Grandmas and Gesiers
Chef Tony Maws, a 2009 James Beard Award Nominee - will tell you he cooks "like 90% of the world’s grandmas do." I don’t know about that, but, if you think about it, grandma may not have had sea trout from Tasmania, yet she probably did "source locally" and probably organically because before big Ag took over, that’s just what was available.
In Chef Maws’ case, his grandma was definitely one of his key influences on his "long and winding road" to culinary stardom. As he describes it, his parents were working, and when they weren’t, they were renovating the old brownstone they’d bought in the South End. This meant two things. One: Tony grew up eating in Chinatown a lot when they didn’t have a functioning kitchen. (In fact, he beat the whole class in a chopsticks contest because he’d gained so much practice. He even beat the Chinese girl in his class.
The other result was that once they got the kitchen together Tony was as often as not, the one calling the parents at work saying, “when are you coming home? I’ve got a chicken in the oven.”
He was a careful understudy in his first restaurant job and when the opportunity presented itself he jumped in to a cooking role. Of course at that point, he was a pair of hands, “hey kid, stir this, put that in there...” In subsequent jobs he waited tables and did whatever he could to be near the skiing. He picked up a degree in Psychology at Ann Arbor, but even there he was working in the best bar in town where they ground their own beef and made their own wing sauce.
It wasn’t till later that he was working under Chris Schlesinger that he began to think of cooking as a career. When Schlesinger and Steve Johnson both suggested that he might actually want to cook and that he might have what it takes, he began to realize this was something he could actually choose for a career.
He made his way to San Francisco working with many of the original Chez Panisse crew: Mark Miller, Judy Rogers, Jeremiah Towers.
It was at La Folie that he found his groove, becoming a serious student in the kitchen, taking every opportunity to learn. Ken Oringer (one of the Cochon judges) at Clio was open for about a year when he went to work for Ken. "I was there a total of a couple of years including a break to return to France, was sous at Lyon for 6 months at a 1 star Michelin place." Gesiers is French for chicken liver, as I learned on my birthday dinner at Craigie.
Then he'd finished at Clio. But I didn’t want to go to NY. "I started thinking 'maybe...'. I stumbled upon little basement space -it was cheap, I thought, why not? The last people did everything wrong and they lasted for two years. Worst case scenario: I’ve got a job for two years...”
"In the beginning, it was me and one cook, one dishwasher - who quit a couple of weeks in - to go to NYC. My wife was already waiting tables so had to get mom to wash dishes - literally. Things kept rolling and growing, I started doing things that I wanted to do, not knowing if they’d fly. Like I put veal tongue on once because I like it. We sold out by 7."
Main Street - "It's still my dream - it’s like we’re throwing a dinner party every night. We didn’t want to go far into the design stuff, because that’s not what we’re about. We’re about food not about the Italian leather chairs.."
"First month and a half it was tough. We had a loyal dedicated staff. We needed to throw out, in a way, the experience that people brought with them...we were going left when we shoulda gone right, we were lucky to have the loyal staff that came with us; but one day I had to just stop and say “throw it all out.” This is a new place. New routines. Now we understand what we can do, in this kitchen in this space, we know how to do it."
How he came to the Heritage Breeds:
"Really, first came to it because of quality. I was working with a fresh local piece of pork. Then next opening a piece of cryovac-ed commercial meat and it struck me. I was going - 'Wait this is not the same thing'. So it really hit me that the quality of the meat is different. then I later had another whole pig and it was really different but that’s the challenge and the beauty of it. You have variation and cooks have to learn to keep engaging all their senses.
You might have a pork loin one week and if people want it again next week but you get a skinny pig, you gotta do something different."
Involving all the senses is important; even with precision techniques like sous vide, you have to involve the senses. You cannot have perfect food, with no soul. Well, you can, just not at Craigie.
Maws is hard at work on two questions when he's not in the kitchen:
Figuring out what he's going to make for the panel of judges and deciding whether Giselle is the worst thing to happen to the Patriots.
He does like this Sox team. A lot.
Other Cochon Chef interviews:
- Cochon555 - Bond - Mad skills and haggis from a musical rancher
- Cochon555 - Bissonnette - Less waste, more taste, everything but the squeal from a once-vegan chef
- Cochon555 - Jennings - Cheese ambassador shares secrets of perfect cheese plate and one of his favorite dishes in Boston
- Cochon555 - Margate - Child of the Philippines and fan of umami, protege of star locavores brings talent to Boston and Cochon