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When Michael Anthony, executive chef of New York’s Gramercy Tavern, joins chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson and master sommelier Bobby Stuckey at Frasca Food and Wine tonight, there will be three James Beard Foundation Award winners under one roof. You can just imagine what a dinner—inspired by the pages of Gramercy Tavern’s newly released cookbook—this will be. Last week, I spoke with Anthony about cooking at Frasca and how he keeps Gramercy Tavern, a restaurant that will celebrate 20 years in 2014, fresh and relevant.
5280: Have you been to Frasca before? Will this be your first time cooking with Lachlan?
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MA: I’ve never been to Frasca [but] I’ve always admired these guys. I’m fascinated by someone else’s kitchen and I love studying other restaurants. These guys are some of the best operators out there.
5280: Gramercy Tavern opened in 1994 and yet it’s timeless. You’ve been there since 2006, how do you keep the restaurant relevant?
MA: It starts with reconceiving the notion of a restaurant: A restaurant is not a piece of artwork—it continues. You have to reinvent the way you operate without ruining the essence of it. You study what makes this restaurant great and then you have to have the courage to turn around and say we can do it better. We’re in a timeless setting but we want to explore new ideas. We’re not just good at serving food and wine—Danny [Meyer] has been able to champion the hospitality, but even further, we take the basic notion that a restaurant belongs to the community in which its found…. There’s value to our work, we’re not here to make a buck or for the ego trip but [instead] for how our work can make the community better. People enjoy coming to work, there’s a strong sense of ownership and pride. Restaurants are a little like children. You nurture and love them. They require your attention and imagination.
5280: Is this Gramercy’s first cookbook? Why now?
MA: Officially both [former executive chef] Tom Colicchio and [former pastry chef] Claudia Fleming did books when they were here. But both of those were individual. This is the first of Gramercy Tavern. It’s a constant effort looking forward to see how we can share that this restaurant is relevant and striving to stay young and improve. The timing is fortuitous but the book wasn’t conceived as a promotional tool for the restaurant. We would have done it sooner if we had enough recipes, and enough maturity to tell that story. It took me a long time to have that body of work.
5280: You have described the stuffed calamari at Tokyo’s Bistro Shima [Anthony worked there as a young cook] as “disarmingly simple, wonderfully memorable, and incredibly rich.” I would say the same for Gramercy’s smoked trout dish. I still can’t understand how you eke so much flavor out of a relatively plain fish.
MA: That recipe is in the book. The technique is really primitive. We cook the fish to order over applewood chips on a Weber grill that sits right on the grill. It’s not a standard tool; you’re not taught this in cooking school. I was completely horrified by the idea [when I learned it at March, Wayne Nish’s late New York restaurant]. But that was the magic of March—I learned how to follow my own voice. I have used the technique in every restaurant I’ve cooked in since. The concept is based on Japanese cooking: intensely seasonal, meant to be memorable…It’s made simple to be interesting. That kind of cooking, it can require an intense amount of technical training for a professional team. But at home I’ve adapted a couple of the methods. My style of cooking translates to home cooking. Recipes [in the book] are real and doable. They have to be, otherwise my mom would call me 10 times a day.