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 his monthly letter from Boston.
As a restaurant lifer, I still have a love affair with all things restaurants — and probably for the same reasons as the guests who join us nightly at Craigie on Main: excitement, relaxation, thrills, comfort, a home away from home or a getaway for secret pleasures. There are many customer service-driven businesses in this world, but restaurants are unique with craft, hospitality and conviviality all bubbling in a daily stew — together with weather problems, car problems, equipment problems, staff problems, delivery problems…don’t get me started!
Our guests walk through the door with a set of high expectations and, no matter how unrealistic, my job is to lead our team to meet or beat them. This job can be a beast, but let’s face it: there are lots of jobs that are more dangerous and demanding, so no self-pity here. Let’s just say we come to work even when we’re not at our personal best because, even though we’re tired. We’re honored that at 5:30 every evening there’s a line outside our door.
Hospitality is a big, elusive horse-carrot that we can never totally control because there are so many variables that we can never be perfect. For perfectionists like us, that’s painful. Still, each and every night, we lay it all out there on our field — our kitchen and dining room. Our commitment must be honored and the show must go on!
I’m not the kind of chef that takes issue with every negative Yelp review. I love our diners. The 99.9 % majority are warm, gracious people who keep coming back, stopping at the pass to say hello, and even cheering on our cooks on in the middle of a busy service. But — and by now you know where I’m going with this — .00001 of our diners are, shall we say, not so nice.
When we first started receiving attention in the early days of Craigie Street Bistrot, my first restaurant, we had an episode that still makes my blood boil. We decided to give a party of four’s table away after we had waited 40 minutes after the reservation time and heard nothing. If we give a table away, it’s only because you are late, really late, and never called to tell us. So this party started throwing a hissy fit, verbally assaulting our door staff and then launching into a horribly loud rage at our manager, interrupting his every assurance that we wanted to find a way to seat them.
When I came out of the kitchen to investigate the ruckus, I was met with an index finger thrust into my chest by a man repeatedly saying, “you suck,” and his wife saying, “I’m going to ruin you!” It took every ounce of restraint not to revert to my old-school hockey training; instead I walked over to the door, held it open and asked them to leave.
“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?,” the horrible woman shrieked.
“Yep, and I’m going to write about you someday.”
When that rare someone escalates their mistake into that kind of scene, they get a off-the-menu special reserved for only a few: a personal escort from the chef right out the front door!
Another time, I was called into action during graduation season. The legal age to consume alcohol is 21 years old. This is not new news and our local government takes this law very seriously. In fact, they can take away our liquor license (effectively our license to do business) if we decide to make an exception. So, one woman tried to order her 18-year old recent high school graduate a Manhattan on the rocks. Our server sought out our manager who was not amused but politely approached her with a menu of non-alcoholic drinks our bar staff could mix for him.
“It’s ok with me so just bring him a real one,” she commanded.
When our manager replied that he could not honor her request she lit into him.
“I’m going to write about you on Yelp!” she snarled.
And she didn’t stop there, instead launching a tirade at every front-of- house employee who walked by, as her son slinked so far into his chair he was nearly invisible. I was pleased to give her the chef’s special: no check and an escort through the dining room towards the exit sign. The best part: nearby tables actually cheered.
There is a new approach we’ve noticed. The loud threat of a bad Yelp review. Help me understand this one. Threatening us with a bad review gets you what exactly? Has this bullying technique ever actually worked on your behalf? And what did you say, exactly, in your vindictive review that had any positive impact on your dining experience or was helpful to others?
Perhaps the “most disturbing” interaction I had with a guest was just a few weeks ago. I always try to personally deliver a course on our tasting menu as a “thank you” and I know it means a lot to some people. (It’s also a way for me to remember that I’m actually cooking for a real person, which is sometimes easy to forget in a busy service.) That night, I followed our servers carrying plates of lamb to a table and watched them place the dishes in front of the three guests. The gentleman, flanked by two attractive young women, did not look up from his smart phone. I waited until it became a bit awkward — maybe 30 seconds, though it certainly felt much longer. The women looked at me, then at their companion, back at me, back at him; he still did not look up.
“Well then," I thought. “I’ll get this started."
“Excuse me," I continued. "I’d like to tell you about the dish in front of you, your final savory course…”
He still did not look up, and now his friends began to shift uneasily in their seats.
“Our lamb, three different ways…the tongue is…”
I was mid-sentence when he suddenly looked up, clearly impatient and annoyed.
“That will be all,” he said. “You can go now.”
But he was not finished. What I initially felt as rejection and indifference was much worse — he shooed me off, waving his hand like I was a servant or, better, an annoying mosquito. I was dumbstruck.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m only trying to…”
“I SAID, THAT… WILL… BE… ALL! In fact, we are through. We will not need dessert and please bring my check.” he blurted red-faced.
I could not stop myself as I replied. “You are correct, Sir. Your meal is over. There will be no check, and now it is time for you to leave!”
These painful and embarrassing interactions are few and far between. I have been so privileged to cook for hundreds of thousands of wonderful people. My advice to any almost angry diner is simple: no matter how frustrated you feel or how important you want to look, give us a chance to make it right for you. We really want you to have a phenomenal meal, a terrific time and offer a brief respite. That’s why I love my job and why I still enjoy the craziness of a restaurant day – I have this tremendous opportunity to enhance or even change your mood every single night. We will work with you if you let us and we have plenty of tricks up our sleeve.
Now that you know how we feel – “may we offer you a cocktail while you wait for your table?”