Good food should appeal to all five senses. It should please the eye, delight the nose and tantalize the taste buds. But truly great food should capture a moment in time—the season, the region and the climate—and serve as a mental photograph for years to come. “I like for diners to look at their plate and know what time of year it is and for them to have this feeling of ‘I know where I am,”’ Gramercy Tavern Executive Chef, Michael Anthony, tells Haute Living. “I like to think that almost every single thing we cook here embodies New York.”
From tender duck to sweet sunchokes, Anthony scours the nearby Union Square Greenmarket looking for the freshest ingredients to showcase in the restaurant’s rotating menu. Though New York’s harsh winter weather is often viewed as a handicap by other chefs because of the lack of locally grown produce, Anthony believes that it’s actually our greatest uniqueness and advantage. “Whereas we look at the winter time as being the most difficult to show off in the kitchen with fresh ingredients, it’s actually one of the most interesting times to visit this area to eat because it’s so much different than how people are eating in San Francisco or Seattle,” he explains. “It’s not about a style of depravation or making lists of things that you can or can’t use. It’s just trying to express a particular season through what’s on the plate.”
What inspired you to become a chef?
I graduated from college with a degree in Business and a minor in Japanese, and I moved to Japan out of curiosity. Maybe it was for all the wrong reasons, but I wanted to learn the language and the culture. I decided that I wanted to surround myself in a Japanese-speaking environment so I got a job in a kitchen.
Describe your cooking style.
It is all about serving contemporary American food that helps distinguish what’s unique about eating in the northeast.
What is your favorite appetizer, entrée and dessert currently on the menu?
For an appetizer, I really love the Raw & Roasted Root Vegetables, which a collection of vegetables that come off of our wood-burning grill, right out of the embers of the fire. Some are shaved raw to create a layering effect and it’s served with three dipping sauces. My favorite entrée is the Duck Meatloaf, which sounds a little funny, but is a wonderful and thrifty use of the spare parts of the duck. Some of it is lean, and some of it is hearts, gizzards and livers. It’s made like a very firm pâté and is so moist and delicious that it catches people by surprise. For dessert, I like the Linden Flower and Pear Custard, which is essentially a Linden flower crème brulee prepared with pear, brown sugar, cider and vanilla.
Is there a particular dish on the menu that really embodies New York City?
A lot of people have identified with the Smoked Trout with Cipollini Purée and Pickled Onions. I’m honestly quite eager not to do it anymore because I’ve done it for so long! But it encourages us to come up with more dishes that are under-manipulated so that they’re memorable for customers after they finish the meal both in language and conception. If the ingredients that we choose are thoughtful and really anchored to our region then we’re saying something important about the way we buy our food.
What is your favorite winter ingredient to cook with?
Sunchokes. They’re surprisingly ugly, but incredibly sweet and delicious. They’re unbelievable because they’re stored in-ground, even during cold weather. Farmers will dig them up and chisel away the frozen ground around them. And they only get sweeter as the surrounding temperature gets colder. Most people still feel a little uncomfortable eating sunchokes because they are not a part of our mainstream national diet, but there’s nothing strange about their flavor. They are often made fun of, even in circles of cooks, because of their unbelievable potential for creating flatulence as the skin is quite fibrous. But there are so many ways to cook them that they don’t really deserve to be made fun of.
What separates Gramercy Tavern from other fine dining establishments in the city?
We’re celebrating our 20th anniversary this year. We’re upholding traditions and that’s an amazing kind of incentive. Every day, we’re faced with the courage to challenge ourselves… to say that we can do it better. But most of all, I think what makes it a really special place is the genuine warmth and friendliness shared within the staff and the people that eat here.
The restaurant has a longstanding commitment of giving back to the community and educating children about food and nutrition. What is your favorite part of visiting the schools?
We’re opening kids’ eyes to tasting new things though hands-on cooking classes, but we’re really opening our own eyes as well. For example, what are we doing as a restaurant to try and introduce the importance of the natural world to the kids? It’s not about spreading propaganda and saying, ‘You should only eat food from the Greenmarket.’ It’s about introducing kids to the natural world and helping them make good decisions as adults. I don’t look at it as giving back, it’s just being. That’s what a restaurant should be. I’m proud that we’ve put enormous effort into doing that.
What was the most challenging part of creating The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook?
Confirming that our recipes were accurate and approachable. They still show off and inspire other colleagues in the industry, but the average American cook is still able to understand them. There’s some helpful advice too. It’s not a full-on technical cooking reference guide, instead it’s all about making people feel more confident. My mom gave it a great endorsement. She said that it felt like I was standing there the whole time, but that she didn’t have to call me once.
What is your least favorite food?
Wrinkled, overcooked peas. As a kid, I would just throw them. It was a war.
What would you choose as your last meal on earth?
The chicken curry and basmati rice that my wife makes.