Unlike many other award-winning chefs, Michael Anthony, the executive chef of New York's Gramercy Tavern, didn't grow up loving food. He developed his appreciation for food when he least expected it: when he was living in Japan.
"If you look in the kitchen, I think that most of that inspiration comes from my early experience working in Japan, where I was enamored with how connected they are to the seasons around them, how focused they stayed from month to month on what grows in each one of their regions, as well as the chefs that I worked for early in France that gave me a sense of technical training," Anthony said.
Anthony left home for Japan the day after he graduated from Indiana University, where he earned degrees in Japanese and business. He ventured to Japan to immerse himself in the country's industry, language and culture.
After a number of odd jobs in Japan, he was hired to work in a restaurant with "an incredibly inspiring chef."
Anthony's love for cooking blossomed while working with that inspiring chef, Shizuyo Shima, at Bistro Shima, a French-Japanese fusion restaurant in Tokyo.
"I found myself in love with the idea of working in this small restaurant with the chef, myself and two servers," Anthony said. "In about a year I learned the foundation of most of the cooking that we [at Gramercy Tavern] practice."
His attempt to learn Japanese and seek out adventure led him into the culinary world. Simply put, he got "hooked."
Following Shima's advice, Anthony moved to Paris, enrolled in culinary school at Le Ferrandi and began a year-long apprenticeship with chef Jean Delaveyne at Le Camelia in the Paris suburb of Bougival.
"It was a great way to get into the business," Anthony said. "It introduced me to a culinary tradition and a culture that I didn't grow up with."
Anthony grew up in the Midwest in an Italian family that cooked simple, traditional meals.
"We were proud of a lot of grandma's dishes. But that was simple cooking," he said. "These were people that had adopted recipes from their parents and adapted them with ingredients that more or less came from their gardens, simple things, not sophisticated food but great food."
As a child, Anthony helped garden with his grandparents, picking out ingredients for their meals.
"All great ingredients came out of that garden during summertime," Anthony said. "It was my grandfather that happened to be very good at really everything he touched. We ate really simple food: salads and peppers, and they were very proud of their garlic."
That garlic was passed down from Anthony's great grandfather and is still growing today. In fact, Anthony had a grower set aside a plot of land in upstate New York to continue growing this same garlic crop for the restaurant.
"So in a sense, we're using garlic that hasn't been crossed with any other varieties, that's come straight from the family," he said.
While Anthony admits that he didn't always enjoy helping out in the garden as a child, he believes "there's nothing more luxurious than eating right from nature."
"We didn't look at it like that when we were kids," he said. "That was a heavy task to get out in the summer and help in the garden."
That experience, however, helped form the approach he now uses at Gramercy Tavern of using local seasonal ingredients.