Long before Boston’s South End became a mecca for white-hot restaurants and contemporary art, Tony Maws’ family bought a brownstone in the neighborhood. Renovating it put the kitchen was out of commission, and so the Maws clan would spend many evenings feasting at dinnertime in nearby Chinatown.
Growing up on Chinese-style spareribs instead of chicken cutlets inspired the James Beard Award-winning chef behind Craigie on Main (Cambridge) and Kirkland Tap & Trotter (Somerville) to eat adventurously. “I never compared how different we were. I just knew how boring the food was at my friends’ houses,” Maws says. “My dad is from the Bronx and when he would take me back to New York we’d make pit stops for liverwurst and tongue, because if something was good I was going to try it.”
That early zeal for food was only strengthened when Maws, “a Jewish kid” reared in the Boston suburb of Newton, first caught a glimpse of the restaurant life washing dishes. “I thought it was cool being in the kitchen. Everyone was buzzing around. There was energy. There was camaraderie. As an athlete, I liked the physicality of it. I was doing doubles as a 14-year-old, which was probably illegal,” he says.
I love highbrow-lowbrow, where you can eat foie gras and drink Champagne in jeans and a t-shirt.
It wasn’t until later, after getting his degree from the University of Michigan, that Maws realized he could make a career out of cooking. Foregoing culinary school for hands-on kitchen experience, he worked at restaurants such as East Coast Grill in Cambridge, Restaurant Larivoire in Lyon, Mark Miller’s Coyote Café in Santa Fe, and Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio in San Francisco.
Back in Boston, working with Ken Oringer at Clio, Maws knew his next logical move was opening a restaurant of his own, which he did in 2002 with Craigie Street Bistrot. The Cambridge restaurant then morphed into the renowned Craigie on Main, which showcases New England produce and nose-to-tail cooking in an unpretentious atmosphere. “I love highbrow-lowbrow, where you can eat foie gras and drink Champagne in jeans and a t-shirt. I don’t always need Le Meurice in Paris,” he says.
While Craigie on Main serves dishes like crispy-fried pig’s tails with pickled peanuts, nuoc cham, and cilantro, Maws’ newer venture, the Kirkland Tap & Trotter, exudes an even more casual vibe without forsaking creativity. Guests pack the neighborhood joint for dishes like smoked fish rillettes on rye toast, and slow-roasted pork belly with sausage-cannellini bean ragout. “It’s simple,” he says, “with funky beer and wine lists and reggae turned up a little louder than it should be.”
Here, the self-taught chef breaks down 10 of the dishes that continue to keep him grounded and inspired, from lobster made by a New England culinary guru to Grandma’s homey recipe for beef intestines.
Pearl hot dog sandwiches
Growing up, my dad would make these sandwiches with really good hot dogs—all-beef ones from Pearl, made outside Boston. He’d split them the long way, almost butterflied, and pan-fry them flat side down with butter. Then he’d put them on Thomas’ English Muffins with a buttload of really good spicy deli mustard. If we had some leftover sauerkraut he’d add that, too. At that age I’m not thinking about complementary flavor profiles; I’m thinking it’s a delicious sandwich with a hot dog almost the size of knockwurst. (Photo: Pearl Meats)
Chinese food at Golden Gate (Boston)
When we didn’t have a kitchen for a while one of our options was Chinatown. It was close, it was cheap, and it was good. My brother was a super picky eater, but somehow we all gravitated to spicy, garlicky flavors—umami stuff. In the early ‘70s, Chinatown was a lot of pupu platter-Polynesian, but we went to the Golden Gate, now long gone. I was in kindergarten eating pan-fried noodles and clams with black bean sauce in the red-light district, and my grandparents were horrified. (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Essaouira Fish Market (Morocco)
I was in France and had a work visa. It was running out, so I went to a travel agency and asked where I could go that was really cheap. I traveled around Morocco and ended up in Essaouira, which is on the Atlantic coast, not the Mediterranean. There were all these stalls literally on the dock with grills displaying crab, mackerel, tuna belly, and funky sea urchin. They’d put a couple of lemons on the table, which was a crate. Some people sat on the ground. You’d keep pointing and they’d keep bringing you fish. I was there for three days straight, for hours upon hours, and left piles of bones. It was just before I turned 30 and I was still forming my food thoughts. Here I was, eating unbelievably fresh fish and some of the most delicious food I’d ever had, and it was like, ‘Why do I ever have to deal with bullshit again?’ We’re such products of where we’ve been and what we’ve eaten. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Dinner at Asador Etxebarri (Spain)
This is one of the few occasions where I smiled the whole meal. Ask my wife. I literally started to laugh it was so good. It was before iPhones, so we had an old-school map and got lost driving there. We find it and we get the tasting menu, and it’s crazy. I remember the prawn with the smoke and a little char. I remember the turbot. I remember the ribeye. I remember the fucking unbelievable apple tart with ice cream. Come on—I come all the way to Spain and you’re giving me an apple tart? But they smoked the custard over fire and I think I literally fell out of my chair. It comes across as simple food, but it really isn’t. Cooking isn’t about how many dots and swishes you put on a plate. (Photo: asadoretxebarri.com)
Lobster at Jasper’s Restaurant (Boston)
I graduated from high school and we had dinner at this place we heard about called Jasper’s. It was a beautifully sunny day and also emotional because my grandfather had passed away and wasn’t there. I ordered the pan-roasted lobster, something I’d never eaten in this kind of fine dining-ish environment before. I spent a large portion of my life on a boat, but I’d never had lobster this way. Traditionally there was butter, maybe mayo, and it was probably overcooked. But this lobster, with white wine and chervil—the texture was so delicate and full of flavor. I was 18 years old and this dish kept me falling in love with food. I remember when Jasper went to my restaurant for the first time and gave me a high five. I just couldn’t believe Jasper White came to my kitchen. (Photo: Getty Images)
Fried Clams at the Bite (Martha’s Vineyard)
My mom has a summer house in Martha’s Vineyard. It’s a few steps up from a shack. It’s not even winterized. But the Bite, in the fishing village of Menemsha, is a teeny clam shack. In this world we currently live in, good food traditions are hard to come by. In Boston, it’s difficult to find a good bowl of chowder; same with fried clams in Martha’s Vineyard. But the fried clams here are terrific. We’d take them and walk out to the beach to see the sunset. (Photo: Flickr/David Berkowitz)
Green Chile Stew at Horseman’s Haven Café (Santa Fe, NM)
I was working in Santa Fe, known for its Hatch green chiles. This was a dumpy restaurant behind a Texaco station, but they served a beautiful, hot, flavorful green chile stew I had on many a hung-over morning. It was flat-out delicious, with ground pork, onions, garlic, crema, lime, cilantro, and tortillas on the side. It was an example of how to correctly use spice. (Photo: nmgastronome.com)
Grandma’s Stuffed Derma
I was madly in love with my grandparents. They lived close by and my grandmother adored her grandchildren. One of the things she made was authentic stuffed derma—beef intestine with braised tomato, buckwheat, and onions. I didn’t know what it was, but it was there and I was going to eat it. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Steamers at Legal Sea Foods (Cambridge)
My grandfather would take me to the original Legal Sea Foods in Cambridge, when it was one store, checkered tablecloths, and simple food. I was four-years-old and I would order a whole bowl of steamers. The waitress would give my grandfather a skeptical look and he would say, ‘You heard him. He wants a bowl of steamers.’ It was one of my biggest treats. (Photo: bostonfoodiegal.files.wordpress.com)
Cockscombs Pot Pie at Clio (Boston)
When I was working at Clio, we made this pot pie with cockscombs, morels, and truffles. It was rustic and beautiful, and when the knife went through the puff pastry it was unbelievable. It showed me much about how you can take something considered lowbrow and put it in the setting of a fine dining restaurant. (Photo: chefs-resources.com)