The alumni base of the University of Michigan is a common selling point, in both quantity (over 540,000 currently) and quality. We’d like to think that the University is both nature and nurture — that we attract the very best and then launch them into fame and fortune. Every wide-eyed freshman is told that if he studies enough, he can become the next Arthur Miller, the next Larry Page, the next Gerald Ford. Included among our esteemed alumni are several renowned chefs. Gabrielle Hamilton, award-winning chef at Prune in New York City, received an MFA in creative writing from the University. Stephanie Izard, winner of Season Four of “Top Chef,” was an undergraduate here. It’s harder to pin down the University’s influence on a chef. We don’t have a culinary school beyond work-study jobs in the dining hall. Chefs are often of a more bohemian temperament, one not predisposed to college. Which begs the question — if one wants to be a chef, why would you come here?
If you’re Chef Tony Maws, James Beard Award-winning chef of Craigie on Main in Cambridge, Mass., it’s because you’re 18 years old, and you don’t know that you want to be a chef or even know that you can be one.
“I don’t think as an 18-year-old, I was really mature enough, or put together enough, to have those thoughts,” he told me over the phone. “(Going to college) was what I was supposed to do.”
When I first found out Maws had graduated from the University, I was surprised, to say the least. I grew up around Boston, and Maws was often a source for anything especially “cheffy.” When I wanted to learn how to fillet a fish, I watched his videos on youtube. When I turned 14 and wanted a roasted pig’s head instead of a cake, Craigie on Main was the place to go. In short, Maws did not seem like a guy who took a circuitous route towards becoming a chef.
Maws was born in Boston and grew up in Newton, Mass., in a solidly middle-class family. When he was a kid, his parents decided to renovate their house, and were left without a kitchen for more than a month. They’d often trek to Chinatown for dinner, which had an in-your-face cuisine that appealed to their young son.
“I grew up seeing all the animals hanging in the window, eating funky parts, seeing food differently than a lot of Americans probably were in the ’70s,” Maws said.
Starting in seventh grade, Maws attended an elite prep school, Belmont Hill, throwing himself into academics and sports. But with nothing to do one summer on Martha’s Vineyard, where his family had a house, he decided to get a job. He approached the job process like only a 15-year-old prep school kid would: writing up a résumé and diligently sending it out to restaurants on the Island. Looking back, Maws proudly laughed.
“I got a call about three minutes later, saying ‘You sent us a résumé for a dishwasher job? You’re hired.’”
Maws spent the next few summers washing dishes and helping prep ingredients at the Beach Plum Inn. He’d never been happier.
“It really embodied a lot of what I liked and it was a culture I thrived in — loud, fast, physical, it was almost like playing in a hockey game,” he said.
From his dishwashing station, he would often peer into the kitchen, admiring the hustle of the line cooks. They were usually college students, and, funnily enough, one summer they were a group of fraternity brothers from the University of Michigan.
“My freshman year at Michigan, I ran into a bunch of them on the street — they must have been fifth-year seniors — and they were like ‘Wait, you’re that kid!’” he said.
When he graduated from high school, Maws still loved working in kitchens, but didn’t think of it as anything more than a hobby.
“At that time, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be a chef,’” he said. “There wasn’t any food TV, and (becoming a chef) wasn’t something that people like me would do.”
So Maws zeroed in on Michigan for college. Several members of his family had attended the University, and the charisma of the line cooks had made an impression. After one visit, he made the decision.
“I got to Michigan and I was like, ‘Holy shit! This is college,’” he said.
Like so many freshman, his first year was, in his own words, “a wash.” The kitchen hadn’t prepared him for the shock of 400-person classes, of teachers who didn’t take attendance or check his homework, of some new party to go to every night. Stuck on North Campus, he was so miserable that he would pack a bag every Friday afternoon and crash with friends who lived in Mary Markley Hall for the weekend.
And, like so many students, things got better after that. He joined a frat. He took enough psychology classes to make a major of it. He wrote short stories and poetry. And, at night, he worked at the now-defunct Quality Bar on Main Street, just to be in the kitchen again.
After graduation, his friends went off to New York and Chicago to work at banks and attend law and medical school. Maws loaded up his car and drove to Montana.
He worked at a lodge for a while, moved to Utah to ski bum, packed up again and traveled through Europe. He even had a desk job at a magazine in New York City. This vagabond period wasn’t exactly Maws living out some latent Jack Kerouac fantasy.
“I wasn’t trying to be aimless, in an irresponsible way,” he said. “I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it really began to eat at me.”
Maws ended up back in Martha’s Vineyard, this time waiting tables. He got friendly with the restaurant’s owner, who pulled him aside one day for a verbal slap across the face.
He said, “Wait a minute. You’ve worked in kitchens all these years. You love food. You’re always hanging around in the kitchen. Why aren’t you doing this?”
Looking back, Maws considers this the turning point.
“It was as if I needed permission from someone to do this job I liked,” he said.
He traveled again, to Boston, San Francisco and France, cooking six days a week, coming in on his days off, forgoing culinary school for countless questions asked and hours worked. In 2003, he opened the Craigie Street Bistro, which moved to its present location in 2008. In 2011, he won the James Beard Award for Best Chef — Northeast. He’s now married and has a young son, and still cooks most nights at the restaurant.
So, all in all, was that psychology degree worth it?
“I went to prep school, and I was supposed to go to college, so I did,” Maws said. “And I’m glad I did. I thought Ann Arbor was fantastic, and I’m glad I have the education.”
The psychology education specifically, he’s not sure — most of his leadership ability has come from experience, not reading Freud. But just to go to college, to have four years to grow up and learn what he liked and didn’t like … yeah, that was worth it.