Find your cullinary voice

Interview with Chef Michael Anthony

Chef Michael Anthony shares his culinary perspective with the Institute of Culinary Education.September 2012

Gramercy Tavern’s Executive Chef Michael Anthony is fortunate for many reasons. Just after Anthony took the reigns, New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni bestowed three stars on the eatery, likening it to the comfort of an old friend. But more recently, his life took a dramatic turn when he experienced emergency open-heart surgery—putting a new perspective on his culinary career among other things. We sat down inside Gramercy’s private dining room to discuss his recent health scare, the beginnings of his tenure, his management style, and his thoughts on the continued longevity of the illustrious restaurant and its staff.

You took the helm in 2006, what was it that drew you to Gramercy Tavern?
Coming here happened a bit by chance—it wasn’t a premeditated move. I had left Stone Barns, where I was the executive chef, and set out to open my own restaurant. I asked Danny Meyer to take a look at my business plan and let me know his thoughts. He was very helpful and taught me a lot about the business and then our conversation took a turn. He suggested the idea of coming here, saying that we could certainly continue to work on that business plan and that I could say no to the proposition. I thought about it for about a half a day, because I was trying to be thorough about it, but when someone comes along and suggests that you take the helm of one of the most recognized restaurants in the country, that is perfectly situated for the style of food that I’ve always believed in, it was impossible not to give it serious consideration.

What were some of the challenges you faced entering such a renowned restaurant?
Initially I wondered how difficult it would be to put an imprint on a restaurant that’s already so well understood and what would it be like working in the shadow of a very recognized chef like Tom [Colicchio]. It didn’t take long to see that, one—there was a full amount of support. It was really to come to this restaurant and understand what makes it beloved and understand the people who work here, understand the systems, and then have fun. That was probably the most well scripted entrance in a restaurant ever, and I came alone.

That’s unusual.
In some sense, coming alone allowed me to be as flexible as I needed to in order to take the time to understand and get into the flow of things. It also made it incredibly challenging and I think I underestimated how long it would take to speak a common language—both in terms of technical cooking and the vision of the restaurant. I’m pretty sure that I didn’t celebrate the old as much as I should have in order to create a sense of comfort for all those folks that have worked here for years and years. But what I did is I started by being me—for better or for worse—day in and day out. Early on I didn’t take many days off, which seemed normal in the restaurant world, at least the way I knew it. Danny came and said, I know that you are giving it your all, but you don’t have to prove that to anyone, everyone here understands that you love what you do; but if you don’t have any energy for your team, then who does? So I started taking days off, to pace myself, to try to mitigate that feeling of panic that a young chef feels when every new person who walks through the door makes you feel like your reputation is on the line. And it is. At the same time, [it’s about] setting up systems and building relationships and creating a common language so that the team knew how to respond to those situations. What do we do? How do we exceed everyone’s expectations?

How do you?
If my mom comes in from central Ohio—there’s one way to exceed her expectations. But if the food critic from the New York Times sits down, then there’s a different way, or different ways, to exceed their expectations. The key was trying to erase the gap between the kitchen and the table.

How does that translate to the back of the house?
One of the things that I think is unique about this restaurant is the warm and authentic welcome you receive. What was important for me is that you receive it from a lot of different angles, not just the well-trained server and a fluid team that’s friendly and helpful—those are all lynchpins to Danny’s philosophy of service and hospitality. But for me, I wanted there to be more of a connection. I wanted the restaurant to be known not just for great service, but for that authentic welcome and caring and personalized attention from the kitchen. Trying to find a balanced approach to do that was really challenging, but that’s what makes this a great restaurant. It’s the people who work here and it starts at the top and to understand the importance in celebrating a day’s hard work, taking time to create ceremony and congratulations, that it’s okay to pat yourself on the back and even to receive a compliment, which is probably in my life working in the restaurant business is not something I knew how to do. I always thought that when you started accepting the compliments that becomes the first day of a downward slide. The reality is that it’s important to learn how to accept the compliment and really take it in, understand it, feel good about how hard you’ve tried to achieve a particular goal, share it with the people around you—because you didn’t do it alone—and then have the courage to turn around and say to everyone, hey, I bet we can do this better.

You touched on the fact that a lot of the staff has worked there for a very long time. What do you believe is the reason behind that?
That’s a complex answer, but it also boils down to a very simple thing: people feel needed here. Every position in our restaurant is as important as the next—any good restaurant will say that and live it. But the feeling that you get when you work here is that you’re really needed. It’s not simply respected. Respect can happen in a very stiff environment, but in this restaurant I think people feel everyone adds to the story. There are folks that I’ve never worked with before, yet having met them I know them in certain ways because I see what they’ve left as a part of their legacy. So I think people feel needed and that’s uncommon in the restaurant industry. People look forward to coming to work here, and you can see it when you walk in and see the smiles on people’s faces. You can read it in a second.

I ate here when the restaurant first opened in 1994 and I can attest that, in many ways, the restaurant has changed and yet, it has stayed the same. How do you strike that balance of innovation and continuity?
There’s an energy in this restaurant that feels like it’s maybe three or four years old and an attention to reinvesting and improving that is very young in spirit. It continues to attract a wide audience and despite the fact that it’s getting close to that 20-year mark, you don’t see that just one class of guests are continuing to support the restaurant. There are folks that eat her regularly since the first day. Maybe the most important element of my job is to insist on the relevance of the restaurant. It is imperative that we keep our eye on making sure that this restaurant feels relevant. The restaurant was ahead of its time in that it had this dual function of its front room, the tavern. It had the most amazing energy that an incredible dining experience can be had in a wonderfully casual setting. This is one of the trends that marks dining around the world these days, kind of like the way I think artists in the beginning of the last century were fascinated with technology and industry and industrial art. We see restaurants that have popped up around the world in unlikely places. That’s just the positioning of something familiar, or exquisite, in a completely unexpected place that amplifies your pleasure in the meal. I don’t know if this restaurant set that trend in motion, but it certainly was one of the early examples. We’ve been able to continue to capture people’s imagination and deal with seasonal, local ingredients and celebrating humble foods in a very refined way. The restaurant is not a piece of artwork. You can’t just make it, put it on the wall and dust it off and keep going. It’s much more dynamic than that. That is another real strength of this restaurant—it has the ability to continue to evolve.

I wanted to ask you about your recent health events. How long did it take you to recover from open-heart surgery?
It was such a traumatic experience because there was no warning. I had no sign of any health condition, let alone any heart trouble, nor in my family did we ever have any history of that. It took three months before I was back and able to spend a normal day in the kitchen. A lot of that time was spent little by little trying to build my strength and stamina. Fortunately, I received great care at Beth Israel [hospital], and the surgery itself saved my life. That was a linear path of just every single day getting a little stronger. And not that I wish this on anyone, but it was a fascinating experience of a progressive feeling for me. Every single day I noticed things that I could do that I wasn’t able to do the day before. A lot of people helped me emotionally and physically. The team responded in a way that made me feel both like I was continuing to be a part of the everyday decision-making in the restaurant, yet not worried at all how the restaurant was being operated. I had a chance to recover in the best of conditions, and it’s a real credit to my family, the restaurant staff and everyone around me.

Did you ever doubt you’d be back in the kitchen?
The emotional side of it and the psychological side of it was a little more difficult because when your body betrays you, you wonder if you can put it to the test again. This is a challenging and physical world and what we do stretches us to the extremes. One of the things that did happen along the way is that in delegating more responsibilities, we became a better restaurant. It’s really hard when you’re that attached to the kitchen to pull yourself away from being either in the middle of every decision or hands-on in what we’ve produced. It doesn’t mean that I’ve left the kitchen, but I’ve also made some decisions that were smart ones and I should have seen their necessity months, if not years, beforehand. I changed the hierarchy of the kitchen, and we now have an executive sous chef so that we have a better chance to communicate quickly and efficiently throughout the restaurant. We have a better solidarity between our managers because we talked about it openly, how important it was. In light of such a traumatic experience, it was imperative for everyone to pull together, and they did. I have been able to recover my strength and stamina, and it’s nice to be able to feel the benefits of all the improvements that we made to the place along the way. We’re continuing to move forward with this new organization in place and we’ve already seen its benefits.

What encouragement did Danny offer to you when it happened?
This might sound strange because it’s not normally how an employer speaks to his employee, but what he told me most often was that he loved me. He was extremely supportive and he’s an extremely sensitive and understanding person. Along the way, he gave me as much attention or as little as I needed. There was a moment when he brought up in a meeting in front of all of our managers, chefs, directors in our company what I had gone through as I was getting back into the swing of things. After the meeting I smiled and I said, I’m glad you said that out loud because now we don’t have to talk about it anymore.

I’m sure you couldn’t ask for a better person to work for.
That’s true.

What is your goal for Gramercy’s foreseeable future?
It is an interesting question because in my career, and in my short time in the restaurant here, we’ve just achieved all of our goals. That doesn’t mean that I feel complacent—I certainly feel like it’s the opposite. Having said that, I think that we’re in a position also where we have a group of people that have been working together and a history of graduating great people at the same time. Gramercy [Tavern] will continue to be looked at as the graduate school of restaurant studies and polishing people’s careers to get them ready for the next step, whether that’s moving from a line cook position into being a sous chef, or a sous chef into an executive chef, or an executive chef into an owner. We’re definitely in a place where we’re eager to grow and continue to get better. This September we will be one year away from the release of the Gramercy Tavern cookbook. It was such an amazing learning experience and it will be a great way to warm things up for the following year when we certainly envision a big party to mark that 20-year point.

—Kiri Tannenbaum