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Michael Anthony Returns to Gramercy Tavern After Open-Heart Surgery, Talks Recovery

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Last fall Gramercy Tavern's chef-partner, Michael Anthony, had open-heart surgery to repair an aortic dissection, a tear in the wall of the aorta. We're happy to report he's back in the kitchen and feeling fine. Today we spoke over the phone about what happened.

How are you feeling?
Very excited to be back at work. I'm happy to be here, period.

When did you start feeling like yourself again?
The recovery has been a little slow because of the nature of the surgery. I've been back in the kitchen for the last two weeks and I'm starting to feel like I'm fully recovered. It's been gradual but I'm actively leading the kitchen again. I'm building my stamina and strength with cardio workouts that are monitored at the hospital by a cardiologist.

When did you realize something was wrong?
I had some noticeable chest pain, pain in my shoulders, something I'd never experienced before. I was light-headed and short of breath. I've shared this with my colleagues and told them it's okay to give it your all at work but there are moments when you have to realize something is wrong. I called my wife to let her know what was happening but didn't want to alarm her. No call to 911 is not an emergency.

What was it like when you woke up from surgery?
The doctors had explained it to me quickly, made sure I understood, so I knew what was happening. I received amazing care from the cardiac team at Beth Israel. Being in the restaurant business we want our customers to walk out with a warm feeling, and I walked out feeling both confident and amazingly well taken care of. It was interesting seeing how hospitality happens outside of a restaurant. As I was recovering I saw different layers of the hospital and was very impressed throughout.

Have you had your surgeon and cardiologist in for dinner?
Their schedules are as busy as mine but they will both come in for dinner. I'm looking forward to sitting down with them. My surgeon literally had my heart in his hands and saved my life.

Do you have children?
Three girls. They're 13, 10 and 2. They were on my mind the most. What I had was a rare condition. I think Richard Holbrooke and John Ritter had a similar condition. The good news is we've taken a very close look at my heart and everything is fine. It's been fixed. It's not something I'll pass on to my children.

Has what happened to you changed the way you cook?
I haven't come back to the restaurant to institute any changes. I've always been attentive to how much I season the food I cook with, but I am exploring the types of salt we use and the way we use it. It's an elemental ingredient for every one of our dishes and sodium definitely raises your blood pressure.

Did you have high blood pressure?
No. An interesting side of going through something like this is how it's opened another chapter in knowing more about our ingredients, how they're processed. What we eat is a very personal issue; our bodies all react differently to certain foods. I'm also glad I've been allowed to go back to work with the first graders at P.S. 41, as part of the Wellness in the Schools program. We're helping them with their food vocabulary, giving them hands-on activities in the kitchen. We're teaching them about beans and grains, making healthy choices without clobbering them over the head with it.

How old are you?
I'll be 44 on my next birthday. I'm definitely on the young side for something like this to happen. I was in good shape. I worked out, had no bad habits. I probably skipped too many meals. Oddly enough, in the restaurant business we find ourselves far away from sitting down and eating the way we like people to experience our food. I'm taking a look at that without overreacting. It's been an eye-opening experience, to just pay close attention to my lifestyle, having a healthy diet. I've always cooked with very little cream and butter. I tend to gravitate toward eating a lot of vegetables. The bottom line is what happened to me is: Sometimes things break. Now I've been given an opportunity to contemplate all the things I want to do and do them. It feels like an enormous gift. I walked away feeling that, while I never took things for granted in life, I don't know if I've ever been as tuned in and attentive as I am today.

Photo by Ellen Silverman via chopsticksny.

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