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Enlightened Eaters: Mike Anthony in Praise of Produce

Maggie Borden

March 24, 2016

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Gramercy Tavern’s chef Mike Anthony is a two-time JBF Award winner, JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum, and a passionate advocate known for his work with God’s Love We Deliver and City Harvest. But beneath all that is a man who loves vegetables, pure and simple. His ardor for the garden is on proud display in his new cookbook, V is for Vegetable, which just earned Anthony another nomination for our 2016 JBF Books, Broadcast, and Journalism Awards

Last week, our Enlightened Eaters program hosted Anthony for a tasting and talk-back about the book at the brand-new home of God’s Love We Deliver. Guests enjoyed seasonal samples straight from the V is for Vegetable recipe collection (including the broccoli bruschetta pictured above), and got a glimpse into the creative forces driving Anthony’s work in the kitchen and in print.

Read on for some of our favorite quotes from the evening:

1) I came from a very middle-class American family, so like most people, I grew up eating a wide variety of snack foods. Luckily, my parents had some nostalgic, long-lost love for the Italian tradition of being around the table. And my mom was a very adventurous cook and always wanted us to try new foods. 

2) The theme of V is for Vegetables is that we're all in this together. Our desire was to share with people what we, as chefs, spend so many hours studying, and to showcase the type of food you can make at home. 

3) As a society we need to reconnect with our kitchens. The mission is always to say to people “you can do this.” 

4) The way we all cook was also a driving force. We're all under the same pressure at home. If you're cooking, you're cleaning. The time it takes to clean up after the meal, no matter how lovely it was, is a factor in whether you're going to do it again. 

5) There’s a difference between eating and tasting: tasting requires a little discovery

6) At Gramercy Tavern and Untitled [where Anthony is also executive chef] we mostly cook with our imagination. I rarely search for nostalgic notes or recipes when we're coming up with dishes at the restaurants, but I did for this book. My maternal grandparents lived in Indianapolis, and there was a recipe we found on an index card from my grandmother that was called "pot pie." Basically, it was for potato dumplings with torn chicken, chicken broth, and dill. It was kind of an abomination, with these very dense dumplings. So I decided to rework the recipe—I reworked the dough to make it light and fluffy and airy, and much to my surprise, it worked out. I had this really deep sense of satisfaction from revisiting that memory. 

7) Writing a cookbook is all about flexibility.

8) The story of our food is so much more delicious and powerful when we talk about the ingredients that are grown close to home. Fish and meat have much more complicated stories. Vegetables are first step towards thinking about healthy, vibrant eating.

9) The way we wrote the book is not the way most cookbooks are produced. We worked in [co-author Dorothy Kalin]’s home kitchen, and we had an entire cookbook team in the kitchen with us. Our photographer didn't rest for one second, capturing these images. Our recipe tester sat right across the counter from me as I cooked and took notes on everything, in order to catch me any time anything too cheffy was happening. We would sit and taste those dishes together. If they were too complicated, they didn't make our way into our story, and we reworked them. It made our book very practical. 

10) The heart of eating is starting with the most delicious ingredients you can find.

11) We still have a lot of work to do to express what is unique to our cooking as Americans. A key element is that we have the opportunity as Americans to be a bit more relaxed about our native cuisine. We're not weighed down by hundreds of years of tradition. My goal is not to add to a hysteria that makes people afraid to eat. We cannot continue to live in the fear of whether we're good enough cooks to feed ourselves and our family and friends. 

12) By cooking we're saying emphatically what's important to us and how we want to spend our time and our money. There’s enough knowledge and courage in this room to find new solutions. We are boundless. It's a luxury that doesn't exist in a lot of other cooking traditions. I hope that we'll continue to put young cooks in a position to think creatively, and I hope that as home cooks we continue to think about each bite that we take and we give to our family. 

13) Our creative thoughts and energy have been focused on where our food comes from. But we're seeing a shift in the restaurant industry towards being infatuated with people—towards focusing the lens on issues that target social justice, the quality of life of people who work for us, and the sustainability of a team. 

14) I wanted this book to be about the explosive memories of falling in love with vegetables, and then give tips on how to cook them. We chose not to tell people how to use these recipes. As long as they're eating more of it, it doesn't matter if it's a side or an appetizer. Rather than take a stance on whether this is an app or an entrée, we said "use it how it works for you."

15) Some vegetables are harder to make people love than others, but I'll cheer for rutabaga!

16) The way we give value to food will educate our children and the next generation. Then all of a sudden something that is pedestrian becomes lovely. 

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Get a taste of V is for Vegetables with Mike Anthony's recipe for sauteéd mushrooms on flatbread with braised greens.

Learn more about the James Beard Foundation's Enlightened Eaters program.