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, while the newly opened Kirkland Tap and Trotter tips its hat to the grill. This is his regular letter from Boston.
The other 6.5 days, I am the chef and owner of two restaurants – my other great job. Opening a second restaurant was completely my decision. Friends love to remind me how I told anyone who would listen that I couldn’t imagine having two restaurants. But here I am. No one made me do it, and I’m not complaining about any of the obvious (and not so obvious) challenges.
What’s it like? How am I holding up? Overall, when I’m not being driven mad (or driving myself bonkers) I’m enjoying the ride — and holy crap, what a ride! Mostly, though, I consider myself pretty fortunate. Each place has its own personality, so I can conceptualize dishes and styles of service through two different lenses – both of which I love. After a few beers at the end of the night slumped over one of my bars, I imagine this might be like a rock musician having a country music side project. When I boil it down, life can be summed up with one word: meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Two management teams, two sous chef teams, an HR manager and senior leadership teams (12 managers overall), each requiring their own meeting. I also like to meet with each of my chef de cuisines individually to plan menus, discuss their challenges and strategize how we’ll continue to improve the food and our respective teams. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday are filled with meetings. Friday I try to leave open, but inevitably I’m talking to someone — game planning, listening, coaching. It’s cool as I’m at the point where I like this varying perspective. People said I could never give up the control and in many ways I haven’t. I just get a lot of my work done through other people.
Then comes Saturday. While it’s later in the week, I travel back in time and become a line cook again. It is one of the best jobs I’ve ever had.
I’m sweating profusely and my back is on fire. Behind me a few feet away is a blazing bed of logs and coals radiating heat. Steel, brick and concrete support the blistering inferno and the steel cage that are my muses for this evening. This is a grill designed by Grillworks, more a hearth that tries to contain its fury. It’s intimidating and gorgeous, in a dominatrix kinda way. It’s my shift on the grill at our new place, The Kirkland Tap and Trotter. It’s Saturday night and I’m about to get creamed — just buried with tickets and orders. I can’t wait. Really, I mean it. Most chefs are not actually on the line that much. They’re too busy overseeing the countless trials and tribulations that make up a service in a restaurant. Maybe they can’t take it, or worse they simply can’t do it. Ironically, the more successful we become, the further away from real cooking we rove. Frankly, working the line is a young man/woman’s game requiring muscles and bones that are somewhat more forgiving. The curtain will come down on me too someday, but I still have a few more scenes to act out.
Given the nature of the new place, The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, a ton of our dishes come off the grill. When you’re walking to the restaurant, you smell the intoxicating scent of burning wood, the kind that makes you think of roasts, crispy skin and smoky fat. This scent is different than barbecue. (A quick digression, because we’ve got to get something straight from the beginning: grilling and barbecuing are NOT the same thing. I might even argue that they are not even related. When people say they are ”barbecuing at home,” what they are most likely referring to is putting something on a gas-fired grill. Here’s the real skinny: Barbecue means your meat is cooked long and slow — we’re talking hours and the heat doesn’t go above 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Ribs, picnic shoulders, whole animals… this is barbecue. Grilling is hot — hot as in temperature and hot as in sexy. It’s big. It’s extremely hot. It’s slam, bam thank you sexy.)
The grill station is fun and funny all at the same time. First and foremost, I have a blast. Cooking is what I do. I guess now what I really do is own and operate two restaurants, but I got into this because I love to cook food. Some people think I’m pretty good and on this grill, on a Saturday night, I cook and I can still do it well. At The Kirkland Tap & Trotter, the grill is actually a team sport requiring two people to make the station go. One person works just food: takes care of the big cuts like our outrageous pork chop and bone-in ribeye along with the lamb ribs, swordfish chop, kielbasa and some accompaniments we fire to order like grilled rapini and mustard greens.
Currently, Dan, our chef de cuisine handles this on Saturday nights, which is great because we are tremendous teammates. I trained him, glued him to my hip seven years ago. He knows my moves and has heard my barks. He knows my moods and generally understands my fiercely competitive nature. I’m his wingman, firing the sardines, whole dorade, half chicken and mushrooms, while expediting every ticket so Danny doesn’t have to look up. And I keep an eye on everyone else on the line, ensuring all food is being cooked and plated to our standards. Because of the way we designed the kitchen, I can look left down the rest of the line and across to garde manger.
So, at 44 years old, I’m proud to say that I can still hold my own on the line…at least one day a week! When we first opened up six months ago, I was working multiple shifts per weekend. I certainly didn’t feel like I was a 20-something line cook. Multiple nights in a row can be exhausting. I think about which exercise regimen might come close to challenging the demand of working this grill station. Excluding the 7-8 hours of prep time, service alone went from 5:30 to midnight. Can you name a yoga studio or spin class that takes you for an eight-hour workout? The bonus is you can eat carbs and it doesn’t matter.
The biggest challenges of being a chef are not the physical demands. Instead, it’s the ability to focus solely on the station without being distracted by the numerous other people in the restaurant because it’s now my job to care about EVERYTHING. Back when I really was just a line cook, all I needed to focus on was my mise en place — all the ingredients and tools I needed to make it through the night. Keep my head down, push my mind and body to what I thought were extreme limits of focus and concentration, multi-multi tasking, pirouetting pots and pans around each other, calculating every move seconds ahead so I wouldn’t waste any movements or lose precious moments. I used to pretend I was in The Matrix as my mise whizzed by but my world slowed down around me. In those moments, I knew I was completely on — every bass, lobster, veal loin and glazed carrot was flawlessly cooked and inimitably timed. Saturdays I can still come pretty close to that raw emotion. I imagine that when you put a real chef behind the line again, in a place where he or she has not been in a while, they too will lick their chops and smile.
I love my job now, but I really love being a line cook. Focused responsibilities (my station), I can just cook. Living the life — single, out late, early workout, cook, do it again. For me, on this one night, I actually block out most of the other chef/owner BS and just cook (that is, until someone screws up and I have to make sure one of my managers is on it).
The tickets start rolling in. It’s a tsunami of orders. And then the dance begins. I call to Danny (two pork chops, three skewers, one medium and a chicken on hold…ordering two lamb ribs NOW!!!”). Pull out my own mise en place (two whole dorade, one sardines, the chicken and a couple orders of mushrooms). Organize the tickets with the already existing tickets on the board (three more pork chops, four skewers, one medium well, three dorade, four ribeyes) and begin to look around, evaluating everyone else.
Most of this food is now on the grill, undergoing the transition from cold and raw to charred, seared, crisped and bursting with flavor. But this grill is not a range or flattop. The heat changes dramatically, along with the size of the flames, depending on where in the lifespan of smoldering logs and coals I’m currently working. But each piece of meat and fish needs to be cooked properly — on the right temperature, with the correct flame and appropriate distance from the hotter than Hades, scintillating, sexy fire. If not done properly, the sardines will be “cooked” but the skin won’t have the color or char that makes them special, and the steak will be medium rare but have charred and carbonized to the point of bitterness and acridity. I’m only after perfection — great color with just enough char, a pleasant crispness while maintaining the juiciness that makes us salivate. And I’m nailing it. In the chaos, my grill is quiet personal space. All the sizzles, sears, crackles, and flares meld symphonically into one gorgeous note.
And then the printer interrupts like a gong and we change the tune. I’m going to be sore tomorrow but I’ll have a week to dream about my next night on the grill.
Read more Tony Maws Letter From Boston columns on Food Republic: