Chefs with Issues is a platform for chefs and farmers we love, fired up for causes about which they're passionate. Michael Anthony is the chef-partner at New York City's Gramercy Tavern. Last week, he received the James Beard Award for Best Chef NYC - but he almost didn't live to see that day.
In late October of last year, I underwent open heart surgery. There was no warning, no history of disease, no serious abuse that led the inner lining of my ascending aorta to tear. Sometimes things just break.
While attending a signing for the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook, I began experiencing chest pain. As I think anyone else my age (early 40s) would feel in that moment, I was in complete disbelief. I was both embarrassed that I might pass out and concerned that whatever I was experiencing might keep me from celebrating my colleagues’ big moment. After a quick exit, I returned to Gramercy Tavern. I knew something was seriously wrong.
There was just enough time to gather what was wrong with my heart and who was sent to fix it: Dr. Charles Geller. In times like this we can feel thankful for competent, well-trained, extremely disciplined professionals like him. Yet what I was most struck with was his warm and confident smile.
Maybe because I was introduced to him while lying on my back, it seemed clear by his build that Dr. Geller was no stranger to the pleasures of the table. He asked me about my profession and seemed to shudder with excitement when I told him about being a chef. He allowed me, despite the intensity of the moment, to believe that he was on my side. He explained calmly what we were about to experience together. In an instant, I became indebted to him forever.
I woke up a day later with many questions swirling through my head. The immediacy of the surgery hadn’t allowed me to contemplate what this might mean for my career as a chef. There had been more pressing issues at hand. Now that I had made it through and was starting to wrap my head around what happened, I wondered if my body, the body that had just betrayed me, would recover enough to allow me to return to the kitchen.
I also wondered why this had happened to me. Why now? I have always felt proud of my diet and the health-conscious cooking that we serve at the restaurant. I lead a balanced lifestyle, but wondered if this condition was at all related to my being a chef. While some of my larger questions have remained unanswered, I have since been told by a number of doctors that it does not seem likely that my diet or lifestyle had much of an effect on my condition.
What I did learn from this experience was what I took away from the hospital staff, who left me feeling the same as Dr. Geller did, which was deeply cared for. The optimism and warmth I received from them was overwhelming and powerful. Of course, these folks were carefully trained to perform the technical aspects of their jobs, but what stood out to me was how they listened to me and responded with thoughtful and gracious gestures. They rose above the call of duty to be encouraging, which stiffened my resolve to bounce back.
When I returned home from the hospital, I didn’t know where to start. Would I have a different outlook on life? On cooking? How would this experience change me? Eventually, I realized that at the core of this powerful exchange was hospitality - the very same force that distinguishes what we do every day at Gramercy Tavern. It is all of the caring things the staff did to make me feel they were genuinely on my side that I will remember long after the memory of the names of the drugs and the details of my surgery fade.
After my surgery and homecoming, the gestures of encouragement poured in: get well cards, concerned emails, thoughtfully chosen books and poems, inspirational movies and carefully packed handmade food. I appreciated everyone who reached out during this time, but it dawned on me that the cooks had a special ability to connect and communicate by the food they shared. Some simply nourished and others dazzled but everyone told a story.
With the help of these restaurant folk and their deliveries, I eased my way back in to being myself again by tasting each expression: barley and basil brought solidarity in tough times, kale and beet salad reconnected me with the garden, chicken fricassee invoked nostalgia, parsnip soup acted like a familiar handshake, poached lemon char sparked dreams, chocolate chip cookies felt just like a pat on the back.
Each bite made me feel a profound sense of thanks to those who lent a hand or a meal when I needed it most. Through the careful choices and deliberate styles, informal gestures and intricate work, whether immediately consumed or painstakingly preserved, we communicate so much with those who are at the receiving end of a thoughtful meal.
Their gestures pushed me to develop enough strength to return to the kitchen to reenter this dialogue, and this generosity of spirit made me feel unbelievably proud to belong to the restaurant industry. While we work day in and day out to provide for our guests, my experience reminded me why taking care of each other comes first.
Previously - Serving up gratitude in troubled times
What have food-based gestures of kindness in troubled times mean to you? We'd love to hear your story in the comments below.