3,000 (awesome) Words With Chef Marc Forgione

All photos Brent Herrig © 2013. Using them without permission is illegal... and mean.

All photos © Brent Herrig. Using them without permission is illegal… and mean.

I admit I wasn’t prepared for Marc Forgione.

I was prepared for Iron Chef Forgione, or the wise-ass Marc Forgione that another wise-ass Italian chef I know had alluded to a few years ago, or the Chef Forgione who has a famous chef father, or the one who owns gigantic restaurants that serve gigantic steaks. I try not to have any premeditated ideas of who the person is I’m going to have a conversation with – what’s the purpose of interviewing people if not to learn something new about them? – but I wasn’t expecting the Marc Forgione who makes unruly cooks work a dishwashing shift to teach them respect for dishwashers, or the one that once had dreads and wanted to be a forest ranger, or the one who seems to truly believe all of his guests are equal when they dine at his restaurants.

Out of the 100-some odd interviews I’ve done in the past few years, I think this one is probably the tightest, meaning that it flowed so easily that, when I went to transcribe it, the story was clearly written out. Other than shaving off some very slightly unnecessary fat, this is what we said and how we said it. We were both calm and rather quiet, maybe because he was nursing a very hurt back and I was nursing the frigid weather that my too-early-arthritic vertebrae love to hate. Or maybe it was just because, empty in the morning hours, American Cut is a huge space carved out in a city that often feels suffocatingly small.

Either way, weeks later I was transcribing this discussion and was floored by Forgione; yes, many chefs seem very humble and go on about how they are aware of their blessings. But Forgione seems to implement practices that put his money where his mouth is.

Who knows, maybe I’m reading far too deeply into a conversation that at the time seemed short, sweet and to the point. All I know is I’m glad I got it down. And I might just be open to the idea of taking my dad out for a gigantic cut of beef one of these days.

3,000 (awesome) Words With Chef Marc Forgione

When researching you I found a pretty fun Businessweek piece on you, “How Did I Get Here”, that had me wanting to know the details behind the timeline they made of you. So let’s go off my beaten interview path for a bit and use that as our framework. You went to school for psychiatry?

I went to school to figure out if there was something out there other than cooking. I cooked all through high school, and summers I would cook, so I literally went to school to see if there was something else, and psychiatry, to this day, still interests me. But then my second semester I was a forestry major; at that point I was a hippie with dreadlocks and a tie-dyed t-shirt, and wanted to be a forest ranger. And then… I don’t know, I think I did econ because I had to or didn’t know what the fuck else to do. But I was always cooking for my friends for fun.

Crazy to think that if you were a forest ranger now somewhere you’d be in a Snow White forest with birds singing…

And a beard down to there…

…and even more tattoos than you have already, with a van and probably some chickens or something. Now you’re in possibly the polar opposite environment, with some very large restaurants in one of the most competitive markets in the world. Do you feel like you maybe sacrificed some of the lifestyle you could have had?

This is going to sound weird, but I don’t even look at what I’m doing now as definitive. At the end of the day I’m 34 years young, and I’ve been very blessed to be where I am. But I probably have another 50 years of life ahead of me, so who knows! Maybe I will become a forest ranger some day.

You started as a dishwasher as your first stop. Do you think that’s something that every cook with aspirations of being a chef should do?

Absolutely.

What did it teach you?

I don’t know if it necessarily teaches you something, per se, but I think there’s a sort of respect you get; I can always tell cooks who have been a dishwasher versus those who haven’t by the way they put pots and pans into the sink. Guys that have never had to do it before I’ve made come in and work a shift after seeing them treat the dishwashers with disrespect. I think it humbles you in this business, and you understand that just because you’re a cook and someone else is a dishwasher you’re not a better personal than them, that’s just their job. You shouldn’t throw a pot halfway filled with burnt mashed potatoes into the sink just because you’re busy. His job is to wash your dirty stuff, not to clean up after your mess. It’s a big difference. So, yes, I think that everyone in this business – whether it be a server, bartender, cook, chef – should start working as a dishwasher, even if only for a couple of days.

That’s funny because you always hear that a restaurant is a team and that the dishwasher is just as important as the executive chef…

100%.

But how many people implement that and practice it? Then when you started cooking, there was a quote about your dad pointing out the sacrifices you make as a chef.

The last fifteen years, you know, it’s 90 hour weeks and working weekends and holidays, and everything else he said to say goodbye to. Fifteen years later, he was right. I’m not complaining, but it is what it is.

Is there something amongst that you were shocked or didn’t realize was going to dissipate?

No, I think it’s everything that I was kind of told. For me, growing up in the business and watching the way my old man worked was normal for me; like if you grow up in a family that’s a 9-5 family, that’s normal to you. I don’t know any other way. I don’t know what goes on in the world between 5:30 and 11 o’clock on a Tuesday.

Or even what a Tuesday is, I assume.

You know what I mean? I find it funny, if I’m sitting around a table and people are talking about a sitcom that’s on TV, I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

That might be okay.

Heh, I don’t mind it.

Is there a parallel for kids who want to become cooks? A lot drop out because they don’t really comprehend what it’s going to be. Is there any parallel that can test whether they’re going to be able to make it?

I tell young guys and girls all the time, “If you’re trying to figure out if you love it, you’re probably gonna figure out sooner than later that you don’t.” You need to love it. If you’re 21 years old and you’re upset that you’re working 70 hours weeks and it’s too hard, then stop. I was broke until three years ago, you know what I mean? And I was the chef/owner of a restaurant. It’s a hard business. But what keeps you going is, “I may be broke, and I may be working my ass off, but I love what I’m doing.” It’s like art.

What do you love the most?

I love everything about the restaurant business; I love the people, I love the camaraderie, I love the food, I love seeing somebody smile when they taste something, I love talking to customers who say this is one of their favorite places to come and that it’s so nice to just turn off when they come here, I love all the charity work I get to do. It’s a fulfilling life, if you do it the right way.

Was there a point you were doing it the wrong way?

I don’t know if we were doing it the wrong way, but the first couple of years at Forgione was really horrible, with the recession and not making any money. But at the end of the day that period humbled me, and I don’t know if I’d be as humble as a person without those three years of hell. I don’t take any of this for granted, now, let’s put it that way.

Back to the timeline; you remarked that you feel your first sous chef position came too soon. What were you struggling with?

I think it was everything; it was 2003, so I was 23 give or take. It wasn’t like I didn’t think I was a good cook – I was probably the best in the kitchen – but that doesn’t mean that I deserved to be a sous chef by any means, and I felt I still had so much to learn and so much more to grow. It’s tough in this business; once you become a sous chef you’re going to be a sous chef at your next job, and yada yada. So I knew that, and I was very grateful and all, but I needed to go learn some more I guess, so I said “thank you” and left for France. And never mind being a sous chef in France; I was as bottom of the totem pole as you could get.

What was the biggest takeaway from working with Laurent Tourondel?

I wouldn’t be half the man or chef that I am without the time that I spent with him. We spent the first month before BLT Steak opened up, just me and him in the kitchen and no one else, because the restaurant was still being built and I needed a job. So it was just me and him, making fucking barbeque sauce or steak sauce or a vinaigrette for a Cesar salad, all of the stuff he didn’t know about. Here was this four-star, French-trained chef, and I was a 24-year old kid with a lot of pedigree in American cooking, so having him ask me advice was really incredible; it was a really cool back and forth, you know. And then, once I would give him the building blocks for a steak sauce or something, to watch him taste and say cut some of the horseradish, add more soy sauce, take away lemon juice; his palate in that way of cooking, it was really cool to watch him do that.

It was also really cool to watch him be as hands on with everything; I think that helped shape me into who I’ve become as far as the font for the menu, the jacket the menu goes into, the tables, the material on the banquette, the color on the walls, everything. For me to be able to get a ringside seat to that, to really learn from that, helped me in doing my own spot and designing this space and all of that.

Did it change your perspective on what American cuisine could be?

 I think American cuisine has changed anyway. I think that if you look at American cuisine ten or fifteen years ago, American cuisine kind of meant American regional cuisine, with all of those guys like my dad, and Jonathan, and Charlie Palmer and Alfred Portale and all those guys, it was kind of home-grown, America-America-America. Now I think, at least in New York, the kind of cuisine we’re doing is more “New York City cuisine”, kind of a giant melting pot. And I don’t think that would be possible without what was laid down by those American guys. We don’t need Europe – we can do it all here, and combine all that.

How do you feel you do that now?

Now? My menu’s all over the place, with influence all over the world. It’s a melting pot.

So, opening the BLT’s. What’s something that you learned from being a corporate chef that helps you now?

The opening of restaurants. I’ve opened sixteen, seventeen restaurants, and there are people twice my age or who have been in this business twice as long who have never opened one. To see something be built from the ground up, it’s a different animal. Coming into a place that’s already set up with all the systems implemented… think about looking at a blank piece of paper and turning it into a restaurant. It’s incredible. And I got to do it eleven times with BLT.

And I also opened three restaurants with my dad, opened one with Patricia Yeo; every place I went was an opening! I don’t know why, it just kind of happened that way. But having said that I wouldn’t have been able to open my own restaurant at 28 without that experience. If you don’t see an opening, you don’t know how to open a restaurant. You can’t get taught in school how to open a restaurant. All of the logistics, how much everything is going to cost, to the height of the bar, there’s just a lot that goes into it.

How much of your personality is embedded into your restaurant? What’s a representation of you?

I know this is going to sound cheesy, but from the get-go – from the design, to the menu, to the way the server acts – you have to be yourself, believe in yourself, and implement that onto everyone that works there. We make the joke that it’s like drinking the Marc Forgione Kool-Aid.

What makes the Marc Forgione Kool-Aid?

Me being me, I don’t know!

Well, who are you? What elements do you restaurants have to have that makes one you?

There’s not one person that eats here that is more important than another; not one. I don’t care if it’s my father, I don’t care if it’s the New York Times critic, I don’t care if it’s someone who just walked in off the street wearing a baseball cap and flip flops. If there’s a butt in this seat, they are the New York Times critic. Honest to god, once you start to get that it’s contagious.  Hard work, once you feed that into everybody, is contagious. And I think respect, respect for everything; yourself, the restaurant, me, the products, the dishwasher, the busboy. Respect everything you’re doing.

Do you feel like a very grounded human being?

These days? I try. But the more you learn, the more you realize the more you don’t know.

You seem like a very grounded human being, which is why I ask, comfortable with the big picture of this industry.

I try. I had advantages I think other people didn’t have; growing up with my old man and being involved in openings from the beginning. It really helps you be involved with the big picture.

Was there ever a time where growing up with your father made you feel the opposite; pushed too quickly too soon, or judged because of your lineage?

It was definitely both. I would say when I was younger I got made fun of just as much as it helped me; if I screwed something up, it would be, “Oh, Forgione’s son doesn’t even know how to make risotto” or, “Did your dad teach you how to make that?” I took all those lumps.

And what did you do about them?

Nothing, it always forced me to cook better than everybody else, so it helped me. I couldn’t hide in the corner; the chef was always looking at me because I was Forgione’s son. My nickname at one of my jobs was “Son of Larry.” Trust me when I tell you that eight, nine, ten years ago, when my father was extremely relevant in this city and the name Forgione, especially when you worked for older chefs…

You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to, but did that ever cause conflict between you and your father?

Nope.

Did he recognize or help you work through that?

Something that my dad did very early on was, when I worked in his restaurants, make sure that no one treated me like his son. If I was late, I got yelled at. If I screwed something up I got reprimanded. I worked just as hard and got pushed just the same as everyone else. I was just like any other employee, not the owner’s son. And I think from the get-go implementing that really helped me moving forward.

Then you had Iron Chef. Obviously television gives you focus in the press, both good and bad, and food television affects cooks and eaters at home, again in a both good and bad way. What is one positive influence you see in a show such as Iron Chef in shaping the way we eat? Not necessarily you as a cook on Iron Chef, but have you seen television making anything better?

Iron Chef or television?

Let’s stick to Iron Chef.

I think what happened or what I’ve seen directly happen because of Iron Chef is that people tend to trust me more, so I can serve what I want. It might have been harder for me to serve pig faces and sweet breads and offal and eel and stuff that now. I don’t know if it’s because of Iron Chef or what, but people trust me a little more. If you can make Halloween Candy on TV into a five-course tasting menu, you can work with eel.

Halloween Candy? I think I was at that taping.

Really? Halloween Candy?

Yeah, my roommate works for the Food Network and had tickets that day. That’s funny.

It was gross.

Yeah, it didn’t look easy. So now you’ve got four restaurants and Michelin stars and all that kind of stuff. What’s the most important thing to you that you’re working on right now? Something that’s very present that you’re trying to move forward?

Having three successful restaurants in TriBeCa, and spreading exactly what you were talking about before, that when you come to a Marc Forgione restaurant that you feel that love, for lack of a better term. It’s been pretty successful, you know.

What’s the challenging part of doing that?

I can only be one place at one time. But the pieces that I have set in the right places so far have been doing a great job.

How is Khe-Yo a representation of you? That’s the only one that you’re really working with someone on to develop.

Khe-Yo is obviously Phet’s food, and you’ll never hear me say anything other than that. Obviously we talk about dishes and we taste stuff and maybe add a little more or something. But if you eat at Marc Forgione on Tuesday and eat at Khe-Yo on Wednesday, there won’t be a doubt in your mind that those two are connected. They have the same soul, the same kind of fine dining without the bullshit, which is what we like to say. I implore you to go do it; you’ll say, “Yeah, this does feel like a Marc Forgione restaurant.” Keep in mind that Phet and I worked together for ten years.

How is American Cut a development from Marc Forgione?

I think just the sheer size of it, I don’t know if a couple of years ago I would have had the guts to open a place this big – it’s 180 seats upstairs and down. But I think it’s also a testament back to the original Forgione, where two years ago when I first got approached to do American Cut in Atlantic City, I wouldn’t have done it if restaurant Marc Forgione was where it was. For a namesake, it’s progressive to run a progressive fine-dining restaurant. I don’t really make money running Forgione; it’s more for my passion and creativity and all that stuff. So I needed to do other stuff to survive.

That’s absurd to think about. So looking back, from the points we’ve hit, where would you place the most credit on the successes you have had?

Honestly, and again this might sound kind of cheesy and stupid but it’s true, and it falls into everything – the Michelin stars, getting on the Next Iron Chef, winning, deciding to open Khe-Yo, deciding to open American Cut – it all goes back to just following your gut. You can get all the advice from everybody in the world, but sometimes just close the door and close your eyes and listen to yourself. Your gut will always get you places; it won’t always work out, but at least it was you doing what you felt was right. Not a lot of people really take a moment to think about what “you” should do.

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