January 1, 2008
ince the mid-1980’s, Larry Forgione’s name has rarely been mentioned in the press without “The Godfather of American Cuisine” tacked onto the end of it. The Italian American Forgione didn’t acquire his Mafioso-like designation by sending bloody heads of dead animals to competing chefs, unless you count an occasional generous delivery of free-range chickens to some close chef friends. About twenty years ago food writer John Mariani wrote that if James Beard was the Father of American cuisine, Forgione was certainly the Godfather. It was catchy and truthful, and the name stuck forevermore. But the chef is not the only Forgione to become legendary for having the word “Father” as part of his name. His great, great uncle is Francesco Forgione from Pietrelcina Italy, otherwise known to practicing Catholics as “Padre Pio” - or ever since Pope Paul Canonized him in 2002, “Saint Pio.” Padre Pio was known as a healer and an evil-fighter who is believed to have waged actual physical combat with Satan himself, sustaining extensive bruising in the process. He is also said to have possessed the ability to communicate with guardian angels, to read consciences, levitate, and heal by touch. He was one talented padre, for sure. On September 20, 1918, while kneeling before a cross, Padre Pio is said to have had his first occurrence of stigmata - bodily marks, pain, and bleeding in locations corresponding to the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. This phenomenon continued for fifty years, until the end of his life when they mysteriously disappeared. It’s not exactly a common occurrence to find a New York City chef who is the descendant of a Saint, but Larry Forgione is in many ways uncommon; not only in the direction his career has taken, but also in the food he has prepared for nearly 40 years.
Forgione was originally aiming to be a physical education teacher, a desire that was borne out of his days as a Golden Gloves boxer while he attended high school and college. But his boxing training regimen eventually pushed him a little too far, and a bout with pneumonia caused him to miss enough school during his first year in college that he was told to not come back until the following semester. After recovering and while he waited to return to college, he took a job with his cousin, who had a business in Brooklyn that catered events for the Catholic Church. Padre Pio would certainly have approved. Forgione enjoyed his introduction to the food world so much he switched schools, changing from Concord University in West Virginia to CIA in Upstate New York, which he attended from 1972 through 1974. He was a member of the first graduating class at CIA that spent both years at the then-new Hyde Park facility.
After a one-year post-graduation stint in a Worcester, Massachusetts restaurant, he contacted a French chef he had heard about, Michel Bourdin of Maxim’s in Paris. Bourdin subsequently wrote back to Forgione and explained that he would be happy to give him a job, but he was not in Paris anymore - he had just moved to London and was the new chef at the Connaught Hotel. Forgione planned on going to London for 6 months, yet he wound up staying for two wonderful years. There, he gained experience not yet available in the states, and the food and ingredients he saw there reminded him in many ways of his grandmother’s farm on Long Island. When he returned to New York, it was only because the French Government had begun an aggressive crackdown on hiring foreigners. He had a job with Michel Guérard in Paris, but because of the climate in France he was sent instead to America to work at Regine’s, Guérard’s new restaurant in New York. This may be one rare circumstance where a government’s actions had a positive effect.
“It was at Regines where I started to get into research, and I followed through with the ingredients that I felt were not available in the States, and didn’t understand why they weren’t. It dawned on me when I was working in London, all this beautiful produce and fresh butchered meats would come into the kitchens and it didn’t make sense to me that in America it was reversed. In Europe, farmers and producers were producing for restaurants and everyday cooks got to use the same ingredients, whereas in America everybody was producing for the masses, and the chefs also had to use what was produced. So when I came back I thought that it was time that we started to reverse the wheel a little bit, and I started working with a lot of farmers and producers. The first acknowledgement of that was when Michel Guérard came in for a site visit, and he was totally impressed with the ingredients that I had found here.”
After a year at Regines, he was hired by Buzzy O’Keefe to run the kitchen at the River Cafe in Brooklyn in 1979. Forgione would soon earn a reputation for seeking out seasonal foods from local farmers and forging those ingredients into American classic dishes, and his new boss was 100% behind him. “Buzzy was all for the principles of American cooking,” said Forgione, “and wanted it to be as American as we could make it. We may have had different versions, but we both shared the same vision.” The menu at the time was “sort of Italian, a mixed message menu, trying to be everything to everybody,” remembers Forgione, and he promised O’Keefe that within a year he would make the River Café one of the best Restaurants in New York; a lofty aspiration for a Brooklyn café that lacked a culinary direction.
One interesting character who walked into The River Cafe was Paul Keyser, a microbiologist-turned farmer who was holding a basket filled with multi-colored eggs. They were naturally produced, yet resembled artistically rendered Easter eggs. “I figured that if these guys from a farm stand were serious enough to supply these eggs,” said Forgione, “then they might be serious about raising a chicken, the way I wanted them raised.” After three or four groupings and about a year of trial and experimentation, Forgione had what he was looking for; the first commercially produced naturally raised and fed chickens for his restaurant. He called them “free-range,” and now 25 years later the rest of the world still calls them that. To this day Forgione uses the same poultry producer for his restaurants.
Other relationships with farmers, some but not all local, quickly followed. Griggstown Quail Farm just outside of Princeton, New Jersey. Beef from St. Louis. A buffalo farmer from Michigan helped the River Café become the first restaurant to serve fresh buffalo in New York in 70 years. The River Café also became the first restaurant that thought to name the farm, the varietals and the region of the ingredients with any real specifics on their menu. Today, this is commonplace for most fine-dining restaurants. But one drawback in the innovative chef’s new system was the necessity of dealing with a large amount of singular specialists, as opposed to a small handful of general suppliers.
“Basically, we buy every meat from a different person. We do not buy meat through a purveyor, and everybody had to use sustainable agriculture principles. So we got our pork from one guy and our lamb from another guy. We get our beef from a guy just outside of St. Louis. Chickens come from another person, ducks come from another. So it is really a commitment because instead of one purveyor that you can call up and order all your meats and have them all delivered in one shot, you have to work with 10 to 15 different people.”
One of the more fruitful relationships that the chef began during this time was with a wild food forager named Justin Rashid from Northern Michigan, with whom Forgione would create a partnership in a Midwestern-based food company.
“At that time I was interested in visiting the suppliers that I had met only over the phone. So I went out to meet with Justin and he exposed me to this incredible fruit belt of America where the fruit has a very short season, and it had incredibly intense flavor. It was some of the best fruits I had ever tasted. We decided that I was going to start buying it, have him ship it to me, and I would make the preserves in New York.”
Their original plan didn’t work out too well. In the early 1980’s, shipping large amounts of fresh fruit was not only expensive, it resulted in lots of beat-up and bruised produce. So Forgione brought the recipe out to Petoskey, Michigan, the partners installed two copper kettles in the basement of a candy store, and American Spoon (www.spoon.com) was born.
“We had the idea to make 50 cases or 100 cases for me, then make another hundred or so and sell them.” Over 350,000 cases of product later, the company just celebrated its 25th anniversary, and they now operate out of six stores.
Forgione’s passion for American food and food products led to a wonderful friendship with America’s premiere culinary authority, James Beard. He had wondered for a long time how to get in touch with him, before a friend made an obvious suggestion to look inside a phone book. To his surprise Beard’s number was there, and he immediately invited him to the River Café. “I think at that time he thought it was a publicity stunt, so he did not really respond to the invitations. And then what I started to do was make up little baskets and I had them delivered to his house in the village. By the fourth or fifth basket of goodies, he called and said that he wanted to come over to the restaurant.”
Beard became a regular customer and a source of new ideas, inspiration, and culinary information. “If you were talking about butter he would give you a list of people you should try butter from, then we would have butter sent in from Iowa from a particular farmer, and cheese from other places at that time were not that well-known.” But it was also a symbiotic relationship: “His end of the bargain was, he would tell me about wild huckleberries, which region it came from, and what they would taste like. When I got them in, he got a basket of them.”
When the chef was ready to open a place of his own, a mutual friend told him that Beard had an idea for a name. “There used to be a gallery in New York called The American Place that was started by Alfred Stieglitz to show off young American artists, including Georgia O’Keeffe and John Marin,” Forgione said. “Jim thought that was a great connection, so he suggested I call it ‘An American Place.’” The restaurant, which was small and had room for only 45 seats, was in a building that the chef had purchased on the Upper East Side on Lexington and 70th. Forgione was awarded three stars from the New York Times from writer Bryan Miller, the same number of stars he had earned at the River Café, where Charlie Palmer had just taken his place as chef.
Forgione said that what he remembers most from his early days as a restaurateur were the memories of the exciting people who were coming in. Jackie Onassis was a regular customer. Dan Rather and Warren Beatty had their own tables. James Beard ate there every week. “I remember Danny Meyer coming into the restaurant, and this new generation of restaurateurs who would come in to see what was going on. We had 28 tables, and one night we had 26 of the 28 tables filled with restaurant critics, food writers, or chefs.”
His friend Jim Beard, who Forgione was spending 10 to 15 hours with every week rummaging through food books in his library and testing recipes at his restaurant, would soon become very ill. A huge party he was planning for his close friend turned out instead to be a tribute when Beard passed away. In 1985 he became co-founder of “American Chefs Tribute to James Beard,” which has now become an annual event for twenty-two years running, and is one of the most widely attended charity events of the year. The event benefited Citymeals-On-Wheels, which had been founded by Beard and Gael Greene.
“Charity is the queen of virtues,” Saint Pio once said. “As the pearls are held together by the thread, thus the virtues are held together by charity; as the pearls fall when the thread breaks, thus virtues are lost if charity diminishes.” The Chef’s Tribute would the first of many charitable pearls for Forgione, and indeed his great, great uncle would be pleased with the $13 million the organization has contributed to the homebound elderly since it began.
Meanwhile, back at An American Place, Forgione was getting a bit restless. In 1989 Michael Weinstein of the Ark Restaurant Group approached him about establishing a restaurant in the Morgan Hotel. He agreed, thinking he would open something entirely new, but the deal fell through when the hotel failed to obtain a liquor license for the restaurant. Weinstein managed another restaurant called the Ritz Café in Midtown Manhattan that was not doing very well, so Forgione took a look. “I was looking for a larger space. Weinstein thought it would be a great space for me, but at that time, it was a really bad neighborhood.”
Rather than create an entirely new restaurant, Forgione decided to sell his restaurant’s location and move An American Place to a new midtown address; Two Park Avenue. The move allowed him to triple the number of seats, add a lunch service, and lower his food cost ratio. Although the location was not a terrific one when he moved in, things gradually improved.
“Lunch was incredible. Dinner was a bit of a challenge but then after about six or seven months it was a great restaurant,” remembers Forgione.
Over the next ten years, Ark and Forgione opened a number a restaurants in and around New York City, one of the most elegant being the Beekman 1776 Tavern in Rhinebeck, New York. He brought in his talented sous chef Melissa Kelly from An American Place to run the kitchen. Kelly would later win the 1999 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Northeast, and is now the executive chef and proprietor of three “Primo” restaurants in Maine, Florida, and Arizona. Kelly and Forgione operated Beekman for six successful years; the New York Times named it as a “Top Ten Destination Restaurant.” In 2002 the owners sold the property and Forgione’s contract was sold along with it.
Other restaurants he opened included Above Restaurant in the Times Square Hilton, The Grill Room at World Financial Center, and The Coach House in the Avalon Hotel. In 1998 Ark and Forgione parted company, and their divorce settlement ceded An American Place and Beekman to Forgione, and The Grill Room to Ark. In 1999 he moved An American Place to its third location, the Benjamin Hotel at 50th and Lexington. I asked him what his advice might be in creating all these restaurants, all of which required a carefully worded legal contract, and whether it was difficult to walk away from a restaurant once the partnership was not working out.
“It is just a job. Usually if I make a contract with somebody and if they asked me to come in, I will do a one-year contract that I have the right to renew. If I accomplish the goals that were set out in the first year then they must continue. I try to set up my contacts to be performance-based. So as long as I am performing, you can not terminate the contract.”
Not all the restaurants turned out the way he would have liked. In 2002, one restaurant he took over seemed doomed from the start, its main liability being that it was owned by Britney Spears. Forgione became involved with Nyla by agreeing to a nine-month contract to try and salvage what was essentially a failing restaurant, a place that had reached a point where the only people coming in were people who somehow thought that they were going to see Britney. “It was 14, 15, and 16 year old kids who were dragging their parents down there, and who wanted 14 or 15 year old food,” said Forgione. There were a number of things the chef said that he suggested they change, but his ideas were not implemented. As soon as his contract was over, he walked away. “I think they thought that by attaching my name to it, it would help. Obviously the food became much better, but it did not help the restaurant.”
In 2003 Forgione, who had closed down his flagship restaurant after running it in three different locations over a span of twenty years, reopened it in an unusual location – on the sixth floor of Lord and Taylor on Fifth Avenue. The cuisine was similar to the original restaurant, but since Lord & Taylor covered most of the overhead costs such as rent and utilities, the prices were much lower, and the restaurant was only open for the lunchtime shopping crowd. Also included in the deal was the operation “Signature Cafés” which served more casual fare.
“Lord and Taylor came to me - as most of the ventures that I get involved with do - six years ago and said, ‘We are trying to change our image and we want to upgrade our store. We have been running the cafes and have been doing a horrible job at it. We would like you to come in and take over.’ We did, and with great success. Over six years we have increased the food sales by probably a hundred percent. The entire division is profitable now, where it was never profitable before.”
The number of Signature Café’s that Forgione oversees has now grown to eight; in Manhattan, Manhasset, Westchester, and Garden City New York, Stamford Connecticut, Washington D.C., Paramus and Westfield New Jersey, and a Macy’s in Philadelphia. Forgione is now in the process of developing a new concept for the new owners of Lord and Taylor – Federated sold it recently to a private investment company – which would change the face of each restaurant he oversees for them. “As soon as the holidays are over,” Forgione said, “we are putting together the storyboards for a new more upscale concept.”
The chef’s only evening fine-dining establishment currently is in St. Louis, where once again the people who owned the building asked him to take a look at it to see if he would be interested in putting An American Place there.
“They wanted a restaurant that was on the side of the building, and they wanted that to be operated independently of the hotel,” he explained. “I understood the relationship and we were keen to their terms. They made an offer I could not refuse,” explained Forgione, sounding very Godfatherish.
“Forge” was Larry Forgione’s nickname growing up on Long Island. It was also the nickname for his twenty-nine year old son Mark, who is opening a new restaurant of his own in 2008, appropriately called “Forge.” The restaurant is currently called The Dekk on Reade Street, and at the end of the year it will be closed down and remodeled, and it will reopen with the new name next April. Forgione spoke of it as excitedly as if it were his own first opening.
“The concept is to have really fine and high quality food that you do not feel compelled to get dressed up to eat. I think Mark himself represents the market that he is going after. He eats out all the time when he is free but he just does not want to put on a jacket or a tie every time he wants a nice meal.”
Anyone who follows the restaurant industry in New York knows that Mark Forgione has closely followed in his father’s footsteps; first by working for a year for Michel Guérard, then for the past several years helping Laurent Tourondel open nearly all of his BLT restaurants, both in and outside of New York. But Mark isn’t the only Forgione who dove into the restaurant industry. While Mark attended UMass and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in hotel and restaurant management, his brother Bryan followed his father to CIA, and now runs his own restaurant. Bryan’s place is one street off the ocean in Long Beach, New York, and is called Swing Bellies Beachside Barbeque. Forgione’s daughter Cara works at An American Place in New York, but his youngest son Sean has decided to forego the restaurant world in favor of a career in something in which he is much more skilled – playing Texas Holdem poker.
It’s been 15 years since Forgione was named “Chef Of the Year” at the 1993 James Beard Awards, and in many ways he may be just getting started. Besides expanding his extraordinary cuisine into the shopping malls of America, his future restaurant plans may include a restaurant/spa in Upstate New York, near West Point. He also just finished filming an exciting television pilot, a children’s cooking show that is now being shopped among the major networks, and may just be the Godfather’s next major culinary adventure.