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Chef Tony Maws
Features - Chefs and Restaurants
Written by LIS Staff   
Let's make it plain, Chef Tony Maws of Craigie On Main is a food hero to us here at Local In Season.  And we are not alone. Hundreds of Maws' faithful as well as more and more curious newcomers flock to 853 Main Street in Cambridge each week to treat themselves to a meal that is of the utmost freshness, creativity, and taste. Chef Maws and Craigie On Main have received too many awards to name, but there is something more impressive to us here at Local In Season than any of those awards. Chef Maws doesn't merely oversee his team.  Almost every night, he works shoulder to shoulder with his team as a line cook. His passion for food and respect for ingredients come through loud and clear with each dish he crafts.
We had the opportunity to speak with one of our food heroes, Chef Maws, in mid-July.
So here's our most important question...  

Right off the bat?  

Right off the bat.  Can we get tomatoes on our hamburgers? 

Right now? Not yet...close. I bought tomatoes at the farmers' market on Monday at Central Square and they were pretty good. So we're almost there.*  Everything is early.  It's a crazy year.  Last year was crazy for different reasons and everything that's happening early right now is not necessarily good.  A lot of it is good, and it's tempting because you walk around the farmers' market and it's bountiful in the middle of July.  For New England that's pretty rare.  At the same time it's hard to ignore that there's been pretty wacky weather.  Flash floods, torrential downpours, and all of a sudden we are having Costa Rica-style weather, so what's going on?  Some things popped, some things dried up.  One of my main raspberry guys who has been amazingly consistent with different types of raspberries planted Early, mid-season, late season… his entire mid-season dried up and is not doing so well.   I don't know how that affects what's supposed to happen when crops are supposed to be in season.  I'm not a farmer. I'd have to ask my friends...   
*Note: This is Chef Maws' response in Mid-July. Tomatoes have since appeared on his signature grass-fed hamburger, in line with the peak of the season.
Are trips to the farmer’s market a big part of your menu planning?

What's awesome about going to the market is that it's spontaneous in terms of what you're gonna find.  The challenge is... it's spontaneous.  You can't go with a list and know that you are going to get everything off the list.  I bought tomatillos on a Saturday at the market, and then went back that Monday and they didn't have any.  So the dish I had been working on all weekend is now on hold or I'll wait until next year...who knows?   The biggest challenge in the way we operate is balancing a fixed menu and new concepts. We change our menu daily, but there are components of dishes that are consistent. It's not like we rip up the menu everyday. I did that. I did that at Craigie Street for a long time, and it's crazy.  It's thrilling, but then you put yourself in the hospital because it's such a crazy amount of work.  I don't know what fish I'll serve until I make my calls in the morning, but to rely on that sort of flexibility is an incredible challenge.  I have to be prepared for the fact that I might have to tear up the menu.  I could have a pork three ways...the plums for the puree all of a sudden aren't at the market...no other puree makes sense...And it might not be just one dish...it might be 5 dishes that are in the same boat, and I  have to re-conceptualize and it's noon... 

That must be taxing when you are managing a staff.

The difference between Craigie Street and Craigie On Main is that at Craigie Street,  it was just me.  When it was just me, I knew just what I wanted, and I am a masochist, and I could make it happen.  Now I have to spread that masochism to my team to be able to do what we do. They're phenomenal, but they're not me.  Not that they are not as talented, but they're not in my brain.  It comes naturally to me.  With the team I have to delegate and oversee, but that takes more time and coaching and creates the possibility of different kinds of mistakes.  I'm not saying I don't make mistakes, I make plenty of them.  Keeping spontaneity in what we do is a challenge because I am relying on people to follow me, and that's no easy task.  I am known to change things on the fly quite a bit.  
With years of experience you must have backlog of “go to” recipes and concepts, right?   

Absolutely... variations on the theme.  This is true of any chef regardless of political or philosophical views on food.  We are trained and use our experiences to know what works for us. The direction to take them in is the fun part.  I do find as I get more experienced at what I am doing, I am able to whittle the log down.  Ya know, I played with that... not my thing. So, sure, I have a nice little mental and physical list going. We have a computer with all of recipes we've done.  We'll use it as either a reference or for inspiration, but the farmers' markets inspire us as well. 
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel each time.

When I was younger, I placed a higher value on being new, and now I place a higher value on being delicious, and, if it's new... awesome.  But if it's, 'I'm proud of this dish, it makes people happy,  I like it,’ I go with it. Plus, people haven't seen it for nine months.  

When you are cooking seasonally you must really get some pent up demand for certain flavors as that time of year rolls around.   

Well, the first thing you asked about the hamburger? I love my hamburger, and we put a tomato on that burger last year when the season was so short, and we went nuts...this is freakin' amazing! What am I thinking? Why don't we do this all the time? But it was amazing because THAT tomato was amazing.  It wouldn't be the same we put a piece of cardboard on there.  It's more obvious in summer due to the local bounty, but I adore the winter seasonality in the winter. When its spring, I'm sick of Jerusalem artichokes, but when they first show up, I'm pretty stoked to see them.  

Take us back. When did this type of cooking start for you?

Having a Jewish grandmother was important....lots of bones.  The idea of ox tail floating in the soup, big marrow bones...  My parents did OK, I'm very fortunate in that, but my grandparents didn't.  My dad's parents were literally off the boat in the Bronx. My dad shared a bedroom with my grandma, was a delivery boy for a butcher in the Bronx, and the butcher as part of his pay or as a present would give him sweetbreads to take home...here's some marrow bone, here's some scrap...  He'd give it to his mom, and she'd do her magic with it. It wasn't political, it was a necessity.  It was what my family could afford. It just so happened to be delicious. Eventually, my parents were able to buy a steak or something like that, but we would keep going back to the fattier, more delicious cuts.  Why?  Because they were delicious.  We would literally fight over the bones in my family.  

You also spent some time in France.

Yeah, I spent time in France, I had a work visa there.  I worked in a Michelin One Star restaurant outside of Lyon. That probably had the most impact for me philosophically, not politically yet at that point. Every single day the chef, old-school guy, literally a disciple of Bocuse, would go to Lyon market at 5 or 6 in the morning and we would unload the van at 7:30. Everything out of the van had heads, and feet, and feathers.  As a line cook, you see the process through.  There was zero waste, except for the feathers. Next thing you know there were stocks being made, terrines being made, confits being made with some parts, more delicate finesse parts were used on tasting menus...I come from a relatively liberal, politically-speaking family, but it just seemed like this is right and natural.  I don't want to sound cheesy, but something really clicked.  This is an animal, it was living, I'm going to use it, and I'm going to make it delicious.  It's not just about seasonality, I do have to make it delicious.  

Local...sustainable, I am happy to stand on my soapbox it's so important on so many levels, but I don't put myself out there that way.  I just want to make things tasty. I'm not doing it for shock value. Well, putting a pig head on the plate, there is a bit of shock and awe, but really I am just trying to send a message that says, "You know what, it's really delicious!"  If it's not you, don't order it, but, if you tried this...I've done pig head in a pasta dish on a tasting menu, you know something as universal as pasta, or at the Cochon 555 event, I did pig's head tacos. And you don't see the head, but it's all there.  People were like, "Wow, this is the tastiest pork, the skin is so crispy!"  I'm like..."that's the head!" That's part of the fun is watching the evolution.  I like the "normal" pieces too, I just want to make sure I use everything. 

So to figure out how to turn this into something tasty and make money off it? It's "win-win." 

People seem to come to you now to be surprised – A little bit of  the“shock and awe” you mentioned.

When I opened Craigie Street Bistro, I didn't know! So I did very simple food, I am proud of what we did, but one day I just put veal tongue on the menu just because I was being selfish, I missed it.  All of sudden at 7:00 PM it was gone. Sold out.  I wanted to come out and say, "Who are you people? What else can I do?" So I keep pushing...  One of the things I realized was I had a lot of choices....more than I knew.  I'm not saying that I am a pioneer, grandmothers have been cooking this way for centuries, but the idea bringing in whole stuff and using everything...

Where we are in Cambridge, the population is relatively well-traveled. People have been to France, or studied in Rome.  There are places in the world, or even here in Boston, where this <type of cooking> would be foreign to them. We've won them over now, but I don't think I could have just come out and opened a restaurant in the South End and said "Here I am ! Here's veal tongue! Here's feet!"   Nice to have the rep now that people expect us to make it tasty.   

What do you recommend for the home cook that wants to experiment with “the whole hog?”

First, we all now have the world literally and figuratively at our fingertips. You can Google ox tail and get a ton of recipes right away.  It can be kind of intimidating, but it just shows that it's not as foreign a concept as it once was.  You don't need specific cookbooks to figure this out. Saveur.com, Serious Eats do a really nice job of bringing things down to a real accessible level.  Cook's Illustrated, and folks like that are beginning an educational process.  I trust them, they do it well.  People should use these as resources.  Going shopping...what do you do? Some people like liver some don't...you have to like the part.  Ox tails? Great way to start.  Braising...it's really hard to overcook an ox tail, you get it falling off the bone...experiment with different marinades, different braising liquids, things like that.  Bone marrow...talk to your butcher, have him soak it and salt it for you. You can roast it, you can put it into lentil stew whole...add them to dishes that you already have in your repertoire.    I see more and more blogs with totally amateur cooks experimenting with charcuterie at home, sous vide technology at home, stuff like that.  The problem is a lot of the media, especially some local media almost dumb this down...they don't have the faith.  

How do you get around food media being focused on recipes as opposed to conceptual and technical education? 

I can understand the person, modern world, job, kids, wants to do something interesting, running out of time, just want to make something that tastes good...Unfortunately that's not how mother nature works. Every tomato tastes different, every tenderloin tastes different.

My mom writes the newsletter for us and she'll ask me for a recipe.  A lot of my recipes have a variations based on time, size of the cut, any number of factors. People will say, "How come my panna cotta tastes different than yours?” Well, it was probably a different pot, a different stove, different dairy...I give guidelines.  It's too bad that many people just want to keep it at the same level.  I love it when I get emails that say, I'm going to the butcher, I'm getting bone marrow, what do I do with it?  That is not chicken. That person is willing to take the time to do it. Why are we dumbing everything down?  Let's make things like this more accessible. It's all confidence.  People want their food to taste good.  It's not like I'm 100% back there everyday...I make mistakes all the time.  Embrace it, have fun with, and don't be concerned that it won't come out exactly right.  Just file it away and maybe next time you'll cook it a little bit more or a little bit less....  

Some people seem to think when you are cooking seasonally or locally it has to be 100% but even you have had delicacies like Spanish Octopus on the menu. When is it worth making an exception?

We live in New England, and I'm proud to be a New Englander. We have four seasons.  No matter how local I want to be, I will always rely on products from other parts of the world and I'm not going to change that. People come to expect a particular flavor and certain style of food.  So I pinpoint certain things...Tomatoes which I will not have out of season in this restaurant to make this point, I will not serve corn until corn season, but I do have a veal stock that requires carrots, and maybe the local root cellar doesn't have any carrots, but I'm still going to make my veal stock with carrots.  So we try to make the best decisions we can in every situation.  

Sometimes those decisions are more obvious. It's summer, why in the world would you shop at Whole Foods? I don't get it. You don't need to. There are so many farmers' markets. Maybe it's not part of your regular routine, but take five seconds, go online, find a market, and go shop there. You're supporting the local economy, local agriculture, smaller footprint...everything about it...it's only good.  So that's an easy decision to make. Well, how about when it's February? Not so obvious. What do you do? Make the best decision you can. If it traveled, how did it travel? Was it done well? Do I know the farmer?  Do I know how they treat their product?    In terms of the octopus...I am a romantic, I like the romance of this, but I am a business man. I have a restaurant. I have to make things delicious, tasty, and interesting.  I know I cook octopus in really cool way and people really like it.  

An example we’ve used is citrus fruit from Florida in the winter. 

That's the difference between the blueberry from Chile in the winter, which isn't seasonal, but you can still get it, and the orange in the wintertime which is completely seasonal. It's coming from a different part of the world or our country, but you are absolutely supporting seasonality.  

What actions should consumers take outside of purchasing? 

Asking more questions is important.  Understanding what organic actually means, and the fact that the way it's worded is very big-business oriented and has gotten away from what the intended purpose was. I know a lot of farmers that haven't done any paperwork to be organic because it's not worth the time or money to do so, but I buy from them because I know how they raise their product. We shouldn't just be sold on marketing gimmicks.  Meat and fish are really important. Grass fed meat, don't tell me that corn tastes better. Stop buying corn-fed meat from the middle of America that is mass-produced. Get over it... learn how to like other stuff. It's not OK.  I don't care if it's cheaper.  People ask why I have an $18 hamburger like I'm making money on it. I don't make any money on it. People should actually be curious what's in a burger that costs less than $18.  I'm dead serious...ask where that beef is coming from? The beef that I get, grass-fed, beautiful Vermont beef...add it all up, put it on a bun, put a pickle on there and all that stuff it comes to like $12 bucks, so I'm maybe making $6 and that's before labor.  Fish, was it caught in a huge net.  Day boat? Another marketing gimmick...what day? Did it come in today or another day?  Was it caught on a line, a big troll, a gill-netter....things that devastate the underwater? These are conscientious decisions we can make that are going to send a message.  Ask questions...

Thanks, Chef. We really appreciate your time and your thoughts.
Photo credits: Michael Piazza 


1 Comment

  1. What a wonderful article. It's really inspiring to read about Chef Maws philosophy and approach. My grandmother was the same way - using up everything and making do with whatever was available.

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