This week, Tony Messina was named one of the best chefs in America by the Oscars of the food world.
The executive chef at Back Bay izakaya Uni took home the Best Chef — Northeast award at the 2019 James Beard Awards on Monday in Chicago, an honor that left the East Boston native at a loss for words.
High cuisine wasn’t always in Messina’s plans. After a catering stint in high school, he decided the long hours and low pay weren’t worth the hassle, and trained to be a Boston police officer instead. When he had to abandon the academy to tend to his sick mother, he realized he wasn’t ready to leave the culinary world behind.
Boston.com caught up with Messina on the phone on Tuesday while he enjoyed an afternoon in Chicago before heading back to the daily grind of running one of Boston’s top restaurants.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and length.
First off, congratulations. How does it feel to be recognized among some of the nation’s top culinary talent?
TM: It has not sunk in yet, and I’m not sure when it will. It’s very surreal.
How was the awards ceremony? Did you have a chance to mingle and swap secrets with some of your contemporaries from other parts of the country?
TM: Absolutely. I’ve been able to catch up with old friends and meet people as well. You get a group of chefs together, there’s only two things to talk about, and that’s food or business. Usually it’s food, so we definitely had a lot of fun.
Take us through some of your culinary history. You’ve worked with some great Boston chefs in the past, including some other James Beard Award winners.
TM: I started cooking when I was 14 years old, doing catering in East Boston when I was in high school. I kind of left it for a few years, thinking it wasn’t the best course for me because of the long hours and terrible pay. So I did some things after high school. I was on track to become a Boston police officer, but when I was in the academy my mother came down with cancer and I decided to leave and help her through her treatment. And I realized then that I really missed cooking. So when I was 23 or 24, I got back into it again. I started working for [chef] Michael Schlow, and I worked with him for a while at a couple different spots. I ended up being the sous chef at one of his restaurants out in Wellesley. And then from there the doors with [chef] Barbara Lynch opened up, so I worked for her for a bit. I was working for her at many other places in the city.
Then you eventually joined Uni, and in 2016, oversaw its expansion and takeover of Clio. How did that come about?
TM: Leading up to that, I was — I won’t say bored, but I was getting complacent in where I was. I searched out something different, and ended up landing on Chris Chung’s name, who was the former chef for Uni and was opening up his own restaurant in the suburbs. He took me under his wing, and I worked with him for a couple of years. He taught me how to cut fish, the Japanese specific methods, and I kind of fell in love with it. When the opening for the chef position at Uni came up, I kind of jumped on it. [Uni owner] Ken Oringer gave me complete creative freedom with the menu, and right off the bat I was putting my stamp on things and having some fun with it. Then, three and a half years ago, we decided to take over Clio and redo the whole place.
For people who haven’t been to Uni before, or haven’t been since it expanded, what should they expect?
TM: We really try hard to make it accessible and fun for everybody who’s looking for anything. Whether you’re looking to spend $30 on two quick bites, or you want to do a tasting menu, or you want to ball out and do caviar and champagne and spend $400 a person, we can offer pretty much every level of that. If people had been to the previous Uni, they would have known that the sashimi was the focal point of that menu, and it still is now. But we have added a full-on sushi bar and a hot line kitchen that offers anything from small, simple street food plays to more refined, elegant, small plate dishes that are very much market- and ingredient-driven.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, either at Uni or elsewhere?
TM: Right now we’re focused on putting Boston on a more national scale. Now that we have some recognition at Uni, we’re going to try to bring more national attention to the city itself. Beyond that, we do a lot of fundraisers, a lot for cancer research. My girlfriend’s brother passed away from cancer when he was 19 years old, and both my parents have had it, so I try to focus a lot of my efforts on raising funds for specific groups. My two focuses are on causes that matter to me and making Uni better than it is now. Who knows what will happen a year or two down the road?
This might be a tough question, but how do you think you landed on the James Beard radar? There are so many talented chefs, not only in this city, but in all of New England.
TM: Your guess is as good as mine. I’m very much still awestruck that I’m even involved in this. And winning it? I don’t know who or how, but I’m going to run with it.