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Tony Maws’ non-traditional rise to the top

PROFILE: Tony Maws

Tony Maws, chef at Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., has almost too many accolades to count. Some of these include “One of America’s 10 Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine Magazine in 2005, a “Best Chef” honor by Boston Magazine three years later and most recently, the coveted James Beard Award for “Best Chef: Northeast” this summer.

Unlike his colleagues in the area, however, the 41−year−old Newton, Mass., native cites his first, eye−opening culinary experience not as a stint in Paris or with a glorified home kitchen experiment, but as a dishwasher during the summer after his freshman year in high school.

“My parents were like, OK it’s time to get a summer job,” Maws said. “At the time, I didn’t want to work in a mechanical shop, so I sent in a resume to my local restaurant.”

Within minutes, the restaurant called him back, and the rest is history. During that summer Maws learned the ins and outs of the kitchen, thereby dispelling the notion that a dishwashing job is inherently trivial and unrewarding.

“The idea of washing dishes was actually kind of fun. I saw some crazy s−−t as a 15−year−old,” Maws said. “I worked with college kids, servers and cooks — it was wild. It was kind of what you read about in Anthony Bourdain’s first two chapters [of Kitchen Confidential].”

Maws also found camaraderie with the staff in the kitchen. The bonding aspect, Maws said, was appealing and drew him back to the kitchen the following year.

“Things sort of steamrolled for me,” Maws said. “I started helping on the line and I thought, ‘This is kind of cool. I could do this!'”

The prospect of a career in culinary arts was quickly becoming a reality for the high school student who helped out in his grandmother’s kitchen and experimented with cooking on his own. However, when he graduated high school, the idea of going to college made sense to him.

“I went to school,” Maws said. “At [University of Michigan] I had to pick a major. I took a psychology 101 course and really enjoyed it … I learned about how to formulate an opinion, how to debate and [about] the general roundtable process.”

Even with the B.A. in psychology Maws received from Michigan, the summer of 1992 held few job opportunities, and he found himself back where he began.

“[After the ceremony,] I was at the corner of South Station and I didn’t know what the f−−k to do,” Maws said. “I [had] been working at restaurants the entire time since I was 15, so going back seemed logical.”

Maws’ post−graduation years were spent making nachos at a local bar in Cambridge, followed by a yearlong backpacking trip to Europe. After his return, he was hired at a restaurant on Martha’s Vineyard, waiting tables and helping around in the kitchen. It was during that time when he began to realize where his true passion lay.

“By the time I was 25, I tried to do different things: waiting tables, working back of the house,” Maws said. “I became friends with the chefs and then it hit me: One of them was like, ‘You work in kitchens. Have you ever thought you could do this?’ I was like, ‘I can?’ I didn’t know someone would need to give me permission to do this.”

At the suggestion of his friends in the kitchen, Maws sent off resumes yet again. He received good news from Chris Schlesinger, who at the time was at the forefront of the Boston culinary scene, Maws recalled.

“That’s what sort of set me on my path,” Maws said. “This means something to me.”

Schlesinger, who now helms the famous East Coast Grill in Cambridge, became a valuable mentor for the emerging line cook. From then on, Maws worked his way up the ranks and found himself under the tutelage of Clio chef Kenneth Oringer as a sous−chef. Still, though, Maws felt that something was missing.

“[Clio] was very important for my career,” Maws said. “But I’ve always been attracted to France and at the time there were still some important cooks there. I was going to go [apprentice] under [three−Michelin starred] Marc Veyrat for free, but there were still some issues at Clio, so I didn’t go.”

As a compromise Maws traveled to Lyon, France, months later, where he apprenticed at a small, one−Michelin starred restaurant.

“The food wasn’t spectacular, but I learned a lot,” he said.

Maws would go to the market almost every day to source ingredients, a habitual practice that would later become a hallmark of his restaurant. With two days off, he was also able to travel to other parts of France, learning techniques, flavor combinations and pairings that would later influence his refined yet rustic style and his seasonal menus.

Armed with knowledge and a newfound interest in the locavore movement, Maws returned to the United States in 2003, where he set up Craigie Street Bistrot in Cambridge. Five years and countless accolades later, he moved the restaurant to another bigger space within Cambridge, renaming it Craigie on Main.

The restaurant reflects Maws’ love for seasonal, local and exotic ingredients. They are directly sourced from all over Massachusetts, whether from farms or local inns.

“I work with 15 different farmers, maybe more,” Maws said. “I do what I do because I believe in the product and I have a relationship with these people, and at the end of the day, that’s what’s important.”

Maws’ emphasis on forage−driven produce has proven a success, and he cites consistent loyalty as the key ingredient. One entree he offers on the menu this week, for example, is a whole−roasted Misty Knoll chicken garnished with Vidalia onions, pea greens, forked potatoes and chanterelle jus.

Some of his dishes are also inspired by his travels, most notably in Southeast Asia. One appetizer on the prix fixe menu features pig’s tails, which are fried crisp and served with pickled peanuts, cilantro and nuoc cham — a Vietnamese citrus dipping sauce.

Another of the main courses has its roots in Japanese cuisine: a northern fish like wild sturgeon is marinated in miso and sesame, accompanied by fresh rock shrimp, barley couscous, fingerling potatoes and daikon broth. His dishes demonstrate the careful effort Maws puts into finding and sourcing ingredients, as well as the thought he puts into pairing those ingredients together. Some dishes, Maws said, were worked on for years before they were put on the menu.

That focus on quality of ingredients combined with Maws’ strict and relentless discipline is why Craigie on Main is considered one of Boston’s top restaurants.

“The thing I would tell anyone is probably, ‘Shut up,'” Maws said. “If you’re concerned about money, you’re doing it for the wrong reason, or ego, or prowess.”

– Jon Cheng

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