For celebrity chef Tony Maws, holiday cheer means more than a fancy bird.
We all admire people who volunteer at soup kitchens and homeless shelters on Thanksgiving, the selfless souls who give back to their fellow man on a holiday that, after all, is about expressing gratitude. But most of us, of course, aren’t like that. We want to be surrounded by family and friends, sitting in front of a spread befitting Augustus Gloop, watching a roaring fire and a TV big enough to show the hair follicles on the quarterback’s throwing arm.
That’s one of the qualities that makes Tony Maws, chef/owner of Craigie on Main,
so unusual. True, he’s a James Beard Award–winning chef. And, true, his restaurant is beautifully equipped for cooking for a large gathering. But not every chef thinks to serve, not only friends and family, but a crowd of large hungry men who’re stuck at work on the holiday—men who fill the popular role of heroes.
For the past four years, Maws, his family, friends and staff have delivered a full Thanksgiving dinner, with all the trimmings, to the members of Engine Company Two at the Lafayette Square Fire House. “I don’t know if we’re a big small city or a small big town, but there’s a sense of community in Cambridge,” says Maws. It’s that sense of connectedness that gave root to this holiday tradition. Maws, a Newton native, trained as a chef under Chris Schlesinger at the East Coast Grill. In 2002, he opened his first restaurant, Craigie Street Bistrot, just outside of Harvard Square. Housed in a cozy subterranean room in an upscale part of 02138, the place was instantly mobbed, despite the tucked-away location and paucity of public parking. By 2005, Maws had been anointed “One of America’s 10 Best New Chefs” by Food and Wine magazine. By 2008 (when the same magazine elevated him to its “New Chefs Hall of Fame”), he’d outgrown the location. He found a larger space on Main Street in Central Square, a few hundred yards from the 1894 fire station on Mass. Ave.
“We’re traditionally closed on Thanksgiving,” says Maws, “and I host my own celebration in the restaurant because it’s bigger than my house. So I’m looking across the street, almost directly at the fire station.… They work their asses off, and they’re sitting in the firehouse on a day when most people are relaxing at home. I figured they could probably use a good, homecooked meal.”
So he called across the street and offered to bring them Thanksgiving dinner. He’s been doing it ever since.
“We walk it over to them, deliver it, and then go back to the restaurant. Some of the guys in the kitchen kick in. My wife takes a bunch of stuff over. They’ve got the football game on; we’ve got the football game on. I’m not looking for anything out of it. The high-five’s and the expressions on their faces are all we need.
Captain Frederick Ikels of the Cambridge Fire Department recalls the first time he got the call, asking if they could accept Maws’ generosity.
“I was a little taken aback by what a nice gesture it was. We accepted, because the guys on duty are away from their families, and it’s a fairly busy house. The guys were extremely happy. Craigie on Main is one of the best restaurants in the area, and for them to deliver a meal to our guys is awesome.”
Not that the arrangement isn’t mutually beneficial.
“We’ve set off our alarms,” Maws admits sheepishly. “It’s a big open kitchen, so one too many steaks can set the smoke detectors off, and they’ve been over to make sure everything’s OK.” (Probably not a bad situation for a restaurant with a name that combines two streets that neither inter-sect nor, in fact, are anywhere near each other.)
Ikels echoes Maws’ sentiments, saying, “Working in that neighborhood, we really get to know the business owners, but it’s especially great to build that kind of relationship with them.”
“It’s nice to know they know we’re here,” jokes Maws, whose regard for firemen is genuine. “I understand their devotion. My cousin is a fireman in Brookline, and my friend is one in Somerville. My cousin always asks why I don’t bring food to him.”
As for the menu, Maws keeps it simple: turkey (which he brines), stuffing (which he never makes the same way twice), mashed potatoes (with more butter than most cardiologists would recommend), gravy, cranberry sauce, a roasted seasonal vegetable and “lots of pies.”
“We’d bring ’em beer and wine, too,” Maws adds, “but they can’t drink on the job.”
“I wish we could do something of equal value for them,” counters Ikels, although he points out: “People come by the fire house asking for restaurant recommendations all the time, and I can assure you, Craigie on Main is at the top of our list.”
When you sit down at the table this holiday, then, offer your own toast in appreciation of well-fed firefighters. Because, when the turkey’s carved and the wine’s been drained, there’s always a chance you forgot to turn off the oven.
Tony’s Holiday Recipes
8 ½ cups of water 1
½ cup kosher salt
1 tablespoon kombu
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon chili flakes
2 allspice berries
2 juniper berries
1- Mix ingredients together to make about 1 gallons of brine for every 12–14 pound turkey.
2- Fully submerge the turkey in the brine.
3- Let sit for 12 hours.
½ pound of Brussels sprouts
2 tablespoons of duck fat
salt and pepper
1- Heat a pan on high and preheat oven to 425 degrees.
2- Cover bottom of pan with ¼ inch of duck fat.
3- Cut the Brussels sprouts in half and season with salt and freshly cracked pepper. Add to the fat.
4- Toss sprouts in the pan to evenly coat them with the fat.
5- Place in oven and roast until tender and well caramelized.
5 Yukon Gold potatoes
1 pound butter
2 cups whole milk
4 sprigs of thyme
4 garlic cloves
1- Wash potatoes and place in a large pot. Cover with 2 inches of water.
2- Liberally salt the water, then add 2 garlic cloves and 2 sprigs of thyme.
3- Boil until tender.
4- While the potatoes are cooking, heat the whole milk with 2 garlic cloves and 2 sprigs of thyme.
5- Set aside.
6- Drain the water from the pot and place the potatoes in a mixer with a paddle attachment.
7- On low speed, break up the potatoes while gradually mixing in the butter in 4 waves.
8- Remove garlic cloves and thyme, and pour in milk until you reach your desired consistency.
9- Add salt and freshly cracked pepper.
Sweetened Poached Cranberries
3½ cups orange juice
2 cups cranberries
1¼ cups honey
1 cup Port wine
½ cup Demerara sugar
2 lime zests
1 orange zest
1 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1- Combine all ingredients except the cranberries. Bring to a boil.
2- Poach cranberries in small batches. Remove them from the liquid after they’ve popped.
3- Let the liquid reduce until there’s just enough to cover the cranberries. Adjust sweetness if necessary.
4- Pour over cranberries.
5- Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
Food writer/psychologist Scott Haas dishes on his new book, Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant (February 2013, Berkley Trade), about his 18 months inside the kitchen of Craigie on Main.
As a psychologist, what draws you to chefs?
Chefs bring us the goods: mother’s milk, crushes, unrequited love, first girlfriends or boyfriends, marriages, fleeting affairs and feeding the kids. Chefs satisfy hunger. It’s so profound and amazing, really. You open a door, you sit down feeling empty, you leave feeling full. It’s all about love.
Why look at a restaurant and its staff through that lens?
No other profession feeds us, and no other profession than psychology is better suited to figuring out why these characters, who become chefs, sacrifice every possible relationship outside a restaurant to feed groups of strangers night after night instead.
In what ways do you think a chef’s dishes reflect his or her personality?
Whether it’s a chef like Escoffier choosing to cook by the numbers or a chef whose creativity is his M.O. like Maws, every successful, memorable chef develops a vocabulary that is a visceral expression of their deepest, darkest fears, secrets and desires. The chef who decides to play the game by the long established rules is a conformist who eschews risk. But chefs like Maws are risk takers. They are the culinary equivalent of bungee jumpers. A traditional sauce tells you the dude is a square or at least covert. But a whacky uni-pig heart dish, which you might find at Craigie, is the chef’s way of saying he’s unpredictable, a Christopher Walken at the stove.
How is the atmosphere in Craigie on Main different from other restaurants you’ve been to?
I have never been in a place quite like it. Not ever. Not in Japan, Italy, New York City or the Planet Xenon. At Craigie, the chef is kind of like a freestyle rapper or an old-school Frank Zappa or Miles when he was recording in Hoboken. Improvisation, man, improvisation. And in order to do that? We’re talking about trust. It’s a high-wire act: The rules last night don’t apply to tonight’s menu.
What do you feel was the best thing about the whole experience?
It was like being part of a family. I was able to get to know a great chef on the cusp of world fame. Maws opened up, he trusted me. He showed love and respect and demanded it of me in return.
Was there anything unexpected about it?
Not really. I’ve been in the world’s best kitchens. Wait, I know: very cool to find one in Cambridge.