New York Top Chef Shares Secret to Keeping a Restaurant Fresh after 17 Years
At 10 o'clock on a recent morning, waiters sat at a table folding starched white napkins into rigid squares. In a kitchen below ground, a cook rolled out fresh spinach fettuccine while a butcher disassembled a 200-pound Berkshire pig. It was a typical day at Gramercy Tavern, the venerable restaurant that has attracted a loyal following of bankers, bold-faced names and visitors to New York City since it opened 17 years ago.
Like many of New York's high-end eating establishments, it takes an enormous team and a tremendous amount of legwork to make this place tick.
Running a Tight Ship
The kitchen staff is typically assembled by 7 am, doing everything from peeling garlic to cracking eggs in the pastry kitchen. And the place hums late into the night, when the final dinner tables are cleared and workers lock up around 1 am.
Each employee has a specific function, whether it's polishing glasses or running the ice cream maker. And the kitchen is highly choreographed during service, from the orders called by the sous chef and repeated by line cooks to the wiping of plates moments before they're whisked off by waiters.
"You very rarely see moments when the wheels come off," said Michael Anthony, who has served as Gramercy Tavern's executive chef for the past six years, since taking over from Tom Colicchio in 2006. After undergoing emergency open-heart surgery late last year, Anthony has learned to take a more hands-off role in the kitchen, although he's still intimately involved in day-to-day operations. "When I started, I felt like I had to show the kitchen that I could work every station," Anthony said. "But now, it's about showing them how to do it right, holding them to a high standard, and letting them think and act creatively."
Executive Chef Michael Anthony
Consistency and Innovation
At 17 years, Gramercy Tavern could be considered a dinosaur on the ever-changing New York restaurant scene. But the restaurant stays fresh and exciting to guests by constantly changing its menu and following food trends that excite young diners, Anthony said.
Each of the five sous chefs are generally working on one or two new dishes, and there are always new ingredients arriving in the kitchen for the cooks to experiment with, like the crate of snakehead fish fresh from the Potomac that was sitting downstairs when we recently stopped by.
As the menu gradually evolves, so does the restaurant's 500-bottle wine list and cocktail menu. Bottles are added and dropped over time, and the restaurant's seven bartenders are encouraged to invent drinks using new and seasonal ingredients, said Juliette Pope, the restaurant's beverage director.
The restaurant has a very loyal following, but Anthony said he wants to appeal to a younger generation of diners, in part by staying tuned into new food trends.
For example, the restaurant has tried to define "local" cuisine through vegetables, and has started offering more vegetable-based tasting menus to appeal to guests who are looking for something light and creative. It has also started buying more whole animals from small farms to experiment with charcuterie and butchery, Anthony said.
But while trends in American cooking have evolved, and the kitchen has evolved along with them, the restaurant's commitment to serving "American food in an American context" has not.
The Best of Everything
One major factor that sets Gramercy Tavern apart from other restaurants is the time and energy it puts into sourcing ingredients and training its staff.
Most produce comes from the Union Square Farmers' Market six blocks south, which is frequented by cooks who make the trek back uptown with overflowing wheelbarrows. But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to procuring top-of-the-line ingredients.
Anthony has a longstanding relationship with several of the small farms that provide Gramercy Tavern with pork, including one that he encouraged to start breeding now-popular Berkshire pigs long before they were known in the U.S.
The restaurant also serves "Kyoto carrots" grown from seeds Anthony picked up on a trip to Japan three years ago; a farmer he knows agreed to harvest them just for the restaurant.
Peeling garlic in the prep kitchen
Even the garlic has a backstory. The kind served at Gramercy Tavern is all derived from cloves carried over from Italy by Anthony's great-grandfather, and planted for decades by his great-uncle. A garlic farmer now has a special plot dedicated to this particular variety.
"We're celebrating simple ingredients and redefining luxury in that way," Anthony said. "We are better when we respect great ingredients."
Of course, great ingredients mean nothing without top-notch talent to transform them. To that end, Anthony encourages his cooks to innovate new dishes and pursue passion projects.
When we stopped by we met Paul Wetzel, the line cook in charge of Gramercy Tavern's charcuterie station. He had just returned from a weeklong charcuterie-making class in Alaska taught by a Swiss master, and was slicing sopressata for the staff to taste.
And for the dining room staff, training never ends. Pope or one of the general managers introduces a new wine or beverage to the waiters at almost every pre-service staff meeting, and there are mandatory staff wine tastings once a month.
Many restaurants are revolving doors for employees. But at Gramercy Tavern, it's not uncommon for workers to have spent years in the kitchen, and some have even brought their family members on board.
One way they keep up the good vibes?
By making the most out of "family meal," the pre-service lunch or dinner that every employee breaks to eat.
Lining up for family meal
The fare would almost never appear on the restaurant menu; on a recent morning it was an Indian-inspired feast, complete with hot naan and vats of curry.
On special occasions, like an employee's birthday or last day, they can put in a request for a meal. And the cooks take turns preparing the food, which everyone eats together in the restaurant's tavern room before the tables are set for guests.
There's also room to grow. Almost everyone we met had held at least one other job at the restaurant; the beverage director was once a line cook, and the executive assistant had started out working the ice cream machine.
While many of Gramercy Tavern's sous chefs could easily run their own kitchens, they tend to stick around because they feel a sense of ownership and are highly engaged in the kitchen, Anthony said.
Source: Business Insider