After cultivating his craft in Paris’s best kitchens and working at New York restaurants Daniel, March and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Michael Anthony was named Executive Chef of Gramercy Tavern in 2006. Since then, the award-winning American eatery has received countless accolades and is consistently ranked as one of Manhattan’s best.
Chef Michael’s farm-to-table approach focuses on using fresh, local and seasonal ingredients. With an ever-changing menu showcasing greenmarket produce and sustainable products, Michael’s simple, straightforward cuisine inspires a connection between diners and their food.
More than just a chef, he is a devoted educator, father, philanthropist and active member of the community. Whether participating in charitable events, visiting farms with his staff or teaching elementary school children in his kitchen, Michael’s passion extends far beyond the plate.
As Executive Chef of Gramercy Tavern, you focus on using sustainable and local ingredients. Why is this philosophy so important to you?
Sourcing foods locally, for me, is the most distinctive way that we can tell our story. New York City is the most stimulating dining city in the world and we have the benefit of working with chefs and embracing ideas from all over. However, the best way to tell our story is through the ingredients that are here locally. Eating in New York is different than eating in any other city.
There are many benefits in supporting the local community and establishing one-on-one relationships with the people that grow our food. When a guest tells me how much they loved the Swiss chard, I can tell the grower specifically why people love it. When someone asks about the grass-fed beef, I can give them an informed answer about what the animal was eating. Not everyone wants to know those details, but it certainly makes for an interesting story. Diners want to feel more connected and want their dining experience to be valuable—and value, these days, not only means being delicious, but also healthy and smart.
Now that Spring has finally bloomed here in NYC, what types of seasonal flavors can we see make an appearance on the menu?
Well, two weeks ago was the first day that asparagus showed up at the Union Square Greenmarket in enough quantity that restaurants could actually buy it by the case. It was almost like it was opening day at Citi Field! Right now, we have four asparagus dishes on the menu, but that will change as other seasonal ingredients come to our markets. Certain ingredients explode during certain times of the year, so why wouldn’t our menu explode with those ingredients as well?
We’ve also reached out to a couple area producers to buy small quantities of some special, hard-to-find things that they come across while foraging. We’ve been able to get some great wild ginger, toothwort and other ingredients that you typically won’t find at the markets.
When you find these ingredients, are there certain methods that you use when conceiving a new dish?
Dishes are inspired by the new ingredient. We want to keep it simple enough that it’s memorable and layer it so that it has an echoing effect through the dish—meaning handle it in a couple different ways on a single dish. Avoid over manipulating the ingredient. The flavor combos, techniques and plating have to create intrigue, a lovable quality. We want guests to experience something they have never experienced before.
I know you’re a father to three young daughters. Has having children influenced your mindset as far as the causes and charities you support?
It’s definitely instigated me to push things further. The principals that we use at the restaurant ignite the way I eat at home, and when it comes to little kids, every bite matters even more.
Over the last hundred years, we’ve grown further away from our culinary and agricultural history for convenience and modernization. I’m not saying that you have to go back in time and adapt an old-fashioned lifestyle—I love living in fast-paced Manhattan, I don’t want to slow down—but I do want to preserve the right to eat a wide variety of healthy, delicious and nutritious foods. Since I do this for a living, I’ve learned a lot of tricks along the way that I use at home and at the restaurant.
Can you tell me a little bit about your ongoing efforts in educating public school kids?
One of the most important roles of a restaurant in the community is that of an educator. We have a responsibility of sharing our enthusiasm and knowledge with those who are eager to learn. Not bombarding kids with propaganda, but giving them the tools to make healthy choices and to understand the fun and weird things that happen around food. We partnered with an elementary school 5 years ago and we schedule 18-20 days a year to teach the children, whether it be a class at the school, in our kitchen or at the green market. Most importantly, we want to create a vocabulary with the kids to find their likes and dislikes. If you make them a part of the process, they’re more likely to give it a taste.
I understand you’ll be in Toledo next week participating in their Taste of the Nation event and are an avid supporter of Share Our Strength. What about this organization moves you to get involved?
Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation represents a long running tradition with our company and the charitable organization. It’s a huge fundraiser for them, but it’s a culmination of a lot of symbiotic initiatives between Danny Meyer and Billy Shore. It’s done a lot to transform the neighborhood in which Danny’s businesses operate and also the landscape of the way people eat. Share Our Strength’s mission statement is to end childhood hunger and this is a major part in helping make that happen.
We love doing the large scale events, but some of the smaller ones, like Just Food’s Let Us Eat Local and Brooklyn Uncorked, are dynamite events as well! Especially with a company like Clean Plates, where you’re talking about a specific type of restaurant—these restaurants are very idealistic. I love being involved with these events, it’s a really cool thing.
Note: Pastry chef Nancy Olsen will be representing Gramercy Tavern during NYC’s Taste of the Nation on May 23rd. To purchase tickets, please visit www.newyorktaste.org.
Is there anything else on the horizon that you’d like to share?
Well, I do have some exciting news to share. It may be a little premature and it’s just right out of the gates, but we will be coming out with the story of Gramercy Tavern as a cookbook. It’s years away from publication, but it will become a big part of our lives here at the restaurant. This is a beloved place for a lot of people and I think that it’s a story that has yet to be told. I think people will be really excited to learn more about the history of the restaurant and to see, hear and feel how we’re pushing its evolution along.
Photo credit: Ellen Silverman