Editor's Note: Chefs are the backbone of so much of the work we do. Whether it’s culinary events that raise critical funds, our nutrition education programs that teach low-income families how to shop and eat on a budget, or even lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of hungry kids, chefs are some of our most dedicated volunteers and advocates.
We want to introduce our community to more of these chefs, so we’ve created an ongoing interview series that features these chef advocates. This week’s spotlight shines on Executive Chef Michael Anthony and Pastry Chef Nancy Olson. Chef Michael Anthony has cooked in a number of celebrated kitchens worldwide, including Jacques Cagna, Michel Guerard, l’Arpege, Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Daniel; in 2012, received the James Beard Award for “Best Chef: NYC.” Chef Nancy Olson has served as Pastry Chef in a number of NYC restaurants including Dona, Peacock Alley at the Waldorf Astoria, Django and Theo. Together, they now lead the acclaimed kitchen at New York’s Gramercy Tavern, where the 19th annual Autumn Harvest Dinner will take place on Monday, October 1.
How did you become involved with Share Our Strength?
Mike: I have always admired the impressive organization and work of Share Our Strength, but when I joined the team at Gramercy Tavern I also stepped into a long tradition of collaboration between Danny Meyer, Billy Shore and their respective organizations. Their collective work has both transformed the restaurant industry and provided needed assistance to many people around the country.
Nancy: I became involved with Share Our Strength when I first started at Gramercy Tavern six years ago. I am so incredibly lucky to work for a restaurant that very thoughtfully uses its resources to work with organizations like Share Our Strength. There is a generosity of spirit at Gramercy Tavern that puts taking care of each other very high on our list of priorities.
Tell us a bit about the dinner you have coming up on October 1. What other chefs are involved and what are you serving?
Mike: Over the years, the restaurant has welcomed outstanding culinary talent from around the world, and this year we are very excited to work with Carlo Mirarchi (Roberta’s and Blanca, Brooklyn, NY), John Besh (Besh Restaurant Group,New Orleans, LA), Francis Mallmann (1884 Francis Mallmann, Restaurante Patagonia Sur, Argentina and El Garzon Restaurant, Uruguay), Karen Demasco (Locanda Verde, New York, NY) and Keith Cohen (Orwasher’s, New York, NY). All of these chefs have cultivated a style of cooking that highlights seasonal ingredients, and speaks to distinctive regional qualities. Their cooking refines and simplifies each dish to leave an indelible memory with diners.
Nancy: The amazingly talented Karen DeMasco is serving dessert. I’ve admired her desserts for a very long time and am looking forward to working with her. Karen is serving a Maple Budino with Apple Cranberry Conserve and Cranberry Sorbetto. We have planned some pretty great petits fours to follow dessert including concord grape and cashew butter macaroons and maple bourbon truffles. We’re also going to make some apple cider glazed apple fritters to enjoy with Blue Bottle Coffee after dessert.
What ingredients will we always find in your kitchen?
Mike: To answer the question literally, I can’t seem to cook without garlic, so whether I’m at Gramercy Tavern or at home, there is always a head of garlic on my counter. But more generally, Gramercy Tavern’s menu is based on local foods served within a particular season, in a healthy and inventive style.
Nancy: One of the really cool things about pastry is that pretty much everything is magically created by manipulating butter, sugar, flour, and eggs so you’ll always find large amounts of those in the pastry kitchen. My kitchen at home, however, will most always be a little light on mise en place. I rely on the amazing team at Gramercy Tavern to create fabulous family meals.
What is your favorite childhood food memory?
Mike: I’m the first grandchild on my father’s side of our Italian-American family. This gave me rights to lots of privileges as a kid, like tasting my grandmother’s meatballs right out of the pan, before they were submerged in the tomato sauce for Sunday dinner.
Nancy: I’m really incredibly lucky to have a great many childhood food memories. My Grandma Zerr was a great baker who would send us home with tons of pastries. She had a refrigerator in her basement dedicated only to dill pickles, refrigerator pickles, and pickled beans. She’d make jars and jars of strawberry rhubarb jelly and grape jelly all from produce in her garden. She’d make applesauce from the tree in her yard.
What’s the best meal you’ve had in recent memory?
Mike: The best meal in recent memory came from this summer, on the South Fork of Long Island, with family. We cook simple foods in a decadent way and rely on their awesome inherent flavor. I’m amazed how well we can eat in that part of the state. It’s an enormous privilege to be able to eat a wide variety of healthy, delicious and nutritious foods harvested within a day from so close by; fish, meat, eggs, vegetables, cheese, milk, wine, beer all made by people we know. It doesn’t get better than that.
Nancy: The best meal that I’ve had in recent memory was when I was on vacation in early September. I asked my mom if she could teach me how to make strudel. It’s a savory dish that I imagine is only made by the carbohydrate-driven cuisine in south central North Dakota (much of the food there has roots in Germans who immigrated from Russia). My mom spent time showing my sister, Katja, and I how to make this dish that her mother had taught her. Eating the strudel really took me back to my childhood, I probably hadn’t tasted that dish in twenty years. But more amazing than eating the strudel was the time that we spent together in the kitchen.
We know that chefs get called upon to give back a lot and are thrilled that you’ve chosen to support Share Our Strength. Are there any experiences that inspired you to get involved in the fight against childhood hunger? From your perspective, why is ending childhood hunger important?
Mike: I have three kids of my own and I recognize that their growth depends on eating well and living well. It’s difficult for parents from any background to provide this for our kids, and every family, from the most needy to the most affluent, needs help reconnecting with the natural world around us. I cook for a living, so teaching people about food and making connections is both a privilege and a responsibility.
What is your most memorable experience in a kitchen? Most humbling?
Mike: The kitchen is a complicated place, and it requires years of practice and constant attention to make it run smoothly. I recognize that all this work can disappear in a second, so living each day to its fullest is key.
Nancy: I have so many memorable experiences in kitchens over the course of the last eighteen years that I cannot possibly even choose one that is the “most” memorable. If I were to cite the most recent “memorable” experience? Again… vacation home…. I went to visit the very first chef that I ever worked for at the Fargo Country Club in Fargo, North Dakota. Eric Ronson has worked there for over forty years! He’s truly an inspiration. We “acquired” a golf cart and some vodka lemonades and sat on the golf course talking about food and family.
Do you have any favorite cheap eats in NYC?
Mike: I love sandwiches from Num Pang, Ramen from Minca, Skewers from Yakitori Totto to name a few, the list is too long.
Nancy: I love grabbing a little tiny pizza tart at Birdbath as I head into work. It’s a perfect little lunch to eat in the park.
What chefs do you admire?
Mike: Alain Ducasse, Alain Passard, Michel Bras, Yoshihiro Murata, Alice Waters
Nancy: There are so many people who work so hard in our industry that are worthy of admiration. I truly, truly admire every cook in my kitchen. They are amazingly talented and hard-working. They always put forth a remarkable energy and effort but are really giving even more as we prepare for the Autumn Harvest Dinner.
What do you want people to know about childhood hunger in America?
Mike: Children can still be hungry even if they have had a lot to eat. Getting nutritious, real food to children across this country continues to be a major challenge.
Nancy: I’m grateful to Share Our Strength for working to educate about and help to present solutions to end childhood hunger. I hope that people are stirred to share their time, talents, and resources, their “strengths” to assist. In our prosperous nation no child should be handicapped by hunger. Every child should be able to share THEIR favorite food memory too.