighborhood, casual restaurant. It turns out nobody wanted that. So now we are a restaurant that takes reservations. Reservations are a difficult situation because restaurants only fill up half or three-quarters of their restaurant with reserved seating. We decided on half, the reason being, we wanted to be that neighborhood restaurant. What ends up happening is–and it’s currently happening at Strip-T’s—is that everyone thinks the restaurants are insanely busy. Sure, they’re busy on Friday and Saturday. When Strip-T’s’ 16 reserved seats fill up for the night, even though we’re capable of doing 60 or 70 covers, people see there’s no more reservations and think it’s the busiest restaurant in the city. It’s completely false.

Is the menu still sectioned off by categories like “meat” and “vegetables”?

I’ll say this, it’s currently still the same format of “bread,” “cheese,” and occasionally “eggs.” There’s also a “vegetable,” “meat,” and a “fish” section. However, in the next few weeks it will be changing to an a la carte menu, a small five-course pasta tasting menu, and a nine-course tasting menu.

Are you happy about those changes, or is that another thing you felt you were forced into?

I’m happy about it. There’s a frontline in a restaurant: our service staff. I think they handled it very, very well. But it will be a small sigh of relief. It’ll be less complex for people to decide what they want to eat. I never intended on complicating people’s lives. I just thought it was a fun way to organize a menu.

You said that when you left New York, you were seeking out another Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Have you grown more comfortable in the Boston dining scene or is that something you still crave?

No, I’m here. I’m rooted. I have no desire to go back.