Cincinnati Kid: Michael Anthony

The road to a James Beard Award can be long and hard, and for Michael Anthony it ran from his parents’ garden in New Richmond through a bakery and farm in Japan, various high-test kitchens in Paris, and on to some of the swankier restaurants in New York. Still, all along the way, he never lost his appreciation for a really tasty beet.
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When Michael Anthony was 9, his fourth-grade class at Pierce Elementary went on a field trip to Maisonette. “Our teacher threatened us: If we didn’t learn how to follow the rules of a fine dining restaurant, we’d get in trouble,” he says. “I remember being so intimidated, that even as an adult—this must have been in 1995 when I came back from Europe, after Jean-Robert had started—I walked into Maisonette to eat and I was nervous.”

Michael Anthony
Michael Anthony

Photographs by Sasha Maslov

What a difference 20 years make. Europe is where Anthony, who’d never so much as waited tables growing up, started on the path that led to his 2015 James Beard Award as the country’s most Outstanding Chef. After attending the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts in Paris and apprenticing in multiple Parisian restaurants, he moved to New York City, eventually landing at Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns, where he and owner Dan Barber practiced farm-to-table cooking long before it turned into a movement. Since 2006, Anthony has been the Executive Chef at Gramercy Tavern, the jewel of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group, and in the view of critics Ryan Sutton and Robert Sietsema of foodie website Eater, “New York’s quintessential American restaurant.” In 2015, he took the helm of a second high-profile USHG restaurant, Untitled, in the new Whitney Museum of American Art, and also published his second cookbook, V Is for Vegetables. In it, Anthony recalls eating beets as a child in Clermont County and half-apologizes for helping to start the farmers’ market ramps craze. His aim, he says, is to appeal to “the cook with a sense of imagination.

“Why not use what went into building our society with fresh, new eyes?”

The first thing I was going to ask was: What was your first favorite vegetable? But the answer is in your cookbook: beets. We lived just outside New Richmond, on five acres of land. So everybody had a garden, right? And it ended up being something fun, to pull those things out of the ground. We sprayed them off with the garden hose and boiled them up, and we would just bite into them whole. There was something kind of war-like about it. Being a little boy biting into this whole beet.

Was there a vegetable you wouldn’t eat as a kid? I wouldn’t eat anything. I was terrible. I was really one of the pickiest eaters alive. What I tried to do in V Is for Vegetables is be somewhat sympathetic and understand that sometimes vegetables can be intimidating for people. I tried to write with the point of view of not telling people how to eat, or what to eat, or that if they don’t eat their veggies they’re going to live unhealthy lives or be less morally sound. I wanted to write stories as a kid who grew up in Cincinnati eating the same foods as everyone else.

Sometimes, when we look at a pile of artichokes, or a bunch of celery root, or Swiss chard with long stems and leafy greens, we don’t really have that kind of connection to: Mmm, mouthwatering meal. Especially if there’s gnarly skin or dirt involved. Even anybody who’s committed to the idea of, like, “I wanna buy these products and make something with them,” [they still wonder], “How much time is this going to take?” Or, “How do I go about doing this? It’s awkward and rolls around.” Or, “What do you peel, and what do you eat?” I wanted to try to reconnect people with their kitchen, and give some insight into how you get from the market to delicious meals.

In the book you tell the story of keeping alive your great-grandfather’s garlic seeds from Italy, which you now have grown professionally to use at Gramercy Tavern. That side of your family is from New York, and the German side is from Ohio, is that right? The German side was originally from central Ohio, but settled in Indianapolis. My parents met at Indiana University, and settled in Cincinnati because they wanted to lead their own lives. It was kind of like their little pioneering spirit.

Did you go to Findlay Market much as a kid? The answer is no, but I knew of it. And so when I came back home in the ’90s to visit Mom and Dad, one of the first things I wanted to do was go see Findlay Market, which went through a pretty dramatic improvement.

Towns like Cincinnati have [a history of being influenced by] chefs from around the world who have chosen to make their home there. Jean-Robert is a great example. He’s the real deal. Like, that guy’s background is as interesting and rich as any chef working anywhere—and he chose Cincinnati as home. And people that he’s trained have gone on to become really great young chefs. Nate Appleman—he worked at Maisonette and went on to be one of the most exciting, young, influential chefs in the country. And now he’s got a very successful career doing research and development for Chipotle, which is a very interesting turn for a chef.

I understand you also have a childhood connection to David Falk. His brother John Gordon was my brother David’s little buddy in Clermont County. Fast-forward to a few years ago, I’m working dinner service, and Nate Appleman came into Gramercy Tavern. I went out to say hi and he’s like, “I want to introduce you to my friends from Cincinnati, they work in the restaurant business.” It was David, and the other guy sitting at the table was Jose Salazar. And I [asked], “What restaurant do you guys work in?” And David says, very modestly, “Ah, I’ve got this little place called Boca.” And I was like, “Ah, OK. There’s a guy I heard of named John Gordon Falk out there, kind of making a name for himself.” And David looked at me like: “How do you know my brother?”

It didn’t take long for him to put it together that we were connected in some way. And we maintained that connection. Every time he would come to New York we would either see each other or have coffee. Over the years, David ended up sending cooks to come and hang out with us in the kitchen. Just before they opened Boca 3.0 in the Maisonette space, several of his team members came out to spend some time at Gramercy Tavern.

I kind of fantasize about getting back to Cincinnati and maybe doing a guest chef routine. I’ve never gone back with the intent of living there or running a restaurant, but my mom keeps me in the know. She’s sent me every single food-related clip from The Enquirer in the mail, with a little explanation, always finishing with: “When are you going to come home and open a restaurant?”

You studied business and language at Indiana University. How’d you get interested in food? What made you want to be a chef? I studied abroad my junior year at the University of Strasbourg. We had some family friends who lived over there [and] introduced me to what it was like to live in central France—the passionate feelings that they have for cooking and eating—and I fell in love with the role that food played in their lives. So much so that I was like, “Wow, this is really cool, maybe this is an avenue that I could pursue.” And as I started to bring it up, everyone was like, “Are you kidding me? You didn’t grow up in a restaurant family. You’ve got to start cooking when you’re 14 or 15 years old. You missed the boat, buddy.”

I went back to Bloomington and finished my senior year. Along the way I had also studied Japanese. I was fascinated with Japanese culture and language. So the day after I graduated, not really knowing what I wanted to do, I decided to move to Japan. I picked up a job teaching English and started really exploring. I traded English lessons for learning home cooking in Japanese households. I worked in a bakery. I spent a summer working on a farm.

Being a long way from friends and family, I got to go through that introspective period as a young guy, saying, “What the hell are you going to do with yourself?” And I thought, “You know what, maybe I can give this a go.” So I wrote a letter to the food editor of the International Herald Tribune in Tokyo: “I’m an American guy, kind of studying Japanese here, interested in going to cooking school in Osaka”—the TSUJI cooking school, which is one of the world’s most famous cooking schools.

And he [responded]: “Wow, that’s kind of crazy and a hard thing to do. But I’ll introduce you to a friend of mine who you might find a good teacher.” He took me to this little French-Japanese restaurant called Bistro Shima. I introduced myself and told the chef-owner that I wouldn’t be a nuisance, and I was studying enough Japanese that I could follow directions and would work really hard. She accepted me and I became an apprentice in the kitchen. When the time came and she said, “I’ve taught you everything I know, it’s time to move on,” she also said, “I think you should go to Paris, not Osaka.”

So then after several years in Paris, you headed for New York. I didn’t have the notion that it was New York or bust. I was curious about the West Coast. I contemplated Philadelphia. I didn’t really consider coming back home, because I had gotten the taste for what it felt like to travel, and be a little bit on my own. My chef in Paris connected me with Daniel Boulud. And at that point, I was like, “Oh, why not New York?”

I started working in the kitchen at Daniel. I was hustling around, going and getting ingredients, chopping, prep work, a little bit of everything. And a week later, Daniel himself—back then, in 1995, he only had one restaurant, he was always first in and last out—crosses paths with me in the walk-in. And he stops and looks up and [says]: “Who are you?”

“I’m Mike! You hired me all the way from Paris.”

And he’s like: “Ah…” No recognition whatsoever. I thought, Hmmm, I’m not sure I have a job here.

But you did, and that led to jobs at March, followed by Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns. In The Gramercy Tavern Cookbook, Danny Meyer tells a story about how you were thinking about opening your own place and asked him for advice. Danny was generous with his time, and agreed to give me a lot of pointers and tips about the business plan. Then in the middle of that conversation he said: “Look, hypothetically speaking, if you could work for any of my restaurants, which would it be?” I didn’t even have to think about it. I said: “Gramercy Tavern. But we both know that that’s not possible.” And he goes: “I can’t say a word more about this but I want you to hold that thought.”

And the next thing you know, you’re the second-ever chef at Gramercy, succeeding Tom Colicchio. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Couldn’t hardly imagine it coming true, and it did. It was both the easiest and the hardest job to step into as a chef. Lightning seemingly only strikes once, and Gramercy Tavern might have been one of the best-branded restaurants in the history of restaurants. To try and mess with that would have scared anyone. I think we’re really lucky because Danny himself, and the company, is courageous enough to have the attitude of: Let’s celebrate a day’s hard work, and everybody putting their heart and soul into the work, and turn around and say the next day, “I bet we can figure out how to do this better.” I was comfortable enough to realize it wasn’t going to change overnight, but tenacious enough not to accept that that was the way it would always be. I’m a partner in the business now [since 2011], and I think that we’ve done an amazing job of preserving the essence of Gramercy Tavern while making it a completely different restaurant.

Meyer has also led the way on the restaurant business conversation about tipping, with plans to do away with it at every Union Square Hospitality Group restaurant by the end of 2016. Danny recognizes the inequalities and the challenges that are built into our industry, and has been looking for the moment that makes sense to address it. Any good restaurant has a professional working culture, which means that, as a guest, you show up and you’re going to get our best. It doesn’t matter whether you leave 10 bucks or 100 bucks, we’re there to give you everything we’ve got, you know? The tip isn’t a reward or a punishment. It’s almost a lost symbol of a time that’s gone by.

The problem is that only part of our team legally can make a living from those tips—that’s the front of the house—and the other part of our team cannot touch that money. Nor does the restaurant benefit in any way, shape, or form from those tips. And so it makes a very unequal, uneven playing field. We’re trying to even the playing field a little bit. Kitchen pay hasn’t changed more than 25 percent in the last 20 years, while the front of the house salaries have changed over 225 percent in the last five years. Thirty years ago, no one wanted to talk about this; if you brought the subject up, you made a lot of people really uncomfortable. Today, our front and back-of-the-house understand that they can’t do this alone. It takes a whole team to be great at this.

You won the Beard Award for best chef in New York in 2012, and had been a finalist for the national honor in 2014. Was it a big deal to finally win? I’ll tell you what, it is not the way in which we find the deepest satisfaction, but I felt pretty good about it. The weekend that Untitled opened was the same weekend of the Beard Awards in Chicago and I didn’t know if I’d get to go. And Danny was like, “You have to go.” Good thing I did. But I was really thinking of the couple of hours of sleep I was going to get on the flight to and from Chicago. Everything else was icing on the cake.

So what was it like opening a second restaurant, and how does Untitled differ from Gramercy Tavern? The style of cooking that we do is closely related to Gramercy Tavern yet this place also gives us a little more latitude. [We] rethink it a little bit. Have words like spontaneity in mind more than luxury. I asked myself if this would be a stage on which we could tell the story of seasonal local food, and talk about a vegetable-driven menu. [If we could] generate a new and younger clientele for Gramercy Tavern; provide opportunities for our talented staff to grow and step into positions of responsibility. And it was all of the above. So I said, “Yeah, let’s do this.”

The Renzo Piano–designed building, with its expanse of glass and outdoor seating, gives it a very different feel. It’s almost like a reality TV show: We carry out our business in front of the public and our guests. There’s never a moment when we’re not in sight. At first it was terrifying, honestly. When the museum opened there were lines that stretched down both blocks and around the corner. I kind of felt like, “Well, what are we going to go out and serve all those people?”

Michael Anthony photographed December 12, 2015 at Untitled in New York City.
Michael Anthony photographed December 12, 2015 at Untitled in New York City.

Photographs by Sasha Maslov

OK, inevitable last question: When you go home, which Cincinnati junk food is the one you have to have? There’s only one, baby.

I can probably guess. When I took my wife, Mindy, to visit my mom and dad for the first time, they picked us up from the airport and we went straight to Skyline Chili. Of course my dad was talking about the positives and negatives of Gold Star versus Skyline. I was like, “Dad, whatever. Let’s just get to the chili parlor.” And as I was eating it, Mindy looked at me inquisitively like, “Is this what you love so much?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s the one.”

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