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Forge Restaurant - an interview with Chris Blumlo and Mark Forgione


by Matt DeLucia

August 2008

Forge Restaurant

For all those chefs with children who have come up to them saying, “Dad (or Mom), I want to be a chef when I grow up, too” - before you resort to swatting them over their head with a sauté pan, consider the story of Larry Forgione's son. The famous chef has two children who are chefs, Mark and Bryan, and both now have their own restaurants with the opening of Mark's “Forge” in Tribeca. While growing up in the restaurant world Mark was always referred to as “Larry's son”, even after working up the ranks of BLT restaurants under Laurent Tourondel and becoming his corporate chef. Today, as the chef owner of his newly opened restaurant on Reade Street, it's perhaps fitting that his “Larry's son” designation will likely become more of a footnote and less known than the nickname of his youth for which the restaurant was named.

Mark's managing partner Chris Blumlo attended the University of Massachusetts at the same time (both attended the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management there), and although they weren't close friends, a mutual friend got them together years after graduation. Together they discovered that they shared a similar dream. When Mark began to think about opening his own place, Chris was director of operations for Aramark food service at Shea Stadium, and was responsible for the Mets' Diamond Club restaurants and other projects including the team's new Citifield stadium.

Together, these two young men, who have spent most of their lives preparing for their first ownership opportunity, have opened up an establishment where they would feel comfortable taking their friends, their family, their children or their business associates for an exquisite dining experience within a relaxed environment.

MARK FORGIONE INTERVIEW

RI: Once you and Chris Blumlo decided to open a restaurant together, how did you come across this space?
Mark Forgione: We started talking about the business plan, and I got a call from a friend of mine named Greg Dodge. He told me about this restaurant, which was Dekk at the time. The ink was literally just drying on our business plan, and Greg said, “You have to see this restaurant.” I came here and met with Greg and the guy who owned the place and had a glass of wine. When the owner got up to go to the bathroom, I kicked Greg under the table and said “this is my restaurant, let's make this happen.”

RI: So you knew this would become Forge as soon as you walked in here?
Mark Forgione: I know it sounds kind of cheesy or fake but I'm telling you, I walked in here and I saw the bricks, I saw the candles, I knew as I was walking around with my jaw open that I was sold. This is what I knew the restaurant would look like before we even found this place.

RI: You have a lot of experience with opening restaurants, but this opening was perhaps more special to you than the others.
Mark Forgione: It's my 14th restaurant opening.

RI: I would think you'd have the process down cold by now?
Mark Forgione: Yes, but, you can ask any chef in the world who has done an opening, there are unforeseeable disasters and different types of disasters in every restaurant opening. But I would not have been able to open this restaurant if I hadn't had the experience with BLT. I opened all of them; Steak, Fish, right to Prime, then to Burger, then to Market, then to Dallas and Puerto Rico. I was going into raw spaces and creating restaurants

RI: So what mistakes does that experience help you to avoid?
Mark Forgione: To expect the unexpected. When I hired my kitchen staff here I said, ‘For those of you who have never done an opening, the stove is probably going to blow up the second day. The walk-in is probably going to shut off three days into service. The electricity is going to go out one night, I promise you.' All these little things that can happen in an opening, they just happen. And, if you are not patient and you are not willing to take the punches as they come, you will never make it.

RI: So, when something goes wrong, you are the coolest guy on the planet?
Mark Forgione: I wish I could say that all the time, but I've punched a wall or two! But it's just understanding that these things are going to happen. The experience of setting up your order sheets, inventory, creating a menu – it's not easy to teach cooks from scratch what you are trying to do. When you come into a brand new restaurant, there is no mis en place in your refrigerator. It's just different than coming into an opened restaurant.

RI: How did you handle creating the menu, it obviously was much different from creating one for BLT?
Mark Forgione: I've been writing recipes since I was young, I don't know why. I was just reading some of my old recipes, and at the time that I was writing them I probably couldn't have pulled them off. Now I can pull them off, but I've always had ideas. I had a lot of free time between BLT and this opening, so I would spend an hour or two hours every night with cookbooks, online, or I'd go to Barnes & Noble or Bonnie Slotnick's, an old cookbook store in the West Village.

RI: From all of your 12 years writing recipes, how did you manage to narrow down the dishes you would serve at Forge?
Mark Forgione: The menu's changed tremendously since “friends and family,” but that's why I have “friends and family” and that's why it's free. But the reason that I have a small menu is because I like change. I get tired of things and I get bored easily. When I pick something for the menu, it's not set in stone. We've been open three weeks and I've changed the menu, well, I can't even tell you how many times.

RI: So you've been using up a lot of menu stock paper.
Mark Forgione: Yes. Chris is the financial whiz, he's always watching the financials, and it is amazing how much paper we're running through. But I warned him in the beginning.

RI: I know it's early, but have any of your dishes become keepers already?
Mark Forgione: There are a couple that I have to keep; the suckling pig I can't take off, the halibut I can't take off, and the chicken nuggets. I joke to my sous chef that when it's all said and done I hope I am not remembered for my chicken nuggets! I think I literally am going to have to hire a person just to make them. They are not easy to make, and we sell about 30 orders a night.

RI: So how has your dad been through this whole process?
Mark Forgione: Very helpful in all aspects. He bought us plates, he invested in the restaurant, he's helped in the kitchen. He has been there from the beginning. He even helped us work out the deal. He's made a few.

RI: You discovered a new local green market on Greenwich Street, what kind of interesting things are you finding there to add to your menu?
Mark Forgione: They set up a green market there every Wednesday and Saturday, there's fresh eggs for the fettucine, local radishes; I've found some great stuff. There is a fish guy who sets up there on Saturdays, and we're actually just starting up something new where I don't care what fish it is, just bring me a couple of the nicest things you have and I will do a Saturday night Tribeca fish market special. I bought some beautiful fluke the other day, he also had some really nice tuna. I am having a lot of fun over there. I go there every Wednesday and Saturday, I get there at about 9:30 or 10 o'clock.

RI: Anything else about Forge you'd like to share?
Mark Forgione: The staff we have here has been a huge part of the restaurant's success so far. Chris and I are very thankful for the hard work and expertise of our servers, our management, and my kitchen staff, especially my sous chef Greg Profeta.

CHRIS BLUMLO INTERVIEW

RI: Tell us about the history of this building and the changes you made so it could become the place that you and Mark dreamed it to be.
Chris Blumlo: The old owner had covered up all the original brick with black velvet drapes. The character of it is amazing, it was built in the 1850's and it was a dairy, this whole neighborhood was egg, dairy, and cream warehousing. You'll see the elevator wheels in the front; they were used to take the product up to the different floors of the warehouse. We still have one of the original refrigerator doors downstairs. I believe about five or six restaurants have come and gone in this space.

RI: So maybe it was one of the ghosts from restaurants past that took out your AC unit?
Chris Blumlo: The AC actually went down the first night we were doing friends and family. I came in Tuesday morning and it was 85 degrees in the restaurant. I went to the thermostat and they were both on, but it was just blowing hot air. To get to the location of where the compressors were, they had to crawl through a bathroom window on a building on Hudson Street! So there were some labor cost there.

RI: I understand there is a personal touch you and your family brought to the design of the restaurant?
Chris Blumlo: Yes, the wood. My grandfather's side of the family came to America in the 1750's and built a farm in Rochester, Massachusetts about five or six miles from the Bourne Bridge. In the 1870's they built a sawmill that was powered by the Mattapoisett River, and that ran until the 1930's. They would build boats from cedar, which is what we have here. In the 1930's the mill burned down and the wood stayed on my grandfather's farm for years in piles. It sat there for a long time and when I talked to my family about the restaurant they said ‘why don't you take some of the wood from the yard?' Mark and I took a day trip to Massachusetts. We left at four o'clock in the morning from New York, picked up a U-haul in Massachusetts and loaded up the U-haul with the wood, as much as we could fit in there. We got back here at about ten o'clock at night, exhausted, and Mark and I along with a few friends just started to literally throw the wood into the empty restaurant.

RI: Your work was rewarded by these beautiful shelves that line an entire wall, how did you decide what types of artifacts would be on that wall? I noticed some interesting items there?
Chris Blumlo: That was the main question when people walked in while the shelves were being built - “What's going on the shelves?” We were like, “I don't know.” One thing we did know, we did not want to just kind of put things on the shelves that do not really tie to the restaurant or to what we were about. Thankfully it all came together at the 11th hour. Mark's father and mother with their history in the business - all the cobble pots you see on the shelves are from his family. The books came from James Beard's personal collection, which Larry had acquired after James had passed away. There is a toolbox here on the shelf which is his great grandfather's, and I brought a whisky jug and a horse shoe from the family farm where we had acquired the wood.

RI: Did you hire a specialist to build the wall and do the other interior updates or did you do some of it yourself?
Chris Blumlo: I knew a gentleman who was in construction and who had done a lot of building projects for me at Shea Stadium as a subcontractor. We partnered with him in the beginning stages of the business plan. I approached him and said, “I want you to do the build out for me, but I would also like you to look at this and see if this is something of interest to you,” and he actually came on board as a partner. Thankfully for that too because we would not have finished construction in six weeks if I had subbed it out.

RI: Overall, has the concept you envisioned become what you wound up with?
Chris Blumlo: Definitely, the idea was to put out a high level of food service and a high level of food quality but in a really relaxed atmosphere, that's something that Mark and I wanted. We love going out to eat, but we don't necessarily like to be dressed up in a suit and tie.

RI: So far what has been busier, the dining area or the communal area by the bar?
Chris Blumlo: The dining room is strong, but it has been a pleasant surprise at how busy the communal dining room is and also in the bar, we have people sitting down and eating a three course meal at the bar.

RI: I understand you met Mark at UMass. Did you discuss opening a restaurant together even back then, and did you talk to Mark about his family's restaurant history?
Chris Blumlo: I graduated a few years before he did, but no, I didn't know that about him, about Mark's history. I was very good friends with his roommate, a guy named ‘PR Lou,' and we just partied together. I don't think I even knew his first name and probably he didn't know my first name until we actually started to develop the restaurant. It was always just Forge and Blumlo.




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