Welcome to a special Greasy Spoons Week edition of Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives, sharing their stories and more.
[Photo: Paul Maslow/Rex Dean]
Strip T's might be known as one of the Boston area's most important destination restaurants, but, in the 25 years it existed before Tim Maslow put it on the regional map, his father Paul Maslow had firmly established the (now-former) greasy spoon as a favorite for Watertown residents and workers. Paul sat with us for Eater Greasy Spoons Week and discussed how he first opened Strip T's to avoid office jobs or fine dining, what the transition was like as Tim slowly took over the kitchen, and how he now has an office job for a fine dining restaurant.
We all know about Strip-T's, and the story of Tim coming up from David Chang's Momofuku in New York to take over the kitchen here. I want to know more about the previous history. Before you opened Strip-T's, what was your restaurant experience?
I worked in food service in high school. I worked at Brigham's, and little fast food places like that, and that's where I got my feet wet. When I got out of high school, I really didn't feel like I was ready to go to college and I wanted to do something creative but I didn't know what. I came up with this great idea: I thought I wanted to be a chef. So I went down to the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and I got a job as an apprentice.
When was that?
That was in 1973. And this was kind of back in the days when there really wasn't much of a restaurant scene in Boston. There was the Ritz, Copley Plaza, Maison Robert, Locke-Ober, not too many places. There were very few Americans working in the kitchen, they were mostly Europeans back then.
That was 13 years before Strip-T's. At what point did you say "Okay, I am ready to branch out, open my own shop?"
I cooked in various restaurants for six years. Then, I went to UMass for hotel and restaurant management. From there I went to work for Westin hotels and opened Turner Fisheries. That was my first real experience with the corporate world and I knew the whole four years that I was working for Westin - prior to when I opened in 1986 - that I wanted to open my own place. The reason that I opened an upscale sandwich place like Strip-T's was I did not want to work the hours and the schedule most people in fine dining worked. I wasn't open nights and I wasn't open weekends. So, it was kind of a lifestyle thing.
There are changes in any restaurant over the years and I am sure there were changes to Strip-T's even before Tim took over the kitchen. Can you talk about that?
When I opened all I had for cooking equipment was a table top fry-o-lator, a four burner stove that you would find in someone's apartment, and I had one of those fifty gallon drums cut in half and I grilled all my stuff outside. I guess I can say that now because I can't get in trouble anymore. Then, as the years went by, I got more cooking equipment and a beer and a wine license became available in the town in 1994. I grabbed it and began to open at night.
Let's fast-forward. So Tim was working down in New York and he came back up here in 2011. How did that conversation start?
That's interesting, we basically never discussed working together. I guess he was ready to leave New York and Momofuku and he called me up, and he said "do you want me to come work with you at Strip-T's? If you don't, I'm going to California, make up your mind." So we never really had a formal discussion about it. I said "sure, I would love to work with you." And we had to save the details for later on because that wasn't part of the conversation; he wanted a yes or no. I didn't want him to feel like "okay I've got an obligation towards working with my father; he's getting older; he's getting tired; I should go help him." With the background and experience that he had, he could go anywhere in the world. You know what the opportunities are for chefs nowadays.
I don't mind telling you this: when I went home and told my parents that I wanted to be a chef, they cried. They wanted to know "what are we going to tell our friends?" because they were embarrassed. And back then, in the early '70s, if you were looking for a job as a chef you had to look in the newspaper under "domestic help." It wasn't even listed as professional help. That's how much things have changed. When I told people that Tim was going to be a chef, they'd shake my hand and they say "oh, congratulations, that's fantastic," so it's so different from the reaction to when I said I wanted to be a chef. But you know how much the food world has exploded and changed.
Dramatically! There are entire websites dedicated to writing about it. So you agreed to let Tim come work for you without any plan in mind for what that would actually mean for the menu. When did that start to take shape?
When he first came in we left the menu exactly the way it was. He went to work changing the infrastructure of the place first. You have to keep in mind that he had to work with my old crew, which was a little bit different than what he was used to at Momofuku [laughs]. Basically the cooks that I had, I trained. So they really only knew how to cook the things that I made. Tim was used to working with people that were looking to make cooking a career. Whereas, for the people that worked for me it was a good job, but that was it. So, the frustration, obviously, as you can imagine, started to boil.
So the next thing that happened was finding some good cooks and changing over the crew a little bit. The guys that worked for me - there was just no way they were going to follow Tim. They didn't understand the vision, they didn't see the vision, they didn't want to see the vision. Although, I will say that I still have my top cook from when I was running things, he's still here. Alvarado. I also have Connie and Lori in the front of the house. Those three are the only ones that survived.
So Tim started to put specials on the menu. I wouldn't let him just dump our menu and start fresh - I had people that had been coming here for 25 years. So, it was a very slow process. Even in the beginning, he would put three or four things on the dinner menu to go alongside my stuff and because the clientele that was coming in was my clientele, they were all ordering my items, not the beautiful food that he was making. Luckily, Tim got his first write-up, where they actually came in and tried his food.
That one little article changed everything. The people that were interested in Tim's food started to come in and he decided "that's it, I am getting rid of the whole old menu at night and I am doing my menu." There were a lot of people walking in on those early days that were not expecting Tim's food at all. So, some of them were amazingly happy and some of them would look at the menu, turn around, and walk out.
Does today's lunch have holdovers from the old days?
We only have one on the whole menu and that's the Caesar salad. The interesting thing is that in the last week to two weeks, one at a time, they have been bringing back some of the sandwiches from the old menu.
Is that with any urging from you?
No, I had already decided in my mind that those days were gone and there was no turning back. I just think they thought it would be fun.
An homage of sorts. When Tim first came back, you were still in the kitchen. What about now?
Once his friend Jared Forman (who's now chef at the restaurant) came from New York, Tim looked at me in the eye and said "you understand that this is my kitchen now, not yours," so that was the end of my reign in the kitchen. Not that he wasn't already above me. I still do jump on the line at lunch. But I do not have the skill or the desire to try to figure out what they are doing at night. But the lunch I can do, and I would always be willing to help out with a catering job or if they were short a prep person, because the thing is, I got into this business because I couldn't sit at a desk all day. So all of a sudden, my job is sitting at a desk all day. I still look for excuses to go in the kitchen and pick up a knife and do something.
It's funny but it kind of makes me feel good that all of these great chefs that work here, they call me "chef," even though I couldn't put myself in the same breath as them. These young chefs now, they have more knowledge in their little fingers, than even some of the best chefs I ever worked with 35 years ago. It's absolutely mind-boggling to me what these chefs can accomplish in a day. The knowledge they have! They know every foraged weed in the forest. They know every herb from around the world. They know of, and know how to use, tens of thousands of products,
Did you get the chance to go down to New York when Tim was working for David Chang?
I went there three or four times, but, to be perfectly honest with you, I knew that he was the chef de cuisine and he had to be pretty darn good to do that for David Chang, but I also didn't know what was his, and what was just him cooking other people's food. I didn't understand the scope of his creativity. So even after going to Momofuku and everything else, when he came here, I still was really amazed at his talent.
What role, if any, are you going to have with the Ribelle opening?
I am pretty much strictly in the office now. Taking care of the books, human resources, all that stuff that comes up on a daily basis that would slow down a chef. Even though our talent levels are so different in the kitchen, after many months of fighting and arguing we've found an equilibrium where the combination of his being young and feisty and my being old and patient, really blended together very well.
Is there anything that you miss from the greasy-spoon days?
I miss a lot of things! I miss my manager Ginny who was one of the funniest people I have ever met. I miss "customer abuse" day which was every Friday.
Any thought of bringing that one back?
No. Well, actually, I kind of let up on the customer abuse when the financial crisis hit. I had the feeling that people didn't have the sense of humor that they used to. We just plain had fun back in those days. The level of service in the dining room was not what it is today, but at the same time, the customers knew whether the service was great or not, that we loved waiting on them. They understood that we had our best intentions of giving them the best service possible, even if we were fooling around with them at the same time.
Is it still that way today?
No, I think that it's all about the food. But I think what a lot of people love about the place is that it's so low key, it's still informal and we try to have fun. But it's a balancing act because the people that are walking in the door now have huge expectations. It has turned into a destination spot, where my old customer base was just the neighborhood. You wouldn't drive a half hour to get to the old Strip-T's, it was just a neighborhood gem.
Do you still feel like it is a neighborhood gem?
Yes, although, I think that there are a fair number of people in this particular neighborhood that don't understand or appreciate the product that we are putting out. And I just want to put an asterisk there that that doesn't make us right and them wrong. Different people have different ideas of what good food is. Some people, a nice piece of prime rib and a baked potato is what they are looking for when they go out to eat. So, not everybody that walks in the door is thrilled with the menu or the product. But isn't that the biggest challenge in this business? You do two identical meals, and you put it in front of two identical people, one person says "this is salty," the other person says "this is bland."
I think when a lot of places fail, one of the most common reasons, is that they tried to be everything to everyone.
Exactly! When I worked for the Westin hotel, that's exactly what I saw. That's what their downfall was. Even though they wanted to market it as an independent restaurant, they still felt like they had to make everybody happy. So, every month or two, they did something to dilute the concept more and more. You can't make everybody happy, that's obvious.
Eater Boston intern Gabriel Bellegard Bastos transcribed this interview.