Amy Tarr: Why did you start cooking? What or who inspired you to become a chef?
Tony Maws: I was a skinny little kid with parents who didn’t cook. But I had a Jewish grandmother from Tennessee, and food was very important to her. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen. I loved being around her. I took my first job washing dishes at age 15. When the cook didn’t show up one day because he was hung-over, he got fired, and the chef said, “Tony come here.” And he got me slicing, dicing, and cooking. It was a trip. But I didn’t ever connect with the idea that this was something I could do. I went to the University of Michigan and graduated with a B.A. in psychology. I remember thinking that I was glad to have an education, but now what? So I traveled. A year or so later, I was waiting tables in Martha’s Vineyard and started writing a bunch of letters to chefs. Chris Schlesinger called me in and hired me at the original East Coast Grill.
AT: Did you attend culinary school? Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs today?
TM: No. At East Coast Grill, I kept saying I was going to go to culinary school, but I kept putting it off because I kept cooking and getting paid at the same time. Chris definitely takes care of the people who work hard for him. And then one day he said, “Where do you want to work next?” So I decided to go to San Francisco to work at La Folie. It was a very intense place.
Culinary schools at one point showed a commitment to the craft. But they really churn them out now. More than 50 percent of people who go to culinary school aren’t cooking after 2 years. We have a lot of people in our kitchen who went to college. They have an ability to learn. They come to this place because this is where they want to be. I have a high success rate with the people I hire. The people who come to me at age 22 or 23, they have a hard work ethic.
AT: Can you talk about your mentors?
TM: There are different people who I consider mentors for different reasons. To this day I think Chris Schlesinger is one of the best restaurant business people around. He has a winning formula. He doesn’t do a whole lot that fails. Chris never told me how to open up a restaurant, but one day I went into his office and said, “Chris, I’m going to do it.” And he said, “Don’t do it. But if you do, be the cheapest you can be. Don’t fall into the bells and whistles crap.”
Roland at La Folie was a mentor in terms of actual food. He’s a control freak. Ken Oringer gave me food inspiration –he’s got a lot of guts. He was never afraid to try anything. He taught me a lot about taking chances and putting in hard work, but also putting something on the plate that was different. A lot the fish was flown in from Japan. I got my hands on so much. Coming from Clio to Craigie, we have fewer resources, and we have to make the most out of the kitchen. So we have to be more creative in a sense. I don’t have a convection oven or a dehydrator, but how do I get that same effect?
AT: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
TM: We’re not trying to recreate the wheel. I don’t always want to live on the extreme. Sometimes good honest food is what we crave the most. So we’re trying to cook good food. I love throwing a good dinner party, and I feel like that’s what I get to do at Craigie Street every night. You’re going to come and have a good time – good service, food, and wine. I like looking out on my dining room and seeing people having a good time. We’re in a weird neighborhood, and it still baffles me that people show up.
AT: Are there any secret ingredients that you especially like? Why?
TM: There are a lot of parts of animals that are underappreciated and underused. When we work with a whole animal there are a lot of parts. It’s not weird if it’s prepared right. Coxcomb, pigtails. We do a lot with kidneys.
AT: What is your favorite question to ask during an interview for a potential new line cook?
TM: I wish I could say it was that easy. It takes a little bit of time to see if they are going to cut it. Even out of one interview or a couple stages. But I want to know – if you’ve quit a job, what made you quit? And what’s the definition of a bad boss? What are your ambitions? I want to know where you want to be in a year. If you come work for me, where do you want to be? I should be honored that they are working for me.
AT: What tips would you offer young chefs just getting started?
TM: Don’t worry about getting your name on your jacket. Just cook.
AT: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
TM: Technology. Whether it’s being used well or not is a whole other topic. I get really ticked off when I read articles about being high tech in the kitchen. Like you have to do this type of food to be a good cook nowadays. But people are coming back to the dinner table to appreciate food. They have more of an educated palate. People are willing to try wine other than Bordeaux. They’re willing to try new things both in terms of food and wine.
AT: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In 10 years?
TM: I’m fortunate - I love what I do and I have a family and friends who love what I do. I don’t get pressure to get out of the kitchen. It’s where I plan on being. Am I going to be at Craigie Street Bistrot in 10 years? I don’t know. I know it’s not the prefect restaurant – I don’t know what the perfect restaurant is. Maybe I need a bar since no one has a place to wait. I’ll still be wearing an apron and sharpening my knives!