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That sounds just offal: A Conversation with Chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main

 

I was raised to believe a good handshake meant you could trust the person whose hand you happened to shaking. Chef Tony Maws of Craigie on Main has a great handshake. Which, if we're still going off of that whole trust-o-meter, is a good thing if you're thinking of hitting up the Road Less Traveled dinner March 13.

Cambridge's Craigie is already a no-brainer for offal fans, but next week menu puts your culinary balls to the test. I sat down with Maws in the midst of his menu writing and talked sperm, grandma's cooking, and how delicious trumps innovative.

So, take me through the Road Less Traveled dinner.
So, nine plus years ago, we opened up Craigie Street Bistro. Somewhere in there-- either as a nod to tradition, or because it was a lot more financially viable for me to buy big things and use every single part, and it personally interested me-- we started serving a lot of stuff like oxtails, and all that, and became known for having things on our menu that you wouldn't necessarily see on other menus. We weren't really trying to make a point about it. I mean, I do have an opinion, and there are some politics involved in our cooking, of course, but we weren't doing it for shock value.

It's definitely a thing now, huh?
Yeah, well, it's very marketable. "Nose to tail," and all that. I'm not claiming to be the first, because grandmothers have been cooking this way for years. The fact that it's blown up now though, is kind of humorous to me, because people have cooked that way for thousands of years and now someone says, "Hey, isn't this neat? It's a whole new way of cooking!" No, it's not. Point being, people have always responded really positively to it. There was enough of a demand, so what if we did a dinner that really focused on going out of or way to bring some off-the-beaten-path stuff? Road less traveled stuff. The menu we had last summer--and if there ever was a night I was going to make a statement, this would be it-- there was monkfish liver, codmilk, duck testicles, various kidneys and tongues. It was a blast. It was great because the people that signed up for this dinner wanted to be here, and it was as rowdy as we get.

It's a little bit of process, because some of the stuff that I like to cook is not always easy, but you're going to see similar types of things. We're playing around with pasta that's been infused with plankton, so that will be kind of cool. There will be a little more focus on parts and pieces, as opposed to things coming from foraging.

So is this particular dinner more about shock value, or is it honed in on things you just don't see frequently?
I think shock value is relative. I don't do it to shock people, but I think some people look at the plate and say, "Whoa, a pigs head is on my plate!" I'm not doing it to raise eyebrows. This is a celebration of parts and pieces, and it's a way for us to expose them as totally edible.

Do you think people are becoming braver eaters?
I can't speak for the people, but I can say that restaurant menus, Boston and nation-wide, are less afraid to put something like bone marrow on a menu. To me, that's funny, because it's been something so common in my life. Marrow bones were fought over in my family!

So your normal menu is already pretty off-the-beaten-path, as you mentioned. How do  you turn it up for this menu?
We order a lot more tongues. [laughs] A lot more ears. It's really different takes on some of our favorites, and I've never worked with plankton before, so there's definitely some stuff that is new to us.

How long does it usually take you to iron out the kinks in a new concept with new ingredients?
I don't wake up in the morning with ten new menu items, unfortunately. It's definitely a process. I don't have a definitive way of saying it will take x-amount of hours. We've been playing with a bunch of stuff, and some stuff is based on availability too. Sometimes we can't get codmilk...and we can't just substitute other sperm...[laughs]

That is very true. Yes. Is there anything you won't eat?
No. If it isn't delicious, I don't like it. But I don't go out of my way to eat things that are shocking, I eat things that are delicious. I've done a decent amount of traveling, and of course I'd love to do more, but I've put myself into other cultures where I'm looking at something on a plate that's different to me. If I'm eating grasshoppers in Oaxaca, maybe its new to me at that point, but it's not new to them. This whole thing is relative, and it's about people accepting and enjoying the process of discovering new things.

At the last dinner, there were a lot of people saying, "I haven't had this since..." We're dealing with a population of people, in a really good way, who are from all over the place. We also do a Passover dinner, and it's the same thing, people saying, "I haven't had real Gefilte fish since I was a kid."

Is there a favorite item that you've worked out for this menu?
Favorite for me is going to be whatever project I'm working on at that moment, because I get pretty enthusiastic about what we're doing when it's awesome. There aren't a whole lot of ingredients left in this world that I haven't worked with, so I guess plankton is kinda neat. But that phase will come and go. My plankton phase. My plankton period.

A psychedelic time...
Yeah exactly. So who knows.

Is there a particular chef that you really admire at the moment?
Tons. I think there's some tremendous food being cooked out there. In the past year, I've had some absolutely fantastic meals. David Kinch at Manresa was awesome, we had a great time. I don't want to knock Boston restaurants, because they're great, but I do live here, so I think there's something very cool about getting outside of your comfort zone. Jason Bond and Jamie Bissonnette, those kinds of guys who approach food the same way we do, it's very easy to eat their food.

Is there one dish that you wish you could put out there every night of the week that isn't on the regular menu?
Not at all. I get to write a menu that I'm very excited about. But, I do run a business, so I do have to make people happy. There needs to be a chicken on the menu, there needs to be a steak. I don't want to fight any fight, and that's a silly thing not to do. So we have a chicken that we do our way, and we stuff the breast with chicken sausage. Or we do oxtail pastrami on top of really beautiful meat. Having those things that are beyond someone's norm while eating a steak allows me to do the other things we do.

Since opening, is Craigie where you want it to be?
I'm a competitive guy, so I always wanted to be successful, but I never defined what that success was going to be. We're always evolving, and if you ask me if I'm proud of what we've done, absolutely. Am I excited for the next chapter? Absolutely. Am I apprehensive? Of course. This is a fickle, crazy business, so I'm happy right now, but I can't tell you what tomorrow looks like for us, and that scares the crap out of me. Things are different now, I'm married, I have a three year-old son, I look at life very differently than I did when I was a rash 31 year-old opening a restaurant and giving the world the finger, you know? I'm proud of where we are.

Has the menu and the food matured with you?
For the past nine years, I've been living in this period of restaurant culture and food that evolved really quickly. A lot of new ingredients, a lot of new techniques that were being played with, and I wasn't on the forefront of it, but I was definitely a part of it. Being part of guys like Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne was really unique. I think for a very brief moment, I almost felt like I needed to be that guy, or be in that crew, to cook food in this day and age. I fell off that quickly. If I can ever be labeled mature at all, I think that's where the maturity came in. I cook the food that I cook. I'm not trying to be anybody else, and that's one of the things I'm most proud of here at Craigie on Main. I don't copy anybody. I just feel really fortunate that I get to cook the food that comes naturally to me, and people like it. We have our bells and whistles, and we have a fair bit of fancy equipment, but all of that is geared towards cooking food that tastes delicious. I stopped worrying about being this thing called "innovative." Innovative is very short-lived, and for me, delicious will have a much longer life.

What do you make of the pressure surrounding chefs now?
This is hard, and it takes it's toll. Not just the physical part of it , but there's a whole separate conversation about the modern media world, and the social media world does for pressure and expectations. It used to be that you were allowed to evolve, and now people are posting on Yelp at an opening party for a restaurant. I've become a little more secluded, a little more reserved, I don't put myself out there as much. If I read every Yelp review, I would have jumped off a bridge. The bottom line is, we're not trying to be all things, all people. Food is very subjective, and that's what I love about it. You should have an opinion on it. I'd actually be concerned if everybody did love my food. That'd be kinda weird. I think it's too bad that people vent publically and cruelly about it, but it's a weird thing. You don't like it? Don't come back. Have a bad experience? Just tell me and I'll try to fix it for you.

Is there anything, culinary, that you can't live without?
Salt. [laughs]

That's a good answer!
No, but really, I think we're moody people. Like, this morning, my son and I were having rye toast with jam and it made my morning. It just worked. That's one of the cool things about being a chef, is that I don't have to pinpoint that one thing. I've got eight appetizers, six main courses, and an entire tasting menu that I get to interest myself with. So, I'm avoiding that question.

 

Craigie on Main's Road Less Traveled dinner takes place on Tuesday, March 13. 853 Main St., Cambridge. For more information, call 617.497.5511 or visit craigieonmain.com. Reservations are definitely recommended. 

 

 

 

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