March 28, 2008 -- 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."
His Grandparents' Garlic
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.
Making a Dish More 'Powerful'
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.
Anthony took over as executive chef there in 2006 and in 2007 was named "best new chef" by Time Out New York.
"It was incredibly inspiring to join a team at Gramercy Tavern," he said. "It's one of the longest standing culinary traditions in the country."
Gramercy Tavern has been one of the nation's most popular restaurants, and the recipient of numerous awards over the past decade. In 2005, Gourmet magazine ranked Gramercy Tavern as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world, and it has consistently been named in Zagat as New York City's most popular restaurant.
Just this past month, both Anthony and Gramercy Tavern were nominated for James Beard Awards, a highly competitive culinary recognition. Anthony was nominated for the "Best Chef: New York City" and Gramercy Tavern for "Outstanding Restaurant." The winners will be announced in June.
Anthony's style at Gramercy Tavern blends the techniques he learned in France and Japan.
He makes a concerted effort to buy locally. Seventy percent of the ingredients used at Gramercy Tavern come from local sources and greenmarkets.
"The restaurant is based on seasonal ingredients and celebrating local producers, mostly because those are flavors that we've fallen in love with and want to reproduce. If we do our jobs well, we don't get in the way of that flavor," Anthony said. "There's a simple gesture of cooking foods -- combining flavors in a way that you would want to lean over to your friend and say 'taste this!'"
Even though he is now a veteran of the food business, Anthony admits its still "a bit of surprise and awe when you hit a great flavor combination."
While food might not have always been a passion for Anthony, it is now a central part of his life, embodying what he enjoys the most.
"It's adventure; it's excitement; it's our interest in connecting with people. Ultimately, food is a great connecter."