Chef Michael Anthony can be incredibly emphatic about the farmers who supply Gramercy Tavern’s kitchen. He may tell you how he thinks the soil conditions at a particular farm influenced the flavors of certain vegetables. He might talk about baby turnips as if they’re long lost friends, but Anthony is also realistic about the purpose of food in our lives.
This Saturday from 12 to 6 p.m., Anthony will be cooking at PS 41 as part of a benefit for the school’s Greenroof Environmental Literacy Laboratory (GELL), a project which aims to convert the school’s 19,000-sq-ft roof into a learning environment. Anthony, who already takes time out of his busy chef-schedule to speak to the school’s first graders, will be on hand with some Gramercy Tavern food, and tickets are only $10 (purchase here). The benefit organized by Bobo's Carlos Suarez, will also include live music.
Amongst many other achievements, Michael Anthony was named a Food & Wine “Best New Chef” in 2002, and one year after being hired as chef at Gramercy Tavern (which just won the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Restaurant Award”), he received a Rising Star Chef award from StarChefs. Awards and accolades aside, it became immediately clear when we spoke with Michael Anthony on Tuesday that he is perhaps the farthest imaginable thing from a “food personality”- he’s an accessible and generous chef.
This Saturday, you're participating in this benefit organized by Carlos Suarez at PS 41 in Greenwich Village for the GELL project. Can you talk a little about your involvement with the school? Sure. I've had the chance to connect with PS 41 over the last 2 years. At first, a parent asked if they could bring a first grade class into the restaurant for a food-related field trip. I have two daughters, and I had some experience showing kids around the restaurant, so I said sure. It worked out great and the teachers asked us to come in for a follow-up visit to their first grade classroom. Afterwards we felt like there was a great relationship between the teachers, the children, the principal, and our restaurant staff, who volunteered to spend time in the classroom.
What types of food issues do you talk about with first graders? We talk about the sense of taste, about vegetables and where they come from - some simple and some more complex things about how to get great food. After we got started, we were able to connect with teachers, using food as the vehicle to collaborate on lesson plans. The very talented teachers at PS 41 include things like music and games in their plans. The school's administration is really progressive and was eager to connect with business in the community. In a way, all of this led up to them revealing their desire to redo the school's rooftop, to transform it into the green environmental literacy library, which is where we are now.
Carlos [Suarez] took the initiative to organize this fundraising event on Saturday, and it's a massive project on top of his already busy life, trying to make a young restaurant profitable. He pulled together all these businesses within the community to help the school meet those goals. Bobo is right around the corner from PS 41, and there's a lot going on this Saturday. All the hard work and inspiration is a credit to this gentleman, Carlos.
The goal is to build this greenroof at the school. What is it about the idea of green rooftops that appeals to you as a chef? Our connection with the kids and administration of PS 41 is the real interest factor here. It's not the literal one of being a chef, like, oh wow, if there's a garden we can get some great basil. It's about being at the ground level when they start to put together their educational program and work our way into math, science, and environmental classes.
You and some of your staff continue to the visit the school helping kids learn about food, then. It provides a cool outlet for our staff at Gramercy Tavern when the restaurant plays the role of educator and mentor; it plays a larger role in the community. Danny Meyer founded this company on community investment, and the end results of that are evident in the neighborhoods surrounding his restaurants, and this effort is particularly food-focused. There's growing interest in the community - interest is a nice word, anxiety is another - about where our food comes from, how it's produced, how much it costs, and what the best ways to feed our friends and family are. This is a great platform to talk about those issues.
Can you recommend one or two of your favorite farmers at the greenmarket? There are so many great ones. A couple come to mind because if you close your eyes and taste their vegetables, you'll start to understand what they're really doing on those farms. Norwich Meadow Farms is a dynamite producer; they're located upstate between Binghamton and Syracuse. It's an organic farm and the guy has a balanced, sensible, and informative outlook in a way that's both principled and approachable. They're very nice people. They cultivate, not just vegetables, but also communities. At Gramercy Tavern, we get a lot of produce from Alex Paffenroth. Chefs have a lot of reasons for picking the people they buy their stuff from, but across the board in this case, if you just taste the stuff they produce, there's no question why people buy vegetables from them. I think it comes down to the way they take care of their soil; it's really impressive.
Can you describe the relationship between the restaurant and the greenmarket? It's a luxury for the restaurant to be a few blocks away from the greenmarket. We have staff that's responsible for picking up. It's the backbone of our restaurant and in the past few years we've tried to press that upon the people that eat here. We produce a certain, carefully cooked, lightly handled food and I don't think you have to wait until the weather changes to enjoy these great, light flavors. As the weather changes, the menu does too and we'll bring out the seductive, earthy flavors. I think in the past Gramercy Tavern was somehow represented as serving decadent, heavy cooking, and that's not the case anymore.
How often do you change your menu? It really changes on a regular basis depending on the ingredients that are available, with no set calendar dates. Even though it's officially fall, this week I'm still serving cucumbers and tomatoes, because they're still coming in and they're still great. Next week we probably won't be able get them at the market though, so they won't be on the menu.
Can you walk me through one dish that's on your menu right you're particularly excited about? Let's talk about the pork dish [rack of pork and braised belly with baby turnips and Adirondack blue potatoes]. We have a full-time meat butcher, so we buy the whole animal and break it down and use every last bit of it. There is no waste; we make our own guanciale, pancetta, and lardo. For the dish on the menu we braise the belly and that becomes a small component. We take the skin and use a small piece of it in the dish, so it has a light crunchy aspect. It's just a wink on the plate, not some crazy, decadent, eat-your-pork-face-off kind of thing. We use fork-crushed fingerling potatoes and baby turnips, which are super sweet now. We blanch the turnip leaves and blend them into a light sauce, which is the major sauce on the plate, but we also produce a classic pork jus during the cooking process, which we finish with our own home-smoked bacon.
So it's a nose-to-tail approach? We use the whole animal, and build flavor with its parts. And we use every last bit of our vegetables and our proteins. The ingredients come entirely from local sources; each with a great story to tell on their own. And it's not just that we're infatuated with "going out to visit the farm." The people who raise these pigs have been raising them, in most cases, for more than ten years, so when you start to compare them to mainstream pig producers, it's night and day. What's really exciting about this widespread interest in local foods is that, sure it makes for a great story but it's only great if those ingredients taste great. That may be a very subjective comment but the reality is that we're not feeding the country here; we're supplying a high-end restaurant so we need to find flavors that are inherently superior.
Is there some sort of ethic that you apply to your dishes? Most every dish we serve combines this idea of layering one ingredient handled in several different ways. For example there'll be a raw element, a cooked element, a juiced element, all working together. In our dishes, if we stay restrained enough, we can create a really memorable experience. I want customers to walk away and remember turnips married with pork. And the turnips can stand up and steal the spotlight if you let them.
Right. And I think chefs are more and more interested in that. In the main dining room we offer a seasonal tasting menu, but we also offer a vegetable tasting menu that emphasizes the best of what's available at any given time. It's not vegetarian. There'll be a hint of guanciale in the homemade ricotta ravioli, or a crispy slice of trout dropped in where it makes sense. We can totally produce the vegetable menu as vegetarian, but our overall intention is to attract people to being psyched about what's available in terms of vegetables, not to create a vegetarian option.
Will you be writing a cookbook anytime soon? No. Not yet.
You often credit the Japanese pastry chef Shizuyo Shima among your influences; can you tell me a bit about her? She trained under a famous French pastry chef but when she went back to Tokyo she opened a Japanese French Bistro. I asked if I could help in her kitchen. I wanted to immerse myself in Japanese-speaking environment, since I minored it in school. It seemed like a great way to learn and have fun. She taught me how to run a restaurant and love a kitchen. That's how I got my start.
Are there any Japanese products you cook with a lot that you think more people should know about? I don't use a lot of Japanese ingredients here at Gramercy. I'm fascinated with Japanese cooking and I think the spirit behind it motivates a lot of the way we conceive dishes here. It doesn't mean we're making dashi or certain cuts of fish in the way I learned them in Japan. There is one ingredient that I think marries simply and discreetly with Western cooking in general: a seasoned white soy sauce, or shiro dashi. Essentially, it's like liquid smoke.