Nepotism may be alive and well in America, but Marc Forgione never got the pleasure of undeserved promotion. Despite having a father who helped revolutionize American cuisine in the 70s and 80s, Forgione had to work for what he got. If anything, the pressure to uphold and deserve the legacy attached to his name made Forgione work even harder. The last thing he wanted was to ride his father’s chef whites into the sunset.
In fact, when Forgione began asking his father for money as a teenager, his father insisted he work for it. So the kitchens where Forgione used to toddle around as a youngster, including the iconic An American Place, became the testing grounds of his young adulthood. He spent college summers working the line, and after earning a degree in hotel and restaurant management, he returned to work briefly for his father before going on to work for Patricia Yeo at AZ, Pino Maffo at Pazo, and Laurent Tourondel at BLT Steak.
Forgione then sent himself to France, where despite his lack of speaking skills, he could glean the spirit of what chefs meant as they hurled directions at him. But with posts in three of Michel Guérard’s top restaurants, Forgione got more than a lesson in French discipline; he came away with a deeper relationship with the ingredients and a sense of humility in the kitchen that still informs his perspective today. After working again for Tourondel, who entrusted him to oversee the opening of many BLT outlets, Forgione finally opened his own place, aptly named Marc Forgione. Not only does the chef deserve his name on the marquee, along with the Michelin star it earned in its first year, but it solidifies his existence as an independent force in American cuisine—dad not included.
Interview with Chef Marc Forgione of Marc Forgione – New York, NY
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Marc Forgione: In the beginning, I needed money. My dad’s a chef. When I was a kid, I would ask for money and he’d say “You want money, you’re going to have to work.” So he’d bring me into restaurants. I loved it. I fell in love with it right away. To this day, it still seems fun to me; it doesn’t seem like work. I love working with food. I love feeding people, and hearing their reactions when they taste the food.
EB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire with or without a culinary degree?
MF: It’s funny—I get asked that all the time. I did not go to culinary school. However, when someone asks me if they should go, I tell them it depends on the person. I don’t hire people based on whether they did or did not go [to culinary school]. I hire them based on who they are. I’ve had great people who went to culinary school. I’ve had people who went to culinary school and sucked, and vice versa. It depends on the person, especially in this business.
EB: What advice would you offer to young chefs just getting started?
MF: Be patient. Everybody thinks you need to jump in with guns blazing and a book deal, a restaurant empire, and a TV show. Everybody needs to chill out. What most people don’t realize is that everybody who’s a “celebrity chef” worked really hard for a long time, many years, before they became what they are. I think that young kids really need to be reminded of that. I think they should even teach a class on that in culinary school. I’ve got kids who come out at six months and ask for a raise. This is a business where you work and you work and you work, and up until a very short time ago it was a thankless business. You cook because you love it—that should be your motivation.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
MF: Our business model here—not to use a cliché—is good food, good people, and good times. “Fine dining without the BS” is really our motto. I’m not a very fine-dining person, but I’ve worked in fine dining restaurants my whole life; I grew up in one, basically. So what we do here, we try and keep the fine dining service, the fine dining food, but you’re allowed to relax. We’re not having a waiter come over and make you feel incompetent because you don’t know where Creekstone Farms is. We have fun with our cocktails, fun with our food. Fun is supposed to be part of the dining experience. We try to do that here.
EB: What goes into creating a dish?
MF: We print the menus daily here. I would say that just about every day, anywhere from one to four new dishes go on. It could be anything. I was eating a pulled pork slider somewhere, and I thought, “You know what would be cool? If you turned this into a composed dish.” We took brioche, seasoned it with black pepper and seared it; we had some beautiful pork belly braised in its own fat, then deep fried until really crispy; we make homemade barbecue sauce, homemade coleslaw, and now it’s a fork-and-knife dish, but with all the ingredients of a pulled pork sandwich. Dishes just come. I discuss it with the sous chefs, and discuss it with the cooks. Sometimes a family meal turns into a special. Especially now, with the greenmarket—if you’re not motivated by that, I think you’re in the wrong business.
EB: What’s an ingredient that you feel is underappreciated?
MF: I just came across this Fairy Tale eggplant—they’re these beautiful little, size-of-a-thumb things. They’re just gorgeous. We slice them ½-inch thick, cook them for 10 seconds in extra virgin olive oil, and finish with mint.
Stokes Farm cherry tomatoes—there’s something to be said about those. I’m not rewriting the book here, but not a lot of people do it—we do a crispy pig ear salad. I don’t think people use ears enough. We braise them in white wine, and gelatin gets released. We take them out—it’s basically made its own aspic—and we slice them on a bias, dredge them in flour, salt and deep fry them. When you slice on a bias instead of straight down, you get a beautiful crunchy exterior, but then this gelatinous, short-rib type of mouthfeel softness in the center. Everybody uses all the other pig parts—belly, loin, feet—but ears get left out. Some people do use them, but it’s definitely not popular in New York.
EB: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
MF: Chefs are chefs, and chefs work, but we just did the launch for Taste of Tribeca, and had Amanda Freitag over here, Chewy Cereceres Macao was over here; we all did our dishes; we used my kitchen. I love Paul Liebrandt’s stuff; I love Amanda’s stuff; obviously I know Andrew Carmellini’s new down here and then of course Kurt Gutenbrunner from Blaue Gans. Everybody supports everybody down here. It’s very rare that you find another chef who doesn’t like another chef; we’re all ADD, we’re all out of our minds; and we all work too much.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
MF: Tribeca in itself is a challenge. People don’t make it down here too often. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, great restaurants down here; it’s just not as busy a neighborhood as the West Village or Chelsea. It’s definitely getting better. Just since we’ve been here, we’ve got Locanda Verde, Corton, and now Plein Sud is open down here. The more and more restaurants we get, the better. We’re still recovering—believe it or not—from 9/11. You’ve got to imagine the number of people who worked in the Trade Center that don’t work down here anymore. So, it’s just a challenge day in and day out to pack this place. We’re doing great now, but hopefully by this fall New York should be back in full swing in regards to recovering from the recession.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
MF: Keep this restaurant afloat in the heart of the recession.
EB: How’d you do it?
MF: I don’t know. Honestly, this is a pretty good story. I had everybody, from my old bosses to my mentors to my business partner, everybody telling me to just turn the place into a bistro and to lower prices. “It’s a recession! Give the people what they want,” they said. And I don’t know what it was—call it karma or intuition or my gut—I just didn’t think that was the right way to go. And we lost a lot of money, but there was something in me that said, “stick to your guns, this is something you worked your whole life for, I’ll be damned if I’m going to turn it into steak frites.” So I held my own and lost a lot of money. But that decision, and that decision alone, got us the Michelin star. Ever since the Michelin star, we’ve been a pretty busy restaurant.
EB: If you had one thing to do over again, what would it be?
MF: I would have learned to speak French before I went to France. It was rough. It was tough, they didn’t care that I didn’t speak French either; they would scream at me. I didn’t know what they were saying but I got the gist of it.
EB: What is your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
MF: I don’t know if many people in America understand this, but I was 29 when we earned the Michelin star, and I think that what a lot of people don’t realize is that I’m not just a chef, I’m the owner, and you know, this is my first restaurant. We did it without a famous restaurateur or an experienced restaurateur in-house. We just did it. I didn’t have Chef Daniel Boulud’s name on the restaurant as I’m earning the star. An American-born, 29-year old chef-owner, built from scratch: down to the menu-covers, to the chairs, to the table, to the lights that go in the kitchen, you name it. People think, being the son of Larry Forgione, it was kind of all handed to me. But Michelin doesn’t care who your dad is. I don’t think there are too many people under 30, American-born chef-owners that got a Michelin star, ever.
EB: What advice would you give to an aspiring chef-owner?
MF: Raise a lot more money than you think you need. You encounter a lot of expenses. There will be more expenses than you can possibly imagine that are not on your business plan. The six-month advance my landlord wanted, the security deposit when we signed the lease: twenty grand times six. The air conditioner broke. The doors were a fire hazard and had to be changed to swing outward; the lowboys broke—forget it. We were two hundred and fifty thousand over our heads before we even opened the doors.
EB: That said, what are the benefits of being a chef-owner? Why own?
MF: To each his own, but I was just at a point where I didn’t want to work for anybody anymore. I had my ideas and I had my goals and I had my vision, and I knew what I wanted, and it didn’t involve somebody telling me what to do. That’s not to say that people who work for other chefs are bad. Some chefs, they just need to be on their own. And I am one of those chefs.
EB: What’s next? Where will we find you in five years?
MF: I hope Marc Forgione is still here, and I’d love for this to be my flagship, my home base. I’d love to open some other concepts, casual stuff, maybe something a little fancier also. Happy, hopefully, is where you’ll find me in five years. Happy and fat.