Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern on Health Care, Salt, and the One Food He Won’t Eat


Yesterday, we talked to Michael Anthony, executive chef at Gramercy Tavern, about the James Beards, his most embarrassing kitchen moment, and the advent of ramps.

Today, in the second half of the interview, find out how Anthony feels about health care, the mayor’s salt and calorie-count initiatives, and the one food he will not eat.

What are your thoughts on the health care bill and the all the angry right-wing hubbub last week?

I’m a huge supporter of the president, so I’m happy to see that we have taken a step forward. I think it’s progress, a positive thing for the country. And I’m excited that now we get to talk about some new topics. A big one for me is education, that’s taken a real back seat. So I’m breathing a sigh of relief that we can talk about some new ideas.

Health care is so complex and I’m not an expert. I don’t understand what the bill’s full impact will be on our business and our country as a whole, and I don’t know if anyone knows. I’m a little skeptical of anyone who claims they do.

But yes, I think it’s positive, and I think he [Obama] needs our support. We’re lucky to have an inspired leader.

What’s the last book you read?

I’m reading a great novel right now called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle [by Haruki Murakami]. It’s cool, it’s a non-food book! I don’t get a lot of fiction these days, it’s mostly food books, cookbooks…

Last movie you saw?

The Science of Sleep
. Michel Gondry is the director. He’s a very interesting, very cool director. I liked it a lot. It stars Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gael Garcia Bernal. It’s a very strange, very quirky movie.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever eaten?

[laughs] That’s a loaded question!

I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you any loaded questions!

My poor mother…[laughs]

It’s something your mother made?

No, she’s actually a pretty good cook. Honestly, if you really want to know, I have a lot of pet peeves and one of them is over-cooked peas. I was a terrible kid, I threw them across the room. My mom cried; my dad cried; I was a terrible brat but I just can’t deal with it. Tuna casserole….I can’t deal with the shriveled up peas in there, army green. I can’t swallow them.

The most challenging thing I’ve ever eaten was shio kara: it’s essentially salty squid guts. I like a lot of bold flavors but that is not one I’ve found an affinity for. It’s relatively common in Japan, and for Japanese people it’s not that strange, but it’s one that I find rough.

Best meal of your life?

Hard to say the very best, but one of the most meaningful was the first meal my wife had on our honeymoon at Maison Troisgros. It’s very celebrated, has had three Michelin stars for 40 years. Michel Troisgros took over the restaurant from his dad and uncle.

It’s a brilliant mix of seasonal, local cooking–terroir in French–mixed with incredibly beautiful ideas that I get a sense are inspired by his travels. He has a very beautiful way of making those sensibilities flow in his food. It seemed like the simplest expression of the ingredient, but every single one has such a sense of intrigue.

Best overlooked ingredient?

Sunchokes. I love sunchokes–raw, roasted, pureed, in soup, sliced paper-thin and marinated.

I’m thinking about them right now because this is the hardest week of the year. We had one shot of warm weather, and people are posting spring menus, but in reality, we’re still using the ingredients from the farmers’ root cellars, and what they’re able to dig up. We’re still posting lots of parsnips, onions, sunchokes, and everyone’s getting impatient, cooks and guests both.

But this anticipation of what’s to come is one of the greatest things about eating. It’s not about self-deprivation–it’s such a delicious moment, but you’ve got to have patience.

Most overrated ingredient?

Imported mushrooms–not that I don’t like them, but they’re a shadow of the flavor that they offer when you eat them where they come from.

What do you think about the mayor’s talk of reducing salt in restaurants?

Everything in moderation leads to good health. How’s that? I’m not even running for political office.

I’m not sure how to respond because I’m not sure what the agendas are behind it. Salt is an important part of cooking. Used in moderation it brings a lot of pleasure. If you use it indiscriminately, you’re bound to have to pay a price.

Chefs should take the forefront of being taste-makers: We have a cultural responsibility to serve sensible meals sourced responsibly. It feels confining to spend money and energy creating regulations in that area.

What about calorie counts on menus? What if Gramercy Tavern and other fine dining restaurants had to post calorie counts?

More information is always welcome, but I think simplifying our health to a calorie count is a much to simplistic view. It’s a lot more complex than that, and it doesn’t have to be out of the reach of an average person to understand it.

We had sound advice passed on from family to family, and for some reason we’ve decided to listen to the industrial food industry and specialists like nutritionists tell us what’s right instead of listening to our families and our bodies. If good health were just based on calorie counts, well, Americans know how to count.

I appreciate Michael Pollan’s new book, Food Rules–it’s a distillation of all the topics he’s been working on…

It’s a wonderfully suggestive group of ideas. Not all will hit home with everyone, but they’re good common sense–by listening to our bodies, simply paying attention to our health, we can find a great way to live. There’s no reason why it has to be about sacrificing pleasure.

What neighborhood do you live in, and where do you like to eat there?

I live in Midtown, the fastest-growing food neighborhood. I like Tori Shin, it’s a yakitori place, pretty casual, skewers. I like to go to Sushi Seki, which for me is really decadent sushi. It’s not pure Japanese sushi, it’s sushi for hungry American chefs.

And my fingers are crossed for Ma Peche.

What’s your favorite pizza place?

Motorino. I don’t know, I don’t get into the pizza wars, I think it’s a little overrated. But I like Motorino’s Brussels sprout pizza.

What do you do when you’re not working?

I have a three-month old baby! Need I say more? I change diapers, read Ferdinand and the Bull, sing songs. I cook a lot at home. I do most of the cooking, although my wife is a good cook too. We cook a lot especially now, but even before we cooked a lot at home.

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