With a cooking style that blends pork pyrotechnics — a Vermont pork trio of suckling confit, grilled belly and spice-crusted rib, for example — and a deep knowledge of New England fishing and farming, Tony Maws has become one of Boston’s kitchen heroes. And with awards from the James Beard Foundation (Best Chef Northeast 2011) and Food & Wine (Best New Chef 2005), the country has taken notice as well. His Craigie on Main in Cambridge has roots in France, where Maws worked before opening the smaller Bistrot in 2002. This is the debut of his monthly letter from Boston.
A few nights ago a couple of students from the Culinary Institute of America came in to Craigie on Main for dinner. They were on spring break, and very serious about it. I didn’t know them, but I know them. I know what they’re reading. I know what they’re looking at. I know what they’re listening to. They think the best food should look like something that someone else called the “best” of that moment.
Maybe they had visions of Scandinavian lichen dancing in their heads, or perhaps 42 courses of the perfect little bites like 84 day-aged squab wing. So I said to myself, “These kids are going to hate us.” We’re in frumpy Cambridge. My tattoos are hidden. I don’t cause a ruckus at night, so I can get up early to have breakfast with my son. Our food isn’t “innovative” or “ground-breakin’.” Look, I don’t want to sound defensive, but our food doesn’t look like some of the dishes of the moment right now, but man we sure satisfy the shit out of some people!
So I watched these kids throughout their meal — and, indeed, they didn’t look happy. I didn’t see a single smile. They were taking notes, of course, and pictures. And having an intense discussion, probably something like, “I don’t think the pine nuts juxtaposed well enough with the kampachi, and the grapefruit notes were too high.” Maybe it was because the food wasn’t spread out like a landscape on some hand-made ceramic plate. Perhaps they were expecting something more oddball than tripe and pig’s feet. I wanted to go over to them and say: “Why are you so serious? This should be fun! You’re on spring break — act like it!” But, really, I mostly felt sorry for them.
Instead, I went to their table at the end of their meal, introduced myself, and asked what I could do for them. They looked taken aback, and unsure of what to say. They began going through each dish, course by course, giving me their criticism, telling me what they thought. But I stopped them, and tried again: How can I make you happy? I asked.
While we’re all inundated with all these “Best of” lists, I keep wondering how they’re measuring happiness and contentment. I mean, how does one define “Best” when we’re trying to evaluate something emotional and sentimental like food? There are all sorts of “best of” lists out there: the best restaurants in the world, the best chef in the Northeast, the best brunch in Boston. These lists are in almost every newspaper and food magazine. They’re on blogs and websites. Sure, I read these lists. And, yep, I’m a competitive guy, so I can’t deny I like being on many of them. But what does “the best” actually mean?
I believe that “the best” restaurants can’t really exist on a list — not really. Instead, they change depending on the day, the time, the company. They change based on mood and hunger. For “the best,” you need to recognize the context. Because being the best restaurant, for me, really comes down to making people happy as often as possible — while we do what comes naturally to us at Craigie on Main. “Best” means meeting, and beating, their expectations on how they’re going to feel when they leave my restaurant. Being the best is about making sure they’re having a good time all the time.
It has nothing to do with trends. To be the best restaurant, you don’t need a dining room filled with reclaimed wood. You don’t need to low-brow it in Brooklyn — or fly to a small, barren countryside farm. It has everything to do with being delicious. You’d be hard pressed to find Armando’s, a corner pizzeria in Cambridge, MA, on any “best of” lists — but sometimes there is nothing better than a slice there on Huron Ave. And another thing, what do you do when someone makes a grand, half-baked declaration that bone marrow is passé???!!! It’s not on a “best of” or “hot” list anymore. Hey, buddy, you just offended my grandmother. I’ve been eating bone marrow since I was a kid. It’s freakin’ good. It makes people (me) happy.
I love to eat and dine out. And, absolutely, I’m curious about what my fellow chefs are up to in their kitchens. I’m paying attention to their influences, their technique, their style. And I do live for those eureka food moments. For me, food is sometimes about discovery. But what I also really enjoy is dining — having fun with my friends, sopping up the juices with my bread, pouring one too many glasses of wine, and then maybe a Lowland Scotch after that. Having the “best” meal might also be about having fun.
That’s the kind of experience I try and provide at Craigie on Main. I’m lucky, I know, because I cook the food I love, and people come to have bone marrow and oxtail pastrami, pork heart ragout with morels, French white asparagus with grapes and foie gras. And this approach does seem to still resonate with many who appreciate quality without the need to label or rank.
I’ve always said that I don’t do this for the awards — and I don’t. But I do work my ass off, so I’m proud of the recognition we’ve received. Maybe awards help you decide where to go for dinner. But once you’re in here, eating and drinking, you won’t give a shit about the awards. You can’t dip the ribbon of a James Beard Award into a bowl of soup and make it taste any better. I tried, and it didn’t work.
I’d like to treat to those culinary school kids to another meal after they get over whatever kick or trend they’re on now. Because while aesthetics may change and “Best” lists are revised, great flavors remain great. And food cooked with heart and soul doesn’t need to be gussied up to look the part of what’s labeled as “hot.” At Craigie on Main we’ll just keep doing what we know how to do: cooking the food I love to eat, creating a fun vibe and striving to be our “best” for every service.
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