Michael Anthony, the award-winning executive chef at New York’s venerated Gramercy Tavern, has written a cookbook that is more than a collection of recipes. It's a celebration of the restaurant and everyone who has worked there. PW interviewed Anthony recently about The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook and discovered how being a chef doesn’t mean a thing when you’re feeding your kids, got advice on recreating the spirit of Gramercy Tavern at home, and learned how writing this book changed his life.
In your introduction to the cookbook, you are clear you don’t want it to just be a restaurant cookbook—that you want readers to be able to conjure up the spirit of Gramercy Tavern in their own homes.
Two years of gut-wrenching work went into writing a book that would also be beautiful enough to represent the spirit of Gramercy Tavern. The intent was to write the recipes in a way that would make folks want to just throw on an apron over their t-shirt and start cooking. I really hope this book inspires people to cook a bit more intuitively and to feel like learning a few more techniques. I want them to envision their own dishes and not slavishly try to repeat the magic that occurs in a professional kitchen. It means getting in there and cooking with the ingredients you have on hand.
From its very inception, it was meant to be a beautiful book you’re proud to show off on the coffee table--but also a book that has pages turned down and little splotches of sauce and also lives happily in your kitchen.
How do you adjust restaurant recipes for the home cook? Doesn’t it lose something in translation?
Every chef thinks their food is simple and every home cook says, “Yeh, right.” And it is simple, when you have four or five people working on every dish and you’re using five, six, seven or eight pans, plus other equipment to make the dish. But who has those resources at home? Not me! I took the recipes and figured out how to make them at home. I could only use one or two pans and had to be able to make it in 20 to 40 minutes and not more. In all honesty, many of the recipes may end up being Sunday night recipes instead of Tuesday night recipes.
How does your job as a chef affect your home cooking?
I have 3 daughters. So in that sense, cooking is a necessity! In fact, being a professional chef gives me no advantage over any other parent in the kitchen. I have to face the same challenges as anyone else. No one in my house is impressed that I have a bunch of white chef’s coats in the closet. Even when I wear it, it still doesn’t give me a free pass to success! It’s difficult to [cook] in a concise way that doesn’t derail your busy life and it’s hard to come out on top when everyone has their own particular schedule and their own particular tastes and you try to make the crowd happy. Sometimes it comes down to hard love: “This is dinner and you’re eating it!” It’s hard to control your emotions because there are so many emotions and hopes and dreams that go into every meal you cook.
So, then how does cooking at home affect your life as a restaurant chef?
[Cooking at home] gives me a chance to fuel new ideas for the restaurant. I’ve always felt that--especially in the style of cooking we do at Gramercy Tavern—we should follow our hearts and have the courage to be inspired by the simple types of home cooking that we do. If we refine those recipes they become really powerful in a fine dining setting like Gramercy Tavern.
What did you think when it was suggested you write a book?
Actually, it was my idea! But I have to say, it was really the editor who pushed me into doing this. She was a longtime friend and as soon as I started working at Gramercy Tavern she would send me these little notes that said: “So, Mike, are you thinking about the cookbook?” And I would say, “Are you kidding me?” Then I would get a stack of [Clarkson Potter’s] recent publications with a note that would say: “Your book would look really nice in this collection.” But, we didn’t quite have the body of recipes yet developed, and I didn’t quite have my arms around this big and busy restaurant. So it took a long time for me to finally say yes.
Dorothy Kalins is credited as the producer of the book. How did she help?
She is an amazing author, journalist, friend and fairy godmother. Dorothy has been a long-time friend of Danny Meyer, she understands this company and the restaurant intimately, and as it turns out, we live in the same building! So when this idea [for the book] was coming about, I would see her coming and going and say to myself, “You know what? We should approach Dorothy and ask her if she would consider doing this book.” And as it turned out, she was quite interested.
During the process of writing this book, I had a serious health scare, out of the blue. I had no awareness of having any heart problems before it happened, I survived an 8-hour open-heart emergency surgery. I’m not sure if you’ve ever experienced a traumatic health scare like that one, but you feel sidelined. While I was thankful to be alive, I think it was the book project and Dorothy’s calm and steady guidance, her sense of humor--and especially her cooking--that coaxed me back to the kitchen table. And even when I was not able to physically walk to the restaurant, we were able to continue working on the book. There are a lot of memories not documented, but bound up in this book. When I got the actual book in my hands I couldn’t stop shaking.
I’m really proud of the work we did on this book, and I also walk away with a number of friends who I will have for life. What more can you ask for with work?
Marrissa Rothkopf Bates hosts the blog www.sugarandspouse.com