Tony Maws

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Tony Maws

Restaurants: Craigie on Main (Cambridge, MA); Kirkland Cap and Trotter (Summerville, MA)

Experience: Craigie Street Bistro (Cambridge, MA)

Education: University of Michigain

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from that person?
No one person taught me. Food memories from my childhood were formed by my grandmother and going to Chinatown with my parents. I was exposed to all different types of food and was never afraid of eating anything. I think it educated my palate and created an open mind. Even in the ’70s and ’80s with all the bad food around, I ate stuff that was a little out of the ordinary.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
An egg dish with wild foraged mushrooms and cock’s combs, pigs’ feet or pork heart sausage. I incorporate that into a ragù with soft poached eggs. It’s not the most inventive, but it’s the way I grew up as a cook.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever made myself was fried eggs when I was three years old. My parents both worked and my mom likes to say I learned to cook out of self-defense.

For a neophyte, I’d say whatever they want to cook. There’s a lot of emotion in cooking. If they’re not salivating over the prospect of what they’re going to cook, it’s not going to turn out that well. If you’re not enjoying it, there’s no point.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I’ve learned equally from everyone I’ve worked for, and I’m fortunate to say that. Chris Schlesinger at the Blue Room in Cambridge had a lot of excitement in the food and was also very pragmatic in his business sense. Mark Miller in Santa Fe was one of the great original American chefs and working with him was really fascinating, for his great food mind and the way he thought about ingredients. Ken Orringer at Clio had absolutely no fear. I was fortunate to work for him early on. We would try anything and everything in the kitchen. Talk about gumption! He really encouraged me to think outside the box.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
There’s no way I could narrow it down to one. It’s a tie between Madeleine Kammam’s The Making of a Cook and Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You can’t cook with fear. It might not turn out great, but you have to be able to be prepared and go ahead and do it. If you’re afraid of food, it’s all over. You have to have fun.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I were better at everything I do. We talk a lot about the kaizen, which is the Japanese term of continuous improvement, around here.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
Bacon, and I use it in everything. Even if it’s not the main ingredient, you can throw it in a pan with roasted Brussels sprouts. It makes everything better.

What is your current food obsession?
I’ve been playing with spices a lot, especially shabazi, which is a green chile and herb mix. I’m using it in all of our fish dishes and a lot of vegetables.

Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’m a little over the “best of” restaurants and am looking forward to going to Paris and popping into a bistro that no one’s ever heard of.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
If we’re talking total package, including transportation, it would be Oaxaca. You can get reasonable flights and eat some of the most complex and interesting and palate-stimulating food I’ve ever had.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I traveled throughout France with a full glass bottle of old-school American Schlitz beer, and I still have it because it’s like a trophy of my entire time. It was with me in my backpack at Le Meurice in Paris and at Michel Bras. It flew with me to Morocco. To me it’s sentimental and it brings me back to all those places.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I hope I’m a good dad. I’m really good at cooking food for my family. I think I’m a world-class Red Sox fan.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A hot dog stand in Cambridge, attached to a bike. I just want to be riding around with my hot dogs. That’s absolutely my dream.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
No offense to any of the three, but I would choose Mario. He has a unique combination of genuine food spirit, good humor and love of life. I’d go to a hole-in-the-wall ramen joint where we could hang out and drink beer. We’d go in Cambridge. Why leave home?

If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring a box of salt, a slab of bacon, a big chunk of guanciale and a bag of dried beef, and I’d be fine. I’d make a big pot of braised pork and beef to last a long time.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I don’t think we’re inventing any new animals. I’ve always been perplexed by the idea of food trends. Hopefully we’re not talking about animals that don’t exist anymore because of our stupidity. I’d like to think we’re still talking about the same things.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Leftover Chinese food, old-school Jewish half-dollar pickles, which I sometimes make myself and sometime buy at a deli. Those are among my favorite snacks. My wife makes fantastic hummus.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
The Thermapen. It’s a cool thermometer that’s really slick and very practical and functional. I got one for all of my sous chefs.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I’m very particular about my equipment in the kitchen. I have certain spoons for certain jobs, period, and I get a little ornery if I can’t find them. It’s beyond ritualistic. I also enjoy a really nice espresso before service.