Chef Michael Anthony's Heirloom Garlic

The dirt on chef Michael Anthony's custom heirloom garlic

April is Homegrown Month at Tasting Table.

A chef buying ingredients directly from a farmer is hardly news in this day and age. A chef working with a farmer to grow custom produce for him is a little more unusual but far from unheard of. But a chef who gives a farmer a century-old seed and asks him to plant a field of it? You don't see that every day.

But that's essentially what happened with Michael Anthony, chef of Gramercy Tavern and the about-to-open Untitled at the Whitney Museum in New York, and a central New York farmer by the name of Jim Wrobel. The garlic in question is a variety of hard-necked, red-blushed garlic that Anthony's great grandfather brought to New York from his farm in Naples when he immigrated around 1908. "I grew up doing chores in my father's garden, and I knew that my family was very proud of the fact that they shared each other's homegrown garlic to replant every year, never purchasing outside seeds," Anthony says.

A longtime practitioner of the farm-to-table ethos, Anthony prefers to cook with ingredients that capture the terroir of his region. "We'd been searching high and low for all these exotic vegetables to catch people by surprise, and then I realized that we should also think about the most basic ingredients," he says. His family's garlic was an obvious choice.

In 2007, sensing an opportunity, Anthony approached Wrobel about planting a few rows of "Anthony garlic." Wrobel, a garlic fanatic (he also grows hops for beer brewing), readily agreed. In the years since, he's replanted only the biggest and handsomest heads, increasing the yield and size of the crop. Anthony now purchases about 800 pounds of bulbs every year.

"My goal with the garlic was never commercial," Anthony says. "It was all in the interest of growing something local, and since this delicious garlic happens to have a personal story, it made it all the more interesting. But that was really it. I was even on the fence about calling it 'Anthony garlic'—I didn't want it to be pretentious."

Today Anthony uses the garlic to make garlic confit, garlic chips and garlic purve (see the recipe), which transforms the sharp bite of raw garlic into something mellow, sweet and earthy, and which might find its way into a soup at Gramercy Tavern. "A lot of the nuances in flavor in our dishes come from the garlic," Anthony says. "It's a powerful foundational ingredient."

And thanks to Anthony and Wrobel's joint efforts, the legacy of Anthony garlic lives on, even in Anthony's own family. "Last year, my great uncle Mike, who's in his 90s, wasn't able to plant new garlic in the fall like he always does," Anthony says. "We sent him some of the garlic Jim was growing, because if you don't plant it one year, you can't replant it the next. So we gave him back a box of his own garlic, which he planted with his sons, to keep the tradition alive."