There was a time, not long ago, when Barry Maiden was a king. After years at L’Espalier and Lumiere, he ran Cambridge’s Hungry Mother. There, he married his Southern heritage with French technique. The food — cornmeal-battered oysters, beef tongue canapés, and fried green tomatoes — was soulful but precise. The public adored it. Critics, too: In 2009, Food & Wine named him a best new chef. In 2010, the Globe gave him 3.5 stars. He won a James Beard award as the Northeast’s Best Chef in 2015.
And then he vanished.
Hungry Mother closed mere months after the James Beard win. His former partners went on to success with Cambridge restaurants Café du Pays, State Park, and Mamaleh’s Delicatessen. Barry Maiden was not along for the ride.
It was something out of a culinary rock-’n’-roll fable. Why did he stop cooking at the height of his career? In 21st-century America, there is very little as unforgivable and confounding — and, maybe, as nobly cliché — as turning one’s back on success.
But now, three years later, Barry Maiden has returned. He is cooking every day in Cambridge, just as before, preparing Southern dishes like spicy fried chicken with Tabasco honey, butternut squash macaroni and cheese, blackened cabbage, and spicy catfish creole.
Just one thing: You’ll probably never taste any of it. He is the executive chef at Facebook, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner for more than 200 employees at their new Kendall Square offices.
I met him at Catalyst Café, close to those offices, during his first few days in the kitchen. The building isn’t far from Hungry Mother, where he won his James Beard award. He still looks like the same guy: Red Sox cap, plaid flannel, sleepy grin, and Southern drawl. He’s accompanied by a Facebook spokesperson, who sits next to us as we talk.
“I wasn’t well,” Maiden says of his exit from Hungry Mother. “Mentally, physically . . . I had become very unhappy and just tired. Eight years, I was just like: What is Hungry Mother? What’s it gonna be? I want to make it different and exciting every day. How can I do that, in this shoebox of a kitchen? This building? So many years in a basement — no windows, doing the rat race of child pickups. Racing home in the middle of the day to pick up kids and drop them off somewhere. Then, back to work.”
He was exhausted, working on his days off, spending little time with his young son. He had a brilliant talent but a short fuse.
“Barry is a great guy, though in the beginning years, he had a solid temper,” says Uni’s Daniel Hixson, Maiden’s chef de cuisine at Hungry Mother. “It was a real thing to be afraid of Barry Maiden, that he was going to yell at you. I’ve had it out with him a couple times. We’re high-stress people. It’s going to happen.”
And so Maiden abandoned the gilded cage. He taught at Boston University’s culinary arts program. He became culinary director for the youth nonprofit Future Chefs, where he earned a steady paycheck and benefits but spent more time in an office than in the kitchen.
By this summer, he longed to cook again. But at 42, and now with two children, he needed stability. And so he applied for jobs like every other anonymous worker in America, scouring Monster and Indeed for leads. He once found himself waiting for a job interview in the parking lot of a nursing home. He saw the process through, but he wanted to run.
Shortly thereafter, he spotted an online ad for a chef at Facebook. He received the dreaded automated response — if there was interest, he would hear back in two weeks.
Barry Maiden, James Beard award-winning chef, did not hear back. So he followed up.
“I was like, in my gut, ‘It’s fine if they don’t write back.’ But I was hurt. I wondered why. I started to question myself. So, two weeks to the day, I wrote back, and I got a response pretty quickly. It said, ‘Oh, yes, chef. Thanks for writing back. We appreciate it, and we’ll be in touch for the next steps.’ I was like, ‘What? Next steps! That’s great.’ And it started straight from there,” he says.
He survived several rounds of remote video interviews with corporate chefs. At last, he was asked to deliver a sample menu and an ordering sheet, listing his preferred products and where he’d get them.
“I was like, ‘What should it be?’ And they’re like, ‘Just be you. You cook you. You do who you are. Don’t try to be something else,’ ” he says. “They kept saying, ‘This is your cafe. You’re in charge. You’re the boss.’ For Facebook, it felt really organic in a way that they just want to get to know me and my personality and who I was.”
After years of burnout, he was sold.
It’s easy to see why a chef might slip from the full-throttle chaos of a restaurant kitchen into a soft corporate embrace. For an aging person with a family, it’s clear: The pay is stable. The hours are relatively predictable. There are human resources teams that oversee niceties, such as retirement plans, and unsavory tasks, such as firings. It is not an uncommon trajectory: L’Espalier veteran Matthew Delisle now cooks at Google, for instance.
“This is a booming area for talented chefs. It’s an alternate route for people. Having their own kitchen sounds wonderful until you have it and have to deal with it. I think it’s a growing trend, and I think it’s great,” says L’Espalier’s Frank McClelland, who employed both chefs.
Finally, Facebook regional culinary director Nate Eckhaus summoned Maiden to cook in a New York City corporate kitchen — two appetizers, two soups, two entrees, served in a tasting room, with ingredients of his choice. He prepared fried oysters, roasted pork belly biscuits with Kentucky soy sauce (which raised eyebrows, but he insisted), candied squash soup, and bluefish with corn.
His sole opponent went on at noon. Maiden was slated for 2 p.m. — maybe a disadvantage, cooking at an odd hour for people who’d already eaten a full meal. As he prepared, food flew out the door as usual for employees, all family-style. He grins at the memory. He abandoned his plating plans and presented his meal family-style, too.
“They’re still to this day, like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ Chef Nate said, ‘Barry, you just paid attention to what was going on in the kitchen and, instead of plating [your] food individually for us, [you] put it on family-style, on a big platter and served it to us.’ They were blown away by that! It’s because I understood their culture, the culture of what the expectation was. So, if I’d gone in there with tweezers, it might have been off-putting in some ways. Like, ‘It’s delicious, but that’s not what we do, man.’ It might not have been the right fit,” he says.
He was the right fit.
“Everyone I worked with in New York, side by side when I was in the kitchens prepping, seemed like they all wanted to be there. Everyone’s there for the same type of reasons. Most of the chefs, you talk to them, and they all have kids. They might be on their second marriage with younger kids, like me. We have a lot in common. These were my people,” he says.
In October, he got the job.
“My role is the cafe chef of their concept, our concept now. It’s called the Hack Shack,” he explains.
He didn’t come up with the name — but the Hack Shack is nicer than anywhere he’s cooked before, he says, with healthy pay and better hours that allow him to go home at night. And, regardless of what else might be afoot in the broader Facebook universe, the kitchen is flawless.
Maiden describes it as somewhere between a restaurant and a cafeteria, with an open kitchen and self-service hot-food lines, served family-style at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is a salad bar, a smoker, a pizza oven, and sometimes even a raw bar.
“They give us these really beautiful Staub cast iron pans,” Maiden says. “They’ve got the best equipment. I’ve never worked in a higher-tech kitchen in my life, in terms of the equipment.”
Maiden writes his own menus in collaboration with his other chefs, and he’s permitted to use purveyors that he trusts from his restaurant days. He works with roughly 30 employees, including an executive sous-chef. There are also other sous and pastry chefs, prep cooks, and dishwashers.
Maiden’s goals are different, too. He’s not looking to earn stars, or streamline budgets, or duck Yelp reviews. Now, his aim is never to cook the same dish twice (though he’ll entertain employee requests). Instead, he thinks in daily themes.
“Themes are anything that’s inspiring to you. It can be a restaurant theme. Like today, my theme menu was ‘Joe, What’s Your Beef?’,” a riff on the popular Montreal restaurant Joe Beef.
Ironic given that Maiden’s former partners run Canadian restaurant Café du Pays just down the street. But now he is of a different world.
“The culture for the Facebook employee is to be always the good cop kind of person, and that’s like the opposite of what you’re expected to be — not expected to be, but what you can be, as a chef-owner. You’ve got to play both sides, a little bit. But, they couldn’t stress enough: You’re driving the bus. You’re guiding the theme. You’re the happy face. Go in and really set that culture. Set the standards high, but set a really positive work culture,” he says.
“Nowadays, Barry is a very gentle person. Laid back. He just wants to do the right thing, really, at the end of the day,” Hixson says.
Here, at Catalyst Café, on break from the Hack Shack, Maiden is beatific. He is doing the right thing.
“Yesterday, literally, I felt so good. I was sitting at home. I got home and I picked up my older son from school. My youngest son was waiting on us, and I got down on the floor with the boys. My oldest one was all over me, and my youngest one is crawling around, happy that we’re there. I was just like, ‘This is it. I’m at home at night.’ ”