Interview with Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern - New York City

September, 2007

Heather Sperling: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Michael Anthony: I worked part-time jobs in restaurants in high school and college, but never envisioned doing it professionally. I got my undergrad degree in Business and French and a minor in Japanese at Indiana University, then moved to Japan. I spent a year working in this little Japanese-French bistro in Roppongi (in Tokyo); after a year the chef told me to go back West and go to cooking school. I reluctantly said yes, packed it up and went to Paris, where I got a formal apprenticeship. I spent two years working in a restaurant and going to school at Le Ferrandi. The school had close ties with the chamber of commerce and all the great restaurants, and when I finished I had a job waiting for me in Bougival at Le Camélia with Chef Jean Delaveyne – Joel Robuchon’s “spiritual father.” He had a 3-star restaurant outside Paris. His kitchen was strict and severe and a little terrifying, but really helped me to get up and running in Paris. By the time I finished cooking school I had a job waiting for me at Jacques Cagna.

HS: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?

MA: The restaurant in Tokyo was called Bistro Shima, and the chef was Shizuyo Shima. In New York, I have worked at Daniel, March, Blue Hill and upstate at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I was able to go back to Paris almost every year (not these past three years though), and I spent a summer working for Chef Michel Guérard at Le Prés d’Eugénie between my time at March and Blue Hill, and spent weeks working at L’Arpege and L’Astrance.

When I left Blue Hill, I had a business plan and went to Danny Meyer for advice. After having a few conversations, he suggested that I just come work at Gramercy Tavern. It made sense–we had a natural fit in cooking and dealing with people, plus stylistically–there’s a comfortable and similar approach to cooking. Gramercy has always set the standard for excellence in fine dining, though Tom Colicchio originally set out to have a French bent. What we’re doing is very, very American, but we’ll never get away from our French influences.

HS: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?

MA: The people that I’ve worked for and the people that I’ve worked with have all been mentors to me in one way or another. In New York, it was Daniel Boulud and Wayne Nish. Daniel was the first restaurant I worked at in NYC and I had my first sous position under Wayne at March. They couldn’t be any further apart in personality or style but they both influenced me a lot. Also the guys I worked next to at Daniel – they’ve all gone on to own their own places or have become executive chefs. I still talk to them and learn from them every week.

HS: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?

MA: I ask them to visit the kitchen and I make sure they taste the food. After we spend two days working together I ask them if they found what they expected – I’m curious to hear how people see it from the outside. I also ask about commitment – I ask them to give me at least year.

HS: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?

MA: Be devoted and patient.

HS: Is there an ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or underutilized?

MA: Onions, cabbage, carrots – modest ingredients. When I sketch out a menu, the first thing that hits the paper is the vegetable, and then the rest sort of fills itself in. I love to promote modest ingredients over luxury ingredients. Foie gras and truffles find their way into the dishes, sure, but as a celebratory, height of the season-type thing.

HS: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?

MA: Cauliflower and briny seafood, like lobster or langoustine reduction. In the spring we buy as many ramps as we can get our hands on – pickling the stems but going crazy trying to use the greens – grilling them, sauteing them, pureeing them and serving them with lobster. In the lobster sauce we sweat the whites and deglaze with pickling liquid, splash with stock, and finish with a chiffonade of the greens. Ramps, like sorrel, have a fleeting flavor so we finish with the chiffonade and a splash of lemon.

HS: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?

MA: A Vita-Prep – I use it for everything.

HS: What are your favorite cookbooks?

MA: Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli, which is beautiful because it’s poetic, and The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rogers. I especially love Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine. Every single page of that book makes me both salivate and dream. It’s very technical, too.

HS: Where do like to go for culinary travel? Why?

MA: Roanne, France because I’m dreaming of eating at Troisgros. Of all the places in the world that’s where I most want to eat.

HS: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?

MA: Sushi Yasuda. I always sit in the first 2-4 seats (that’s where Yasuda works). We never walk out without having at least 5 mouthfuls of overwhelmingly delicious sushi. At Al di La in Brooklyn, you get a little sense of soul and it’s great.

HS: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?

MA: The ability to trace the food that we use back to its source – it’s a passionate interest in the foods that we eat and the way they get to us. Everyone has always been interested in how foods are produced, and great chefs have always had amazing, mysterious contacts. But now there’s a sense of openness – and the information is there for the taking, and that’s cool. My diners are much better educated about what they’re eating, and their expectation levels are higher. The demand is not as much for the refined as for the real and soulful. And then there’s also a strong movement of chefs who are focusing their attention on experimentation.

HS: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

MA: The approach is celebrating rich flavors by leaning on the craftsmanship in cooking and layering with light seasonal flavors. I try to balance rich soulful flavors with lighter seasonal flavors. I’m very committed to seasonal cooking and very inquisitive about both searching out local sources and bringing those sources into a community that is eager to connect – both the restaurant industry and our guests.

HS: Who would you want to cook for you? Which person in history would you most like to cook for?

MA: I think I’d choose David Bouley to cook for me. He is all over the place but so unbelievably artistic. My most recent meal was one of the best I’ve ever had and it was so simple! I always joke to my cooks that they should cook like they’re cooking for the person they care most about. Or the King of Spain.

HS: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?

MA: I think I’d like to be a journalist.

HS: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?

MA: In 5 years I hope to be exactly where I am right now. There is limitless potential within the company right now.

HS: How are you involved in your local culinary community?

MA: We may be able to work with Washington Irving high school on 16th and Irving – they have greenhouse that’s out of use, and we may get to go in a revamp it and work on a curriculum with the kids and the teachers. We’ve been working with PS41 – we’ve had 3 groups of 1st graders come to the restaurant for a tour. Line cooks and managers give them a tour and introduce them to vocabulary and sounds and sights – we do a cooking demo and then we sit down and have lunch. It doesn’t take much to get kids talking about their food related memories. There are a lot of awesome causes to support, but kids are a great place to start. We can keep it on a very basic level, and it opens a window into what good eating is all about.