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Food Critic Mat Schaffer Is Boston's Newest Playwright

His dining reviews ruled the pages of the Boston Herald for decades, but now his latest written work is slated for the stage

Bostonians know Mat Schaffer—his dining reviews ruled the pages of the Boston Herald for 11 years (full disclosure, he currently pens dining stories for Where Boston). Since he left the Herald, Schaffer has been writing hard, and on Feb. 26, he turns from dining critic to playwright as he unleashes his debut drama "Simon Says," a 90-minute paranormal exploration on stage, at Boston Center for the Arts. We sat down for a chat about his career adjustment, fond memories and his travels around the world—and through time.

For years, you made a living as a restaurant critic, eating out in the city’s best restaurants every night of the week. How does it feel to live every foodie’s dream?

Nobody ever takes out the violin when I complain.

Have you traveled the world sampling authentic cuisine from other cultures in order to better inform your work here at home?

Yes. I’ve dined in Thailand. I’ve dined in Cambodia, all over China and in Taiwan. I’ve been to Italy multiple times and to France. The Caribbean. I think only when you are able to eat a cuisine in its home can you get a sense of how it’s supposed to taste.

Where does your natural palate fall?

I love Asian cuisine. I was Thai in past life, and from the moment I tasted Thai food I have always loved it. I eat Thai food as spicy as Thai people do. I love Chinese, Korean, Japanese. The best Chinese food I’ve ever had in the world was in Taiwan. I love Cambodian food, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Singaporean. I love Asian food.

What is it about Boston that has put it on the map as a foodie destination?

Because the city is so old and has such history, and because there are food connections to that history, from the golden cod that hangs at the State House, to Parker House rolls and Indian pudding, we are able to see the timeline of how food culture in America has grown.

Do you think today’s chefs appreciate that history?

I think they can. Over at Bastille Kitchen, Adam Kube is making food he flavors with tea as a shout out to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, which is two blocks away. In a weird way, he’s paying respect to our ancestors. The Revolution started over something you consume: tea!

If Boston could be a culinary dish, what would it be?

A dozen oysters, roast cod, a side of baked beans and Indian pudding.

I’m in town for one night only. Where should I have dinner?

O Ya. The most incredible Japanese food. Cutting-edge and ultra modern but at the same time respectful of traditions.

O Ya's Kumamoto oyster sashimi (©Kristin Teig)
O Ya's Kumamoto oyster sashimi (©Kristin Teig)

Dining trends are always interesting to watch. What replaces quinoa, cronuts and burrata cheese in 2015?

More dim sum menus in non-Asian restaurants. Increased popularity of vegan cuisine. In-house restaurant foragers. And, breakfast inspired dishes at dinnertime.

Let’s talk about another of your great loves: the arts. You’ve long been known locally as the Culture Vulture, and have hosted a few different film and theater review radio programs. What came first, the food critic or the arts buff?

They actually came simultaneously. From the moment I started reviewing movies and theater and interviewing celebrities, I would throw restaurants and famous chefs into the mix. I was able to interview people like James Beard and Julia, back in the day.

Julia CHILD?

Yes. I interviewed her multiple times. I don’t claim to be a friend. She had many friends in Boston; she was a Bostonian. But she was just as natural and unassuming as she could be. For somebody who was so well known, she couldn’t have been nicer or more approachable. I once was at this dinner party and sat next to her, and I asked her about hard-boiled eggs and got a 10-minute discussion on how to make the perfect hard-boiled egg. It was great. She also loved Chinese food. After French, her favorite was Chinese, because she and her husband Paul had lived in Chongqing during World War II.

It’s not every day that a James Beard Award-nominated food critic turns to playwriting. Has this been a lifelong dream, or did you wake up one day and say, hey, I feel like writing a play?

I knew I was going to write a play from when I was a little kid, and I always knew what was going to happen to it, it’s just taken a really long time.

Tell me about your play.

I have always been fascinated in the paranormal, and the play is a dramatized séance. The main character is a young psychic who channels a non-bodied personality or a soul through him named Simon. Simon speaks about life and life after life. The play is performed in 90 minutes in real time; there is no intermission. So everything the actors go through and the characters go through onstage, the audience goes through.

Did a real life event inspire it?

It’s inspired by several well-known psychics, particularly Edgar Cayce, and it’s also inspired by many psychics I have met through the years.

Here's a burning question: Can John Edward really cross over?

I think? I’d like to think?

Living within a four-hour commute of Broadway in NYC, do you visit often?

I’ve been down to New York a lot over the last couple of years.

How does the experience of seeing a play or musical in Boston and seeing one in New York differ?

More opportunities, better theaters. Easier to get inexpensive tickets in New York. On a Wednesday afternoon, you can jump on the subway and go see “Matilda” for not that much money.

Broadway cast of "Matilda The Musical" (©Joan Marcus)
Broadway cast of "Matilda The Musical" (©Joan Marcus)

Best theater experience there?

My best theater experience has been when I have been able to go to readings of "Simon Says" with really great New York actors interpreting the roles.

Any NYC dining recommendations you care to share?

Funny, I don’t dine out in New York. Most of the theater people I deal with consider food to be fuel. Unless I’m lucky enough to be invited out to dinner by Lidia Bastianich to one of her restaurants. 

Describe your dream vacation?

Palm trees, fresh seafood, hot sauce and five or six new books downloaded on my Kindle.

So, where are you headed next?

To the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater, of course!

"Simon Says" runs Feb. 26-March 14 at Boston Center for the Arts' Plaza Theater, 527 Tremont St., Boston, 617.933.8600. Tickets available at BostonTheaterScene