As a young boy, Tony Maws grew up in a brownstone in Boston’s South End that underwent significant renovations, which rendered the kitchen non-functional for a couple years. It’s an odd circumstance given his current occupation, passion and raison d’être: cooking nightly at his Cambridge restaurant Craigie On Main. (He won the James Beard Award in 2011 for Best Chef Northeast, positioning him as the city’s best chef.)
But it was during this time that Maws was introduced to the city’s lively Chinatown. “It was close, it was cheap and always an adventure,” he says, checking his watch. It’s 1:30 a.m. on a recent Saturday morning and the chef has been cool enough to take us to one of his favorite “tank restaurants” — Peach Farm. The tank is for the live flounder and abalone pulled from large aquariums. But at this happiest of hours it could be for the highly spirited crowd that had gathered to eat mapo tofu and salt and pepper eel.
With stops at Drink and JM Curley in our wake, this writer was slightly tanked himself as the recorder was plopped on the white tablecloth, already stained from chop stick miscues with the clams and bean sauce. Maws orders the eel, which is brought to our table for inspection. “A fat one,” says the chef, nodding approval. It would arrive, cooked, eight minutes later. Or, just as this chat was wrapping up.
What was it like coming here as a kid?
I read off of my parents’ reaction and they were psyched about it, so I was psyched about it. It was great to be introduced to Chinatown Chinese food, which wasn’t cooked in sugar and too much corn starch like the Chinese food I ate after we moved to the suburbs.
What are some early food memories?
The first time I had abalone was as a kid. People were not throwing out words like “umami” and there wasn’t an analytical part like salty, sweet, sour, whatever. It was just fucking good. We ate well and it was fun.
What are your favorite restaurants?
The three restaurants that I go to, in no particular order, are Peach Farm, Jumbo Seafood and Dumpling House. They are all their own thing: Dumpling House is obviously dumplings, Jumbo has this incredible short rib dish and their lobster, eel and clams are all great. You come here and I love that it’s not white guys ordering Chinese.
With the cooking at Craigie you take a lot of influence from Asia, though you are hardly an Asian restaurant…
Yeah, I’m never thinking, “How can I recreate this Chinese dish that I once had?” I can’t go to Singapore and come back and say, “Oh, I have to do black pepper crab.” What flavors resonate with me? My palate, experiences, history — a lot of things make sense. I can add salt or I can add soy, which is high sodium. All of a sudden, you start going off riffs of what you already know and start tasting and thinking, “Do I want a salt quality? Or do I want a salt and fish quality?” [Asian chefs] have found incredible ways to achieve phenomenal flavor using salt, fermentation, curing, roasting techniques.
So you have a little bit of flavor envy towards Asian chefs?
Absolutely. Garlic, soy, salt, mushrooms. All of a sudden, your mouth is on fire. There is a reason we crave this kind of food. I can cook 14 hours in a day and I don’t even want to even have my own food, but someone will put this in front of me and I’ll chow.
And like that, the eel arrives, which is chewy, but tender, and lightly fried. We start to talk about the Japanese style for killing eels. The clock hits two and we are forced to pound our full bottles of Tsingtao. This is not an embellishment. A stern man gave us the universal bottoms-up sign and we complied. Things get fuzzy. Four days later my hangover has just barely called it a day when I phone Maws to thank him.
Dude, Boston is a fun town. People, especially New Yorkers, tend to forget this…
There’s this complex and I wish we could get over it. I’m from here and a lot of us have this complex that Boston isn’t as good as New York and Boston doesn’t compare to New York. My whole thing is that there is no comparison necessary: Boston is Boston and New York is New York. We don’t have the boroughs, we don’t have the population. Boston is a very different city. Whenever New Yorkers say, “Boston… whatever” or Bostonians say “New York… whatever” or “We don’t have what New York has,” well, we don’t, but we shouldn’t. We have what we have. In the middle of our city we have M.I.T, Harvard, BU and a river going through the heart of it. There’s tremendous stuff here. Also, how quickly I can get to Vermont or to the Cape. So, I wouldn’t say better, but I wouldn’t say worse.
You’re at your restaurant a lot. More than most. Why is that important to you?
It’s my livelihood! I don’t know how much of it is insecurity and how much of it is a dedication to my craft and the people that work for me. I feel like I am very committed to making this place the best it can be. Does that mean it doesn’t run well when I’m off? I think it runs fine. A lot of people come here looking to see me and I don’t want to let that down. I also don’t want to give people an excuse to say, “Oh, Tony’s not here, so it’s not going to be legit!”
People say that?
We certainly have people write on Yelp and Chowhound and that sort of stuff, that culture exists. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s actually a relatively small culture. I’m sure it’ll grow. As all these people continue to keep going through, it’ll be different, but I can’t cook for Yelp reviews. It is something I have to pay attention to, but I’m not going to change the way I cook. I have said from day one that my cooking is my cooking and it’s not for everybody. I’m very subjective about that in the sense that food is subjective. I certainly try to make everybody happy, but I also know that I can’t.
If you could envision a next project, what would it be?
I’ve been thinking a long time about taking the ingredients that I cook at Craigie and putting them on a plate the way I like to eat often when I am in Paris and London: there’s no dot, there’s no swirl, there’s no starch. I love the food that I cook at Craigie on Main — it’ll always be my baby — and I’m not looking to turn this into something else. Another thing that I like to do is sort of how I cook for my family on Monday nights. Last night, I roasted a whole chicken — tied it up, marinated it, salted, roasted on an open fire. I had amazing greens and amazing roasted squash — everything about it was cooked right, and that’s important. It’s about food that you crave, not just food that you are looking to be curious or inquisitive about.
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