Chef Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern on his Japanese Influences, Chefs in Social Media, and Ramps

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Ellen Silverman Photography
Chef Michael Anthony has been the executive chef at Gramercy Tavern for nearly four years. He got his start in the kitchen soon after college, when, while studying in Japan, he fell for Japanese cooking. Anthony began working at Bistro Shima in Tokyo, and then moved to France, where he went to culinary school and then trained at several restaurants.

In New York, he went from Daniel, to March, to Blue Hill before he took over at Gramercy Tavern in 2006. We caught up with Anthony about how Japanese food still influences his cooking, the manic pace of the restaurant world, chefs on social media, and his most embarrassing moment in the kitchen.

Check back here tomorrow to find out the best and worst things Anthony has ever eaten, his thoughts on the health care debate, and his favorite pizza place.

So you started your food career in Tokyo--how does Japanese cuisine or techniques influence what you do now?

Yes, it does influence the way I look at food and ultimately the way I conceive dishes, although there are very few Japanese ingredients or techniques on the menu here... It was my first encounter with a culture that is so entranced with following and celebrating the changing seasons. And what really caught my attention is how they do it through food. That's the guiding light to the way we think about food at Gramercy Tavern.

And then the other side of it is more cultural than cooking: Their reverence for craftsmanship. They have a way of approaching form--an appreciation of and an insistence on a job well done.

It pops up in Japanese culture everywhere: Cooks work with a deep-rooted sense of the necessity of doing each minute detail the way it should be done, the best way. And you see that on the surface of cultural life, too. Standing on the train platform, you see an employee watching the clock: Pointing at the train, pointing at his watch to make sure the train is on schedule. It's minute-precise, and when it's not, there's information as to why. It's intense.

And the kitchen is the same, and ultimately it's a technical issue rather an an aesthetic one, focused on following and teaching form. You learn to do the job right: This is where you put things; this is the tool you use; this is how you use it; this is how the dish looks; this is how it tastes.

That's not to say this is unique to Japanese culture, but it marks it.

But our menu is not fusion, and I've never worked at a fusion restaurant, so to speak. I worked under Wayne Nish at March, and because he's of mixed Japanese origin, I has the false notion that March restaurant would be a place I could cultivate the Japanese side of my cooking. But that couldn't have been farther from the truth. He avoided at all costs any reference to traditional technique or dishes, and Japanese dishes, period. That's a way of life for Wayne. At every corner he avoided the reference points to classical technique.

That was disruptive to me as a young cook trying to develop a personal style of cooking. I had gone through Japan and France, learning new food cultures, swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. And that's one of the things that helped me at first. I wasn't thinking: Why is it this way? In America, we do it like this. I just bought it, like a three year old--this is the way it is, so this is the way I'll do it.

But Wayne played such an integral role in challenging me: It was at that point that I had to start thinking for myself. March was such an amazing place. It's since closed. It was one of those very quiet, charming, and amazing places to be. I learned so many great lessons from him.

We move so quickly through the dining scene now, so that young chefs at Gramercy Tavern--who are very dedicated, hard-working, well-read--have never heard of March restaurant. And less than 10 years ago, this was one of the building blocks of the dining community and of my career. This was a place that had three stars in the New York Times. It's astounding to me how fast we move on.

Well, you've been at Gramercy Tavern for almost four years now, which is a relatively long time. Do you plan to stay? Do you feel that the fact that Gramercy Tavern is a kind of antidote to how fast the restaurant scene moves now?

...One of the most interesting aspects of working in a kitchen is that you get to travel and work in different countries. I grew up in the Midwest, and not in a restaurant family, so this opened a window on the world for me.

But when I travel, I like to go to one place and stay there, whether it's for a week or a year, stay in one place long enough to get to know it, what it's like to be there, eat there, meet people there.

I think there's a lot of wealth in throwing down roots where you work. It takes time to cultivate the relationships; your style evolves; you menu evolves. You need those networks to appreciate what you can do in a restaurant...

We're celebrating our 16th anniversary this year, and I couldn't be happier to work at Gramercy Tavern. Having said that, one of the most compelling things about working there everyday is that it is still a learning experience--that sounds corny but the energy and drive there makes it feel like a restaurant that's two or three years old. There's not a sense of panic, like at really young restaurants, where you're only as good as the last meal you cooked--there's not that panic, but there's a sense of yearning, of wanting to get better...You can't ask for much more than that.

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