This Wednesday, January 29th, Craigie on Main will be hosting their third The Road Less Traveled dinner. Some are more recent than others, but my strongest memories are all related to moments in the kitchen, smells wafting from a kitchen, individual bites, or entire meals at the table. I was lucky enough to attend Craigie on Main’s first Road Less Travelled dinner in 2011. It was such a unique meal but that’s not what I remember it for. I remember it as one of the tastiest, most perfectly prepared meals I have had outside my German grandmother’s British kitchen. After chatting with Chef Tony Maws and Chef Carl Dooley I now understand why. It is the combination of the energy and excitement and effort that goes into creating such a menu for just one day and the desire to get back to the “old school”…”way old school” cooking of our grandmothers and great grandmothers.
How does this Road Less traveled dinner differ from the last two?
Chef Tony Maws (T.M.): The short answer is we are just doing different menu items. [And the long answer…] These are some of the most fun parts to cook. As cooks these are the things we get most excited about. Not to take away from different techniques, but they [offal] almost require a different type or more knowledge of actual cooking, old school cooking. I think as much as we appreciate technology and what it does for our food, this is very soulful. It is like going back in time. We are looking at cookbooks that are so dated most people don’t even know what they are. This is where you find a lot of this food. It is in the truest sense “grandmother cooking” and those are some of the best meals I’ve ever had.
Are there any ingredients that have just been too hard to get for the previous Road Less traveled dinners that were avoided this time around?
T.M.: We’re still working on a few. I think that we start reaching out far enough in advance. Although, we do need to make some follow up phone calls.
Chef Carl Dooley (C.D.): The fun part is that it [getting the ingredients] is part of the challenge. For example, we really want lamb brains and they [our purveyors] say lamb brains aren’t going to happen but how about a bunch of beautiful fresh lamb hearts. We get this fantastic beautiful product in and it is up to us to be flexible.
T.M.: At this point a lot of people that we do work with, not just for this dinner but in general, know that these are the kinds of things we might work with. It is not uncommon for us to cure beef heart or make a ragu with pork heart. We often get calls asking, “Do you want me to reserve this for you?”. I literally walked into Savenor’s Market and he handed me a bunch of pork kidneys. We’ve kind of developed that reputation.
What made you take that leap of faith that people would fill the dining room for such a dinner?
C.D.: It is fun for us because a lot of this stuff we get to put on our menu on a daily basis or put on a tasting menu. The Road Less traveled appeals to a certain amount of our audience that orders it [offal] [on a regular basis] but this is an opportunity to showcase it all on one menu.
T.M.: At Road Less traveled, we see a lot of familiar faces and then people we didn’t know but they just heard about it and thought it was cool. You know, people will go to a Vietnamese restaurant and order a bowl of Pho and in there is floating tendon and tripe. They have become desensitized to the concept of some of these foods and dishes. In no way are we doing something that is overly provocative or even that unique. We are using ingredients that now people have become accustomed to but in our format in the Craigie on Main format.
C.D.: It is almost even harder for us to do this now than it was five or six years ago because people are becoming used to the ingredients.
T.M.: “Ho hum! Lamb tongue.”
There is part of this [experience] when you’re finding different animals that maybe you are not used to seeing. And, a lot of it is finding parts of animals that you are not used to seeing. It is our opportunity to showcase them. An animal’s an animal. I think we’re still trying to get over this period in American history from the 60’s 70’s when things were getting faster and more efficient. Our system got away from seeing real animals. I have friends who grew up on farms who are completely accustomed to this and we’re trying to get back to it.
Why do you think offal and “peasant food” has become more and more popular? Does it have anything to do with the economy?
T.M.: None of this stuff is inexpensive any more especially if you’re getting it from the types of farms that we buy from. It may be a little less than tenderloin, but you are paying for the farms to raise the animal and process it correctly. It is a huge expense.
C.D.: And other restaurants are following suit so they are vying for the same ingredients you are now. I think also with this menu what is really exciting is that there are a lot of great land creatures and fun parts, but we are also doing some exciting things with fish.
I noticed the other night that you have salmon head at The Kirkland Tap & Trotter and now you have cod head on the Road Less traveled menu. I love fish head on smaller fish for the cheeks, but have never really had a large fish head. What is the appeal?
C.D.: All of it! We’re not actually going to put a cod head on the plate, We’re doing different parts. It is super gelatinous so it makes an incredible broth, the skin is delicious and melting..
T.M.: …or you can get it really crispy.
C.D.: There are all those nooks and crannies that you miss when you are only getting a fillet.
T.M.: It is protected by the bone and has a lot more connective tissue so it is really moist, really melting.
C.D.: It is based on the traditional pig head, like head cheese. tête de cochon. So we took that idea and said, “Why don’t we just slow cook it and take all the meat off and pick it nicely, season it and put it back together showing off all the different bits but in a more presentable way?”
The Road Less traveled menu has an option of wine pairings. What makes them qualify for this special “off the beaten path” meal?
T.M.: We are still working on some of our pairings for this year. Unique is relative. It could be from an area where you usually drink one type of wine but we’ve found another, or a wine that usually tastes one way, but this one is a bit different. [The] bottom line is it has to go great with the food.
Is there someone you work with for these pairings?
T.M.: Emily Larkins heads up the wine program and Jared Sadoian heads up of the beverage program
What foods are gross to you?
C.D.: I have never been able to eat store bought mayonnaise. My entire life.
T.M.: Even Hellman’s?
C.D.: It’s not even a snobby thing. I just can’t.
T.M.: I stand by Hellman’s. I can’t do anybody else’s but I can do Hellman’s. For me there is nothing I won’t eat if it is prepared well. It is either delicious or its not. Gross is overcooked or old, but if it is tasty its tasty.
Do any elements of the Road Less traveled dinners find their way onto your regular menu?
C.D.: Hopefully. That’s the idea. Part of the fun of this event is that we’re challenging ourselves to create new dishes. That is part of what we do every day but [Road Less traveled] is the opportunity to create a whole new menu and then see what sticks. The whole process is exciting. It is really fun for us but also fun for the cooks to see something different.
Of course your regular menu is anything but regular and changes seasonally, but do any of your regular menu items make it onto the Road Less traveled menu?
T.M.: We are actually staying away from the regular menu pretty well this time. I don’t like to say it is a once in a lifetime thing, but it really is. Whenever we’re cooking anything in the restaurant it always leads to something. After the Road Less Traveled dinner and all the effort we are putting into this dinner for sure whether it be a technique or pairing at the very least we move forward with it.
Is there continuity from one animal to the next when it comes to offal and how you treat it? Or, do you treat each animal’s offal differently?
C.D.: A great example for this is how we treat our monkfish liver. Is it a completely different creature and completely different thing than foie gras? Yes, but we think about it the same way we’re cleaning it, curing it, marinating it, and cooking it to achieve the best texture. While they are two different things we are applying techniques we know really well with foie gras and we’re thinking about the monkfish critically and doing the same with it.
T.M.: Sizing of them obviously is pretty different regarding how you might put it on a plate or cook it.
In theory they are pretty similar but in reality we need to take that [size] into account. Also, for example veal tongue is actually pretty mild. We have to work within the context of the dish.
Moving away from The Road Less Traveled menu for a moment, can we talk kids in the kitchen?
T.M.: Charlie loves food. He has got a really good palate. Right now he loves being with mom in the kitchen. His mother is a terrific baker. He loves watching. Charlie will sit ringside here or at the Tap & Trotter and say, “Daddy, how come you’re moving so fast?” We used to put a milk crate right next to where I expedite and he’d stay there for a half hour just watching everybody and the action of it. It is pretty athletic. He likes the idea of everybody moving around. Whether he becomes a cook or not, to be honest, is not important to me. What’s important to me is that he respects food and what food means to us and our family.
Is your son Charlie an adventurous eater?
T.M.: He is. We didn’t ever make a separate plate of anything [for him].
My last question is about cooking offal at home so I thought I’d start with the basics. I love liver (and always have) but I haven’t figured out how to cook it well. Can you tell me how I should cook it?
C.D..: You want a hot cast iron pan. Season the liver with salt, pepper, and whichever fun spices you are into lately. Give it a quick sear and deglaze with a brandy or white wine. Then, I will finish it with a few minutes in the oven at the end if needed until it is just pink inside. Lots of people really into food and home cooks often don’t get their pans hot enough. Turn off the smoke alarm and go for it.
T.M.: We do have batteries removed from smoke alarms at our house. Most people’s homes these days are not built to actually do real cooking the burners themselves just aren’t hot enough and then there’s the oven that isn’t really calibrated.
As I transcribe this interview it is amazing hearing all the background sounds of the kitchen. The busy, calm rhythm of the Craigie on Main kitchen preparing for mise en place. I thanked the chefs for their time and they thanked me then jumped right back into the swing of things with the energy of winter Olympians pushing up against the gate as they anticipate their run of the day down the slopes. I picked up some chicken livers this weekend so I’m going to prepare them as directly by Chef Dooley. I’ll let you know how that goes.
To be a part of this year’s The Road Less Traveled feast, call Craigie on Main to reserve a place at the table (617) 497-5511 or make a reservation online here.
Of course, the menu won’t be finalized till the day of, maybe even minutes before the door is unlocked, but see below for a behind the scenes look.
The Road Less Traveled
Crab Mustard Cromesquis
Burgundy Snail and Anchovy Toast
Pig Ear Terrine
Foie de Lotte au Torchon
House-cured guanciale, sea urchin vinaigrette
Grilled Cuttlefish Salad
oroblanco, ink vinaigrette
Beef Tongue and Heart Carpaccio
warm bone marrow vinaigrette
Plankton Zucca Pasta
pig foot and lobster roe ragout
Cod Head Boudin Blanc
potato gnocchi, lardo, cod milt sauce
Braised Tripe and Sweetbread Posole
Smoked Squab Breast
confit leg, salsify, boudin noir sauce
Elysian Fields Lamb Three Ways
cardoon and lamb fat gratin
Pig Head to Tail (and everything in between)
Dessert to Follow
Menu $98 Wine $55