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Chef Michael Anthony on Heartfelt, Relevant Cooking

Photo: Daniel Krieger

About halfway through an extended tour of Gramercy Tavern — a stroll that's taken us through two dining rooms, a wood-burning grill station, the PDR, nearly every corner of the two floors of kitchen space — the restaurant's chef and partner Michael Anthony asks if we're doing OK on time. It's a shock to hear, since those questions tend to get posed by the interviewer and not the subject. But thinking about it, mine was a pretty foolish reaction, since these are the things these guys — Anthony and his partner Danny Meyer, to be exact — have made a name for themselves with.

We continued that walk for another twenty minutes, visiting the wine cellar and the new pickling station and shaking hands with a number of cooks, before finally arriving at the chef's tiny and dim subterranean office. There we spoke for close to an hour, one week before Anthony was named the best chef in New York at the James Beard Awards. Here's that conversation:

On the way downstairs to your office, you were telling me that your goal is to make this place taste like New York. What does that mean, in your case?
I started cooking professionally in Japan. After a year and half, I moved to France, where I went to cooking school and worked at several restaurants. From what I saw there, being introduced to those traditions, was people that were proud of the regions that they came from and their stories and their connections. In big cities like Tokyo and Paris, everyone comes from somewhere. Historically and traditionally, there's a connection either to their agricultural past or the products that represent the pride of who they are and where they come from.

I didn't initially see the connections between that and the States when I was a young cook. In my view, we represented everything that was at the opposite end of the spectrum. That's especially the case in New York, where you can have anything you want, whenever you want, from anywhere in the world. It's clear that we can tell our story however we choose. We really have that luxury and that freedom, since we are much less bound to rules and traditions, and the dining community is demanding and outgoing.

But when we searched for a distinct story and for what was different about eating here, I started looking at the regionality of our cooking — what sorts of ingredients tell a distinct story? So, our menu is inspired by what is in season, and we have dedicated our lives to finding things that are typical of here and taste great. If we look at the flow of seasons in this area, it's much different than Chicago or Southern California, which is a great asset. If we lean on that and tell the story of the people and the ingredients that are unique to here, and then along the way we start to listen to what our community of chefs is saying about them, we start to take on some characteristics.

I think that's what you've seen happening over the past ten years in and around New York: a group of like-minded, eager, and ambitious chefs that have been looking to distinguish what they do, either specifically by telling the story of their ingredients or more by the manipulation of those ingredients.

You wouldn't consider yourself part of the latter group, right?
I would definitely be part of the first camp. I feel inspired by saying, "Okay, it's springtime. Let's take a look at what's growing around us and decide how we are going to express a meal through those ingredients." For us, it's not about having a particular technique in mind or wanting to show this amazing texture that is light as air, melts in your mouth, is green, and you'd never know what it is.

Are you opposed to more experimental or "manipulative" cooking?
I'm not saying one is better than the other. I sure feel lucky that I live and work in a place where we have people that think about food in all kinds of ways. To have a healthy community, we need people to push boundaries. It may not be the way I look at food, but I certainly appreciate it and am interested in it. I want to encourage people to think about food in different ways. When people give it their all, sometimes they fall flat on their faces, and that's when you need a community to hold them up and be there for them. This isn't necessarily one of those restaurants that is breaking down boundaries, but we need to make sure that we're staying ahead of the learning curve.

Did you make a conscious decision to avoid that kind of cooking, or did it happen naturally?
I've always looked at cooking from a personal perspective. What has given my most memorable meals that emotional impact? It always tends to go back to visits to a farm, eating specific ingredients that were connected to a place. So, traveling to a place in Japan and eating a typical, regional food was a mind-blowing experience. I didn't want to exactly translate that back to the U.S. with Japanese ingredients. What I wanted to do was apply that same spirit to the restaurant, where someone from the city or visiting could taste something anchored to a specific time and a place.

When did you really start thinking about that? Blue HIll?
For me, it started when I started cooking, but it truly evolved when I was at Blue Hill.

It was originally a challenge to sell modest ingredients in a New York City market. For chefs to create an interest in dishes that use ingredients from here that sometimes aren't typically what high-end restaurants have leaned on over time took courage. Our high-end restaurant business is clearly dominated by the classic French formal experience, and many who have worked in those restaurants tend to think about defining luxury with ingredients like foie gras, truffles, and mushrooms. These are ingredients that are historically essential in French formal dining and have been translated to New York. We're just now seeing a generation that isn't completely attached at the hip to that tradition. Now, we're in a really expansive time when young generations of American cooks are thinking about food in a different way. A lot of the guys in our kitchen, for example, haven't cooked in a French restaurant.

Can you speak a bit more about how you've seen things change?
If you look at ten or fifteen years ago, things that are now a common part of our dining lexicon didn't exist. Pork belly wasn't common, but it became revolutionary, and now, it just makes good sense to serve it. Even the breeds of pork that we now take for granted — those breeds weren't widely understood a decade ago. That was the beginning of the discussion, when people like Wayne Nish were talking about Berkshire pork. Now everyone knows what Kurobuta means, thanks to chefs who started working with growers and then insisted on using secondary cuts when everyone wanted veal. This was before nose-to-tail eating was actually widely expressed in New York, before Fergus Henderson was a household name. So it took a lot of courage from a lot of chefs that knew that that was the backbone of good eating. Then we started conversations about specific breeds of animals and then people began to understand heritage breeds and heirloom vegetables.

As we were walking through the kitchen, you also mentioned your desire to keep the restaurant relevant, which is something I was going to ask you about. You might take issue with this statement, but Danny Meyer's restaurants are known for being great but also crowd-pleasing, in the sense that you won't find alienating food or much experimentation. So, how do you keep a place fresh and part of the conversation when so many people are pushing the envelope?
It feels quite natural, because I've always wanted to work in restaurants that are concentrating on welcoming people in a genuine way, cooking food in a heartfelt way, and providing quality and value. Those are the things that turn me on about a restaurant. When I go out to eat, I am curious to see what a restaurant team has to say about the ingredients that they are using. I like all kinds of styles of food, but I want to go to a place that works in a heartfelt way. And I feel that Danny's restaurants excel at that.

What every restaurant that has had the good fortune to be around for a few years faces is that these places aren't pieces of artwork. You can't just dust it off and admire it and expect that it will continue to please. It's more dynamic than that. A restaurant is about what the team sets out to do, but more than that, it's about how the dining guests use it. From that angle, we can never slow down in terms of rethinking how we go about cooking and serving and every aspect of the restaurant. This is not unique to us: the entire industry has to recreate itself constantly.

What's amazing about Danny's restaurants is that they are able to recreate themselves constantly within a framework that doesn't seem to change. This restaurant is eighteen years old, and we have to be very mindful about how we manage to please regular customers while winning new guests. It takes a lot to do that. From the outside, people may not feel a sense of evolution, but from the inside, you feel a really vibrant sense of change. That's my job.

What are some things that have been happening on the inside as part of that effort?
Well, we looked at adding specific stations to enhance certain kinds of cooking. We added a pickling station, since we are fascinated by that. We can't just buy, wash, and serve the vegetables — it all hinges on what we do with them. One thing that we've challenged ourselves with is learning about fermentation, pickling, and transforming products. We've also pushed charcuterie in much the same way. We added a pasta station, which gives us a chance to think about carefully made pasta from specifically sourced farmers. All the same, on our menu we don't make reference to Italian cooking. We break a lot of traditional rules with that, so those pastas are meant to serve as vehicles for our regional cooking. In the last three years, two of our executive sous chefs — Nick Anderer and Chris Bradley — have gone on to open new restaurants, which says that education is part of the DNA of this kitchen. It's kind of like a graduate program. You know, a lot of people who were sous chefs at other restaurants became line cooks here before working their way back up.

Another way of looking at the issue of evolution: I haven't eaten here in like two years. If I come to have dinner, what do you hope I notice as different or evolved?
We've had a chance to push this notion of what today is supposed to taste like. In the tavern room, we want it to be as spontaneous and rustic as possible. "Rustic" isn't a great word, since it's precisely cooked food that comes out of that unique, elemental, wonderful wood-burning grill. We're putting a level of char and caramelization on items like chicken and lasagna that look more extreme than what you would normally suspect as acceptable, but that's where all the magic is. It gives us a chance to explore food in a way different from what you would find in a normal kitchen with a steady heat all night. In the main dining room, it's about providing a meal that is as refined as possible without being pretentious. The nice thing about this restaurant is about walking through what is essentially a party that takes the edge off before you get into the dining room. I don't know about you, but I've been to a lot of restaurants where I worry if I'm following the rules throughout the meal. We don't want that, and our waiters are adept at tailoring service to that, because people come in for very different reasons.

Another thing that comes to mind: in becoming a beloved restaurant, this place now has an instinctual pull. When the weather gets a little cool and you walk through this neighborhood or just think about the smoke that's on the block, you almost can't help it. It feels like the place to go. It feels comforting and warm, and it has a wonderful draw. If we do what we do well, our hope is that when the first warm day comes around, and you want a crisp salad or to try the first asparagus of the season — not asparagus from a restaurant that can get it from anywhere in the world — you know that we are going to celebrate all of that.

At the risk of putting words in your mouth, you're going for another kind of relevancy.
Right. It's about satisfying that craving that is about eating something that is sensible, smart, carefully handled, seasoned just right. Those are the places I like to eat in, and that's the way I want our restaurant to be seen.

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Gramercy Tavern

42 East 20th Street, Manhattan, NY 10003 (212) 477-0777 Visit Website