Beating Biscuits: A Profile of Hungry Mother's Barry Maiden

Hungry Mother Chef Barry Maiden was making biscuits for a dish on the menu for his Cambridge restaurant Hungry Mother when he got an idea. He had done all of his preliminary research, studied how various households within the South, Appalachia and the Midwest made their biscuits fluffy yet sturdy, read countless recipes, and designed his first batch, but he didn’t know how long to beat his biscuits. Chef Linton Hopkins, of the celebrated Atlanta restaurant Holeman and Finch, however, did.

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Maiden sent Hopkins a text from his small restaurant’s kitchen: “How long do you beat your biscuits?”

“Well,” Hopkins replied, “That’s sort of a personal question.”

This style of rapport is not unusual between Maiden and his fellow chefs. His friends from The New England Culinary School all keep in touch, years and countless reviews after graduation. His team members at Hungry Mother are not just colleagues but also friends, even after five years of running a busy restaurant from within a cramped workspace.

Maiden opened his Appalachian-meets-French restaurant in 2008 with his former team members from the French restaurant Sel de la Terre: John Kessen, Alon Munzer and his wife, Rachel Miller Munzer. Hidden in the residential corner of Kendall Square in Cambridge, Hungry Mother has accumulated its fair share of critical acclaim since opening its doors. A year after opening Hungry Mother, Maiden won Food and Wine’s Best New Chef award along with nine other “classmates.” Boston Magazine, The Washington Post and Boston.com have all featured Hungry Mother and Maiden at least once since its inception.

This past year, Maiden was nominated for the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast in March – his first nomination for the award – alongside Flour’s Joanne Chang and Coppa’s Jamie Bissonnette. Often referred to as “the Oscars of the food world,” the James Beard Awards celebrate professionals throughout the culinary arts: chefs, food journalists, television personalities, et cetera. The 2013 James Beard Awards will be held at Lincoln Center in New York on May 3-6. To celebrate their nominations and raise money for Future Chefs (a culinary career youth outreach program), Maiden, Chang and Bissonnette hosted a six-course dinner at Hungry Mother Monday evening.

Maiden was far from expecting a nomination this year. After he won Best New Chef, he thought the James Beard was a given – as if both of the awards went hand-in-hand. When he didn’t make the list the first year, or the second, or the third, he started to doubt he would be nominated.

“I had sort of written it off, actually,” he said. “We do what we do here, and if we would be nominated it would be because of what we do. There’s no kissy-kissy sucking up to anybody.”

That mild cynicism didn’t keep him from watching the live-stream of the nomination with his family, however, and jumping for joy with his son when his name was called with the other four nominees.

When I went to speak to Maiden, two weeks after he made the shortlist for Best Chef Northeast, I got a bit lost. Hungry Mother hides in residential Cambridge recognized only by a small sign hanging from a corner door. Not sure how to enter during non-business hours, I peeked my head into the kitchen between a produce supplier’s dolly and a startled chef’s apron.

What I saw was a dark bar room, tall bar stools, framed floral prints and a woman, sitting alone at the hostess’s desk, eating what appeared to be a big plate of ribs.

“You just missed lunch!” she cried from her perch. “Honey-barbecue ribs, black-eyed peas, cornbread muffins – would you like some?”

She made me a plate of peas and a latte and set up a space in the dining room, a brightly lit space with white tablecloths and jelly jars, floral arrangements and pickled peppers.

Maiden was in his whites when he came to meet us, but his Appalachian background revealed itself gradually – in the occasional molasses-drenched drawled word, of course, but more obviously in his subtle humility.

Maiden grew up in southwest Virginia with his mother. A picky eater, Maiden began cooking with his grandmother recreationally, and then when he was fifteen out of necessity at a Shoney’s (a Southern family restaurant chain). He then moved to the Martha Washington Inn, where he really grew to love the culinary arts.

“That was my first experience with fine dining,” Maiden recalled. “They’re cutting filet mignon and twice-baked potatoes and they’re making these pan sauces, like flambés, white wine, mushrooms. . . all these things, these moving parts – I was fascinated by it. But I was at the sink peelin’ shrimp.”

He didn’t stay there long, however. Watching and learning from his coworkers, he soon learned how to plate, cut a filet mignon and flambé with the rest, and moved on to Nashville to cook with the renowned French chef Emile Labrousse at Magnolias in neighboring Franklin, Tennesee. Labrousse encouraged Maiden to apply to culinary school, and used his connections to the New England Culinary Institute (“Neckie,” as he called it) in Vermont to help Maiden leave the South and study classical French technique with the greats.

Straight out of culinary school, he walked straight up to the daunting gates of L’Espalier, one of Boston’s most celebrated French restaurants, in its former location in Gloucester.

“I remember ringing the doorbell, buzzing in, and someone shouting ‘What? Who is it?’ I had already scheduled my trial for that day, so I walked up the big spiral of stairs to this kitchen on the top floor – which was tiny. That was, by far, the most gut-wrenching thing I have ever done,” he said.

He ended up getting the job there, where he worked for a few years before moving to L’Espalier’s sister restaurant, Sel de la Terre, with his current coworkers and friends at Hungry Mother. He left Boston to work at the prestigious Lumiere in West Newton as Chef de Cuisine, before losing his job. The following period was filled with self-reflection and doubt. He considered getting a job in a hotel restaurant again before he was approached by his friends, who wanted to open a restaurant. After a battle with a neighborhood association and one short trip to North Carolina, the four were opening up Hungry Mother alongside some of Boston’s great restaurants.

“When I went to culinary school, I never wanted to touch a Southern ingredient again,” Maiden said. “But people always told me, ‘there’s something missing from your food.’ They’d ask me where I was from, check my nametag (which said Tennessee) and say, ‘Well, that’s it. You’re from the South! You’re missing from your food.”

No one could think so now. Hungry Mother’s cuisine is distinctly Appalachian with a European twist. Even with chow-chows and ramps (which he is currently protesting, because of their unsustainable harvesting process) littered through his menus, he still respects his French training and Boston seafood.

“Hungry Mother is heavily southern influenced, but not every dish screams ‘South’ at you,” Maiden said. “It’s French and Southern at its core.”

But beyond just the category of cuisine, Hungry Mother’s menu also showcases Maiden’s industrious spirit, thirst for knowledge and culinary identity. Consider, for a moment, a catfish etouffee. An etouffee, which means “smothered” in French, is a Cajun rice dish made with shellfish and, on occasion, catfish. It’s spicy, smothered in gravy, and generally served hot.

When Maiden decided to put a catfish etouffee on his menu, he started researching hundreds of different ways to make etouffee. He read cookbooks from around the country, started researching the history of etouffee and the modern adaptations. He started investigating and choosing ingredients, looking for regionally-sourced and sustainable produce, grains, and fish (rice from North Carolina, crawfish from Louisiana, etc). He started squeezing the head-fat from the crawfish to use for his roux in the gravy and used the bodies for the stock. The head-fat in crawfish, when cooked, transforms into an offal-seafood-scented liquid butter; by adding it to the roux, the flavor of the crawfish laces its way through the flavor of the dish.

When a Louisiana-born woman walked in to Hungry Mother and tasted Maiden’s etouffee, she was in tears.

“She was just overwhelmed,” he recounted, “being able to walk into a restaurant in the middle of Cambridge and have an etouffee that tasted like the ones she ate at home.”

It’s no surprise it had the effect it did – as a Southern dish with French influences, an etouffee was the perfect dish for the Virginian chef with French training to cook.

“I just try to cook with authenticity. I think it’s that we took the extra time, harvested out that head fat and took the extra time to make it as authentic as possible. If we had made that sauce without the head fat, would she have been as floored? Maybe not.”

Maiden can tell you how okra made its way into the South. He has read about and studied the African influences within Southern cooking. He scrolls through the Southern Foodways Alliance page as often as he can, searching for more information about the dishes he makes. And when he doesn’t read about it, he’s not afraid to talk to one of his many friends about how to make his adaption better, from the Louisianan chef in his kitchen to the biscuit-beating chef in Atlanta.

“Barry has a great sense of taste, which I find interesting,” co-owner Miller Munzer said. “He’s a very good teacher, and it’s nice to see how he works with the other chefs here. He guides other people well, and can show people what he knows.”

“I always felt the need to learn. I didn’t go to a university or college, so self-teaching is what I have,” Maiden said. “I’m always hungry for knowledge. The way my brain works, I’m always brainstorming, looking up recipes – I want to know how ten different people make the same dish.”

But somewhere inside this ambitious, impassioned chef is a humble, friendly man who makes friends with everyone he can, from the chefs with whom he worked over the years to his fellow nominees for Best Chef Northeast.

“Barry is one of my number-one homies,” award nominee Jamie Bissonnette of Coppa said of Maiden. Maiden said he often gets beers with Bissonnette just to chat, but he sends him a text message now and then, just like the ones he sends to his friends in Atlanta.

“When the results came out, I got a text from Barry that said, ‘New York, motherfucker!’” Bissonnette recounted. “And I responded, ‘We’re gonna get white boy drunk.’”

Whatever happens at the James Beard awards, white boy drunk status aside, we can rest assured Maiden made it there honestly, with no “kissy-kissy sucking up to anybody” – but maybe with a few text messages along the way.