Tim Maslow has a lot to say about the food industry. The 31-year-old Newton native has had a whirlwind few years, both opening and closing Ribelle with great fanfare. Maslow now finds himself enjoying having a boss, not being the boss, at Tiger Mama, where we sat down to discuss his food philosophy — including his thoughts on tipping, the culinary world’s real heroes, and the challenge of customer expectations.
Maslow, named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in 2015, seems conflicted about the food industry. "It used to be the love of my life, and now I’m having trouble understanding the existence of it in the world. It was pop culture all of a sudden, and now it’s starting to become…I don’t have a description for it yet, but it’s over-saturated and watered down."
Part of the reason, according to Maslow, is that burgeoning chefs aren’t putting in the requisite time to work their way up the ladder. This, says Maslow — who himself learned the ropes while working at New York’s Momofuku Ssam Bar as well as his father's restaurant, Strip-T’s, in Watertown — has led to a big change for restaurants.
"Now there’s a large paradigm shift where if you can create some sort of buzz about yourself, somehow you don’t even have to have put in any time anywhere," says Maslow. "So what’s ending up happening is there’s no one really left to work in the restaurants. I’m not going to delve into that because everyone does a story on no cooks, right? It’s real. It’s super real."
This paradigm shift isn’t the only issue, according to Maslow. When asked the biggest problem with food today, Maslow immediately brings up customer expectations. "I always want a customer to leave elated. That will never stop," says Maslow. But he also notes the challenge of guests’ growing checklists. "Everyone wants their cake, and they want to eat it, too," says Maslow. "There’s a large portion of the dining public out there — they want the local, sustainable, the refined, the beautiful plating, amazing service, but they want it for cheap."
On the subject of money, Maslow pauses to mention a Lucky Peach article he recently read — "The Nobility of Service" — in which the author defends fine dining, arguing that a nice meal is a magical experience worth paying for. Maslow wholeheartedly agrees, noting that tipping is another important money matter — and perhaps should be taken out of customers’ hands altogether.
"It’s just like going to the movies or going to a show or anything along those lines," says Maslow. "It’s a standard. And as a customer you shouldn’t be able to decide how much you’re paying the staff members that serve you that night."
The push and pull of trying to please patrons is a recurring theme for Maslow – which isn’t surprising, given his own experience managing diners’ expectations when he was running Ribelle. "When we got four stars from The Boston Globe, we started getting some shitty reviews everywhere — whether it be Yelp or blogs, people were expecting way too much from us," says Maslow. "I started to buy into all the criticisms after that, and I started to lose my mind a little bit. I started to lose myself and lose my focus."
Maslow also talks about how the events of this year — most notably his being arrested at the Canadian border with marijuana edibles, for which charges were later dropped, and Ribelle’s closing — changed his approach to food.
"It’s made me more protective over the people I work with, but it’s also made me care about myself more," says Maslow. "I used to be willing to sacrifice mind, body, and soul, everything, for that customer’s smile, but now I’ll work as hard as I can but I will not let it ruin my whole life. If something wasn’t just right, I won’t spend an extra five hours at work in the middle of the night to get something right. I used to toil overnight at Ribelle, whether cleaning or organizing or rewriting prep lists, or could we reorganize the stations somehow, or could this dish be reworked somehow, because it was a lot of money on the line. It was a lot of reputation."
Maslow isn’t only gleaning insight from his own kitchen experience, though. His international travels have also shaped his food views. In particular, Maslow mentions traveling to both Italy and Japan in recent years and discovering a lot of things he liked.
"You couldn’t go to any restaurant and have anything," says Maslow. "You would go to a place for pizza, or you would go to a place for ramen, or okonomiyaki. If somehow the American public could accept restaurants for what they are, trying their best, being a specific idea, and allowing everyone to just be who they are without sort of putting their stamp on it or dictating in some sort of way, I think something really cool could happen."
Summing up his food philosophy, Maslow says the food industry’s hard workers deserve more recognition. "I wish there was more awareness for the real heroes in this industry," says Maslow. "You know, how early people get to work, how late they stay, the dedication they have. And it’s not everyone; it’s a small percentage. Someday maybe that’ll happen."
Main image: Tiger Mama/Katie Chudy for Eater