Being a Chef

The first thing most people asked me upon learning I was in culinary school was what restaurant I aspired to work in when I was done. I spent the whole year telling people that I had no desire to work in a kitchen professionally. Okay, almost no desire. Who doesn’t dream of running their own kitchen one day? After spending a lot of time doing stages (fancy name for an unpaid internship also called a trail) at various restaurants around town, I know it’s not for me for a variety of reasons.

If you want to understand how demanding a kitchen can be, read Scott Haas’s new book Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant. The food writer and clinical psychologist spent eighteen months in the kitchen of James Beard Award-winner Tony Maws of Craigie on Main, here in Cambridge. Maws began with a smaller restaurant called Craigie Street Bistrot on a side street in Cambridge with a constantly changing menu. Both a neighborhood restaurant and a place for real invention, it and Maws gained a reputation for imaginative and creative food. In 2008, Maws moved into a larger space in Central Square, Cambridge with a bar, more seats, and an open kitchen, renaming it Craigie on Main. Its reputation has only gotten better.

I’ve been lucky enough to eat there several times, both at the older location and the new. Mr. Bookdwarf and I treated ourselves to the ten course tasting menu once for a birthday. I’ll never forget the chef himself coming out with a stuffed pig trotter served on a bed of grains. Mind blowing. We were just starting to explore food and though the check set us back a bit, we regretted nothing. This was before the days when food-bloggers were photographing each plate, but I remember most of those dishes with startling clarity. In 2009, we got engaged at the bar in Craigie on Main, and held the rehearsal dinner there the night before the wedding. Another indelible image: Mr. Bookdwarf and his grandmother sharing an entree for two that consisted of a half a roasted pig’s head.

So Haas’ book holds both professional and personal interest for me. Maws gave Haas unlimited access to himself and his crew. Maws has a reputation around town for what I’ll call his intensity in the kitchen. We witnessed it once: We were eating at sat  at seats overlooking the open kitchen, which was bustling quietly until someone made a mistake. Maws sounded like he was trying not to scream. We heard only “Don’t … you… EVER….” before he stormed into the back. The line cook and the ring-side diners all seemed shaken, but the quiet bustle returned and the meal went on.

Haas gets to the roots of this intensity: For Maws, perfect execution every time is an absolute necessity and obsession. He has only the one restaurant, no cookbook, no brand-diffusion line. Chef, after all, is French for chief. Being the boss means having your name on the door and your reputation on the line when something goes wrong. Maws trusts no-one else to get things done right every single time, and so he spends his entire life in the restaurant. Over the course of the book, Haas sees Maws try to step back and delegate slightly more, trust his lieutenants to do the work, and allow them to make and recover from and learn from mistakes. Still, the entire Craigie ethos is one of absolute lack of compromise  from ingredient to table. This is, after all, a man who refuses to serve tomatoes out of season. In New England, that means that there are tomatoes on the menu only during August and September. Craigie is a rarity in the restaurant world: Innovative, completely its own animal, and still formal and restrained.

Haas shows us the kind of fanatical person, and the kind of intense work, it takes to make a restaurant like that happen, and keep happening, every day for decades.

When someone asks me if I want to be a line cook, I’m going to tell them to read Haas. I love food, I love cooking, and I love the restaurant world. But it takes a special kind of insanity to make it into your living.

4 thoughts on “Being a Chef

  1. Deidre Whitfield

    About Tony Maws Tony Maws is the award-winning chef and owner behind the Northeast’s culinary gem: Craigie On Main. James Beard nominee for Best Chef Northeast (2009, 2010), and a Food & Wine Best New Chef (2005), Maws is celebrated equally for his innovative and traditional work in the kitchen, and is known for his immense talent, creativity, and rugged standards and expectations for himself and his staff, as well as the farmers and suppliers who visit him daily. “Commitment” is a key term for Maws and the entire Craigie on Main team. This commitment to the traditions of old-school farming methods— of “nose to tail, root to stem, and fins to gills” cooking—are implemented daily, combining to create a style of cuisine that can only be described as “refined rusticity.” All of Craigie on Main’s ingredients arrive each morning, and all are farmed or raised sustainably and with purpose and conscience. “It’s been part of my philosophy long before the terms ‘locavore’ or ‘farm-to-plate’ were coined,” Maws says. Maws has earned widespread attention, including being honored as “Boston’s Best Chef” by Boston magazine (while at his first restaurant Craigie Street Bistrot). He has also been featured in The Martha Stewart Show, Travel Leisure, Gourmet, The Boston Globe, and on MSN.com, as well as NBC’s “Today” show and Fox News.

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  3. Mr. Bookdwarf

    I love that he writes so much like a psychologist – talks about Tony’s relationship with his parents and the nature of the kitchen family.

    It’s also an interesting distinction he makes between a chef and a cook. The chef is the one who directs, invents, and decides. The cook is the one who executes the chef’s vision. Not every cook becomes a chef.

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