When we heard that Herald food critic Mat Schaffer had written a play (full disclosure: we heard this from our mother, who knows Schaffer), we had a lot of questions. Fortunately, Shaffer has a lot of answers. His play Simon Says, which follows a dramatized seance, opens tonight at the BCA Plaza Black Box. Earlier this week, we caught up with Schaffer to talk about Simon Says, his job at the Herald, and where he eats on his days off.
MenuPages: You’re a food critic and a playwright. How do you balance these two very different jobs? Does one inform the other?
Mat: Working on the play and my restaurant reviewing is like holding down two full time jobs. Add to that my two-hour Sunday morning show (the Boston Sunday Review on WBCN 104.1 FM), and it’s like three full-time jobs. Since I began working with my director in February, Simon has been rewritten over 30 times. Some days, I write in the morning–either Simon or the Herald or free-lance work, did the Boston restaurant guide for Epicurious, prepare my radio show in the afternoon and then dine out at night. It can feel schizophrenic. Writing the play and my reviews are alike only in the sense that I write to be read aloud. But in the Herald, I write with my voice, in Simon, the characters have developed their own voices.
MP: What (if any) other plays have you written?
Mat:This is my first play.
MP: What are your favorite places to eat when you’re not working?
Mat:I dine out for work 4 to 5 nights a week. When I’m going out for fun I frequent a small group of favorite places in Chinatown and a handful in the South End (where I live). On a blizzardy night, you will usually find me at Anchovies on Columbus Avenue.
MP: What do you cook for yourself?
Mat: I don’t get to cook as often as I’d like. But I’m adventurous in the kitchen. Last weekend, I made Hunanese smoked tofu with Chinese celery from a new book by Fuchsia Dunlop, the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. Last night I covered a pork roast in achiote paste and lime juice, wrapped it in banana leaves and slow roasted it for 4 hours in a Dutch oven until it fell apart. Check out the recipe in Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday.
MP: Which now-closed Boston restaurant do you miss the most?
Mat: What now closed Boston restaurant do I miss the most? Carl’s Pagoda on Tyler Street, Chinatown. Best tomato soup, clams in black bean sauce and scrambled egg with shrimp ever. RIP.
MP: We’ve noticed that your Herald reviews often tend to have a lot of great things to say about a restaurant, but a low letter grade. How do you decide on a letter grade? What’s the difference between an A- and a B+ restaurant?
Mat: The bane of my job is determining the grade. I wish the review could stand on its own–but chefs, readers and my editors insist on a grade. How do I decide? It’s ultimately based on whether the restaurant lived up to the expectations it set for itself and whether the cost reflected the experience. The difference between a B+ and A- can be something as small as a service gaffe or as major as a poorly grilled steak. There’s also some I-can’t-explain-it-definable comparison with the hundreds of restaurants I’ve reviewed in Boston–I was hired as the critic at Boston Magazine back in 1994–over the years. Because I’ve writing about people’s livelihoods, I try to be as careful as possible. But in the end, it’s all about my experiences dining at the establishment on 2 separate evenings and describing–as fairly as possible–what occurred and what I did or didn’t like–and why. Now, with Simon Says, the other shoe is going to drop–and the critic is going to fair game for criticism. OUCH!
[Photo: Simon Says Cast Photo, Faith Ninivaggi]