Chef Michael Anthony has been the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern for nearly four years. He got his start in the kitchen soon after college, when, while studying in Japan, he fell for Japanese cooking. Anthony began working at Bistro Shima in Tokyo, and then moved to France, where he went to culinary school and then trained at several restaurants.
In New York, he went from Daniel, to March, to Blue Hill before he took over at Gramercy Tavern in 2006. We caught up with Anthony about how Japanese food still influences his cooking, the manic pace of the restaurant world, chefs on social media, and his most embarrassing moment in the kitchen.
Check back here tomorrow to find out the best and worst things Anthony has ever eaten, his thoughts on the health care debate, and his favorite pizza place.
So you started your food career in Tokyo–how does Japanese cuisine or techniques influence what you do now?
Yes, it does influence the way I look at food and ultimately the way I conceive dishes, although there are very few Japanese ingredients or techniques on the menu here… It was my first encounter with a culture that is so entranced with following and celebrating the changing seasons. And what really caught my attention is how they do it through food. That’s the guiding light to the way we think about food at Gramercy Tavern.
And then the other side of it is more cultural than cooking: Their reverence for craftsmanship. They have a way of approaching form–an appreciation of and an insistence on a job well done.
It pops up in Japanese culture everywhere: Cooks work with a deep-rooted sense of the necessity of doing each minute detail the way it should be done, the best way. And you see that on the surface of cultural life, too. Standing on the train platform, you see an employee watching the clock: Pointing at the train, pointing at his watch to make sure the train is on schedule. It’s minute-precise, and when it’s not, there’s information as to why. It’s intense.
And the kitchen is the same, and ultimately it’s a technical issue rather an an aesthetic one, focused on following and teaching form. You learn to do the job right: This is where you put things; this is the tool you use; this is how you use it; this is how the dish looks; this is how it tastes.
That’s not to say this is unique to Japanese culture, but it marks it.
But our menu is not fusion, and I’ve never worked at a fusion restaurant, so to speak. I worked under Wayne Nish at March, and because he’s of mixed Japanese origin, I has the false notion that March restaurant would be a place I could cultivate the Japanese side of my cooking. But that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. He avoided at all costs any reference to traditional technique or dishes, and Japanese dishes, period. That’s a way of life for Wayne. At every corner he avoided the reference points to classical technique.
That was disruptive to me as a young cook trying to develop a personal style of cooking. I had gone through Japan and France, learning new food cultures, swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. And that’s one of the things that helped me at first. I wasn’t thinking: Why is it this way? In America, we do it like this. I just bought it, like a three year old–this is the way it is, so this is the way I’ll do it.
But Wayne played such an integral role in challenging me: It was at that point that I had to start thinking for myself. March was such an amazing place. It’s since closed. It was one of those very quiet, charming, and amazing places to be. I learned so many great lessons from him.
We move so quickly through the dining scene now, so that young chefs at Gramercy Tavern–who are very dedicated, hard-working, well-read–have never heard of March restaurant. And less than 10 years ago, this was one of the building blocks of the dining community and of my career. This was a place that had three stars in the New York Times. It’s astounding to me how fast we move on.
Well, you’ve been at Gramercy Tavern for almost four years now, which is a relatively long time. Do you plan to stay? Do you feel that the fact that Gramercy Tavern is a kind of antidote to how fast the restaurant scene moves now?
…One of the most interesting aspects of working in a kitchen is that you get to travel and work in different countries. I grew up in the Midwest, and not in a restaurant family, so this opened a window on the world for me.
But when I travel, I like to go to one place and stay there, whether it’s for a week or a year, stay in one place long enough to get to know it, what it’s like to be there, eat there, meet people there.
I think there’s a lot of wealth in throwing down roots where you work. It takes time to cultivate the relationships; your style evolves; you menu evolves. You need those networks to appreciate what you can do in a restaurant…
We’re celebrating our 16th anniversary this year, and I couldn’t be happier to work at Gramercy Tavern. Having said that, one of the most compelling things about working there everyday is that it is still a learning experience–that sounds corny but the energy and drive there makes it feel like a restaurant that’s two or three years old. There’s not a sense of panic, like at really young restaurants, where you’re only as good as the last meal you cooked–there’s not that panic, but there’s a sense of yearning, of wanting to get better…You can’t ask for much more than that.
Why do you think the restaurant world has developed this manic pace?
I referred to it in the negative sense–that people would so quickly forget the history of our industry–but it’s also our biggest strength and advantage.
If you look at cooking around the world, the advantage we have in the States is that we have a sense of urgency to our learning curve. It’s exciting and impressive–we’re not bogged down by hard and fast rules. Collectively, as chefs, we’re breaking rules, but in a smart way. You’re starting to see it unfold: a very cool dichotomy of people pushing hard at the boundaries of what we consider fine dining, the manipulation of ingredients and flavor combinations, and a heroic focus on where food comes from, the food’s inherent flavors that we try not to hide. I see that as a very healthy scene.
What do you think the downturn has done to change the New York restaurant world?
When the economy tanks, it becomes not just about filling seats, but in tough times we have to rethink things. People will not spend money as freely and so chefs have to throw the breaks on new ideas…
…In some cases, it’s been devastating–we’ve lost restaurants that were an integral part of the New York dining scene. People that made New York fine dining what it was, we’ve lost as a result of the downturn…
Which restaurants are you thinking of?
I don’t think I want to name names…
Congratulations on your James Beard Best Chef NYC nomination: You’re up with Wylie Dufresne, Gabrielle Hamilton, Daniel Humm, and Michael White. If you weren’t in the running, which one would you root for?
I’m flattered to be in the group, and excited to be invited back to the party. I feel very thankful that someone would go out of their way to say: Hey, this guy belongs on this list…
I don’t know what to say, it’s just nice to be included in that company. I’m a big fan of all the people who are nominated. I’ve eaten at all their restaurants, so that’s kind of an impossible question to answer.
What spring ingredient are you most looking forward to and what will you do with it?
This may come as no surprise, since it’s the first sign of spring arriving on the Northeast: ramps. It’s a great seasonal celebration. One of the first things that pokes up out of winter. If you go walking in the woods right now, you’ll see two green things: skunk cabbage, which officially is edible, but you’ve got to be desperate, and ramps…
We buy as many as we can possibly store, and while we’re sauteing, steaming, and grilling the ramps, we’re also pickling them. We pickle hundreds of pounds and try to make them last the whole year. This year we ran out in February, but the prior year we made it all the way to April. And we use the pickling liquid, too…that liquid is like gold, at the base it’s vinegar, but it’s so much more complex because it’s been in contact with the ramps and the spices for so long. We put a drop in vinaigrettes, or use a bit to deglaze a sauce.
And I’m looking forward to nettles, which, like ramps, are foraged. There are very few things we get to use these days that are true foraged items. They have a sense of wildness that’s exciting.
What do you think about chefs responding to reviews or critiques, or just being more out there, now that it’s so easy to do so through Twitter, blogging, Facebook, et cetera?
I think it’s a wonderful evolution in how information gets passed on. Looking at it optimistically, it’s good in that it brings guests in with more expectation. I like it when people ask questions, and that heightened sense of attention to what chefs are doing.
Every cook will tell you a story about why they became a chef, whether it’s baking with their grandmother or something else, and those things are true, but behind every chef is a show-off. There’s nothing that any cook loves more than to be asked: Hey, what are you making, how’d you think of this? When our guests have that information because they’ve been reading blogs, or any other means a food fanatic has to gather information, it’s a wonderful thing for the evolution of cooking. It allows us to connect with our guests in a new way.
But it’s up to restaurants to manage that. First and foremost, we should be in the kitchen, cooking. If we’re going to spend time on Facebook, well, it’s great to stop and tell a story, as long as you manage the time, and get back in the kitchen.
And everyone’s going to have a different tone of voice: If you do it, it should be full of information, serious and professional, not full of self-flattery and promotion.
There’s one in particular who I think does it well: Sean Brock. He provides so much information; he’s such a creative guy. He shares his successes and his failures, and I think it’s very cool.
You took over from Tom Colicchio: How has Gramercy changed during your tenure, and how does your cooking differ from his?
There are a lot of similarities, but what you see here is an interesting evolution. I think Tom was one of the first chefs to introduce New York to the seductive flavors of France in an approachable way…
We’re running with it, taking it a step further with the evolution of seasonal dishes, the importance of vegetables, on both the regular menu and the vegetable tasting menu.
…And Gramercy Tavern has always had an instinctual pull for New Yorkers when the weather gets cool–they’re thinking of the wood-burning grill…I would love for people to come into this restaurant and understand that it’s getting more complex, there’s more than just that notion of smoke and fattiness.
I’d like for them to latch onto us in spring and summer. There’s a lot of thought that goes into these menus, and I want people to be able to pop in and have a meal, feel relaxed. They don’t have to ‘feel up to it.’ They can walk out and feel vibrant, not as if they’ve overdone it. It’s not just a celebratory restaurant. You can walk out of here not feeling you’ve overindulged.
This might be redefining luxury–it’s a luxurious restaurant, and it always has been–not defining it through foie gras and truffles, but defining it by humble ingredients that are just as interesting if they’re used with intent and a variety of techniques so as not to become repetitious.
You can taste something that’s really unique to this part of time, meaning the season, and the place, meaning Gramercy Park or New York in general. Food cooked here should have uniqueness…
…Now more than ever, those of us who enjoy eating ingredients unique to this place, we have to stand up and say something about it. If we don’t, we may not have access to them in the future. So while there’s this amazing evolution happening, the inertia of our system is still headed in a different direction.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made in the kitchen?
The first one that pops out for me is when I was an extern for the first time in France. I was working on the fish line, working very hard to prove I belonged, and at a key moment in service, I reached up and grabbed one of the heavy copper pots that was hanging above. It fell within centimeters of the poissonier’s head and smashed onto the plate we had been working on. It was relatively minor, but it was one of those embarrassing moments–his bloodshot eyes wouldn’t stop staring at me. I just wanted it to end! I thought: I’ll clean this up, please stop staring!