The media – particularly television – is littered with celebrity chefs. Littered because many of these stars have limited palates, can’t cook well or run a restaurant (just ask NY Times food critic David Wells). Rather they are telegenic, engaging and adept at dropping mutitudes of f-bombs. How entertaining. The true elite are a much rarer breed. So how is such a true emerging talent spotted? After dining just once at Craigie on Main, Scott Haas decided that the resto’s owner, Tony Maws, was a contender for chef super stardom. Mr. Haas isn’t easily impressed. Possessing both a refined and knowledgable palate and a sense of what engenders an extraordinary and satisfying dining experience, the author selected Chef Maws – and his kitchen – as the worthy subject of this insightful book. Herein, the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” of the crazy hectic kitchen of an emerging rock star chef comes under the gaze of “the-shrink-in-the-kitchen”. Mr. Haas spends eighteen month observing and chronicling the restaurant’s back of the house, the kitchen, with an occasional foray into the front of the house, the dining room and bar.
Back of the House is a good read – an intriguing mix of gossip and insight – employing both of Mr. Haas’ vocations of clinical psychologist and food writer; alternately casting a clinician’s – then an epicurean’s – eye upon the drama in Craigie on Main. The author spends many evenings with the chef at the pass, the staging area from which the dishes prepared by the cooks are finished by the chef and sent out into the dining room. Haas begins with Chef Maws’ food. The food is stellar yet unconstrained by any culinary tradition – “pricipled food, driven by techniques and informed by a global pantry”. The idiosyncratic food provides Haas the psychologist with the springboard into Tony Maws the person – upbringing, parents, education and even sports, all chronicled with the clinician’s unbiased yet ever compassionate eye. Scott and Tony talk alot – Tony likes to talk. To further our understanding of the back of the house, the author shadows various members of the kitchen staff, in turn offering a psychological profile of the line cook. Having done time as a line cook but moreover having spent the majority of my working life in the kitchen, I can vouch for the author’s analysis.
Scott Haas’ belief in Chef Maws’ talent is validated when during the author’s time at Craigie on Main the chef wins the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast. Yet there’s an obstacle for Tony’s greater success – himself. Throughout the book – and reading at times like a thriller – is the story of Tony and the line cooks. The problem that plays out is that the cooks’ skill levels don’t match the ambitions of the menu. Whereas one of the traditional roles of a chef is to teach and mentor, this doesn’t seem to happen in The Back of the House. Chef Maws has difficulty communicating his ideas to the staff, the staff becomes befuddled unable to deliver the desired product and Tony gets MAD. The atmosphere in the kitchen gets ugly. In the “yes, chef” regime of the professional kitchen, the staff here is at a critical disadvantage. Tony’s anger is a significant narrative in the book and gets the appropriate clinical assessment. The question for me though was the high turnover of cooks. At a holiday party, Tony announces that half of the kitchen staff has been onboard for six months or longer. Fifty percent is good? Perhaps this is an instance of the glass being half full but the turmoil that results from a fifty per cent turnover can be detrimental for achieving an efficiently functioning kitchen. Throughout the book, the questions looms – why can’t Tony Maws attract good help? (Though by the end of the book, it appears that Tony is making some progress in this area.)
Towards the end of his time at Craigie on Main, Scott Haas travels to New York to visit some true celebrity chefs with whom he’s aquainted – Daniel Humm, Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. We even visit with the expansive restauranteur Drew Nieporent. Scott wants Tony to come and meet these highly successful chefs but the chef can only manage a short time away from the restaurant since he’s the only one who knows how each dish must be presented (a most common mis-management style). Scott’s question to the chefs he speaks with basically concerns their behavior in the kitchen, particularly anger as a management style. We learn that the kitchens of these chefs are much more quiet, less anxious environments than the kitchen back in Central Square. In effect, this chapter provides a peaceful respite from the occasional turmoil at Craigie on Main.
After eighteen months, Scott wraps up his time with Tony Maws and the crew at Craigie on Main. And Scott turns his clinician’s eye on himself. He had observed that the kitchen provided its cooks with a family – a sense of belonging. In the end, Mr. Haas finds that he too has been drawn into that fellowship and feels a familial bond with the back of the house.
If you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, experiencing the highs of a Saturday night rush when everything goes well or the helplessness of being in the weeds when all is effed up or if you’re interested in food culture and chefs and the intrigue of modern cuisine, then Back of the House is worth reading. Scott Haas is precise, thoughful, insightful. There’s no gush, no theatrics, no f-bombs, just an appreciation and appraisal of an emerging celebrity chef.
Back of the House : The Secret Life of a Restaurant
Berkley Trade Paperback, New York, 2/5/2013
302 pp. $16