Chef Michael Anthony talks 'The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook'

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The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook (Clarkson Potter, 352 pp., $50) takes you on a restaurant tour, beginning with Danny Meyer’s initial conception of opening this New York establishment, continuing past the chief steward and his wheelbarrow of fresh spring produce from the Greenmarket, around the harvest table where the floral designer pairs yellow sprays of sunflowers with splayed summer squash, into the kitchen during the staff’s family meal, past the pastry station where Nancy Olson creates her autumn peanut butter semifreddo, and ending at the dining table with a winter dish of guinea hen prepared by James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Anthony.

By the time you’ve read through this serious and seriously exquisite cookbook, ogled the colorful photos, and closed the enormous, masculine-elegant back cover, you’ve spent a whole year eating inside the Tavern. Your appreciation for the minute mechanics that run a restaurant will have widened, and your list of must-try recipes? Exploded. (I’ve already checked off the curious “Cauliflower with Quinoa, Prunes, and Peanuts” with happy results). Chef Anthony, making his first trip to San Francisco in December, spoke to me about his vision behind the book.

SF Bay Guardian Who did you write this cookbook for?

Michael Anthony For the fans of Gramercy Tavern who’ve eaten at the restaurant and have fallen in love with it over the years. Or, eventually, people who have not yet discovered it, who have heard of the name and want to become insiders. We wrote this book to translate the rich history of the last seven years — the time that I’ve been in the restaurant — to share those recipes with home cooks.

SFBG What do you mean by “translate”?

MA A professional cook uses jargon, a technical language that’s not familiar to most people who have never worked in a professional kitchen. So, we reevaluated the kinds of tools that one would use at home, the way in which I described how to execute a dish, and took into consideration the careful way I cook at home. I have three daughters, so I cook a lot at home.

SFBG Do your girls have a favorite recipe that you make at home?

MA My three daughters are 14, 11, and three and a half. The mushroom lasagna is a particular favorite of the eldest. The zucchini soup is a favorite of Colette, the 11-year-old. And Adeline eats everything [laughs].

In the book I mention this one silly scenario where I’ll wear my Japanese chef outfit and set up an open kitchen, write out the menu, and I serve [my girls] à la carte vegetable sushi at our open window.

SFBG What’s your trick to having a restaurant and a family at the same time?

MA We make an enormous amount of sacrifices to be a part of this business. The great news is there’s an amazing team at Gramercy Tavern, which allows us all to take days off, including me. And during that time at home I enjoy being home, cooking, and shopping at the Greenmarket. It’s a regular part of our lives.

SFBG You pay a lot of attention to vegetables. Where does this influence come from?

MA We have a fascination with vegetables. They’re a way for us to literally stay connected to the changing seasons and the growers. And for our guests, who, in a big city like this, can feel insulated from the changing seasons.

We’d all be a little better off if we allow ourselves to be seduced by the role that vegetables play in our dishes. It’s not about self-deprivation, not veganism, not vegetarianism — I’m not promoting that particular alternative. I’m just saying that when the vegetable component of the dish preoccupies the creative process, and the protein plays a slightly different role in the story, we eat a healthier variety.

SFBG Do you have a favorite vegetable?

MA It’s always changing. We’re just coming out of our first week of very cool, cold weather, so it’s shifted our salads to include things like roasted winter squash. Our soups are made from potatoes and parsnips and turnips. We’re serving things like sunchokes and salsify.

SFBG Tell me about the “harmonious scatter.”

MA It describes the way in which we plate food with intent. It’s not as simple as, say, Alice Waters saying that food is simply beautiful so just put it on the plate, but it’s not as forced as trying to over-manipulate the food. It’s somewhere in between. Sometimes the imperfections of seeing the cook’s hand in the dish lets you know that it’s handmade.

SFBG How does seasonality affect Gramercy Tavern?

MA When it gets warm in the spring it’s the perfect place to go for a carefully seasoned salad. Summertime when it’s sticky and hot, it’s a great place to come for a lightly grilled fish dish with a chilled cucumber garnish. In the wintertime, it’s an impressive use of the Greenmarket. It doesn’t mean the food is boring or dull, through the winter months, it just means that we have to be more creative with it.

SFBG I was drawn to the book’s Winter chapter the most, actually.

MA It’s a time when we can really draw a distinction between the way you guys [in the Bay Area] would be eating. People are always saying, “If only we had a growing season like in California.” But we don’t. So ultimately those are the times when we can really say that our food is the most distinctively different.

SFBG It’s like that moment where you think you think your fridge is empty, but you end up making something even tastier than you imagined for dinner.

MA I’m with you. Have you read Tamar Adler’s book, An Everlasting Meal?

SFBG I love that book.

MA Tamar’s a good friend, and she’s translated the notion that a meal is a continuation of a story, not the sum of a bunch of recipes. It’s how one meal forms the next. One season forms the next.

SFBG Can you interpret your term “American cooking”?

MA So, I think French food is all about harmony; there’s a very gentle feel, like looking at a wave. No sharp turns. Japanese food is actually more a state of mind. Like their language, there’s no intonation. It’s all about nature, the natural flavor with a very hidden hand of the chef.

American food is all about a lot of highs and lows. We use acidity, we use heat, as ways to make it exciting. In the same vein, we’re not bound by a lot of the traditions and rules that we learn, though we take great interest in them. We have a sense of freedom and openness to cooking … especially in a restaurant like Gramercy Tavern, anything and everything is permissible, in terms of sources of inspiration.

SFBG And American cooking at home?

MA I’ve demonstrated in the book how folks can take pleasure in cooking at home, without feeling trapped. “Oh, I can’t find that particular variety,” or “I don’t shop at the Greenmarket so I can’t do these recipes” — that’s not the case. The overriding message is cooking shouldn’t be a spectator sport. If you visit Gramercy Tavern and you like the dishes that we’re cooking, you can certainly easily find those ingredients at home.

SFBG What is the restaurant doing for Thanksgiving?

MA Well, Gramercy Tavern is closed for Thanksgiving, and that’s what we’re doing [laughs]. Everybody gets to go home and enjoy one of the few culinary holidays that we have in our culture. 

SFBG What are you doing?

MA I’m in charge of the turkey. I’m going to do one traditional slow-roasted bird, and I’ll serve that with a Swiss chard and mushroom stuffing. The other one is a spice-wrapped and apple-wood smoked turkey. With that one there’s never any leftovers. Just demolished. This year, since my in-laws are Jewish, it becomes Thanksgivingukkah. We’re including latkes, and the butternut squash soup with Brussels sprouts from The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook.

Chef Michael Anthony signs The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook Dec. 1, 11am-1pm, Blue Bottle Café, 300 Webster, Oakl; Dec. 2, he collaborates with Quince chef Michael Tusk on a special six-course dinner. For reservations call (415) 775-8500 or visit www.quincerestaurant.com/events.

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