The Next Generation: The Forgiones
If they gave out titles as easily 30 years ago as they do today, Larry Forgione would be Top Chef, Iron Chef and Chopped Champion, in addition to James Beard Award-winner and “Godfather of American Cuisine.” But the humble Forgione doesn’t need such adulation. He has left a lasting imprint on American cuisine while raising a new generation to carry on his legacy. His restaurant, an American Place in New York City, was hailed as one of the most influential in the US for pioneering the farm-to-fable movement. Larry, 61, has two sons currently making their own mark on the current culinary scene: Marc, 34, is indeed an Iron Chef and the chef/proprietor of the restaurants Marc Forgione, Khe-Yo (with executive chef/co-owner Phet Schwader) and American Cut; Bryan, 33, was most recently executive chef at Society Café at the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas, and now is a consultant with hospitality powerhouse Blau + Associates. The trio talked with us about their genetic predisposition to cooking, and working together as a family.
Larry: My father was a salesman for Nabisco Cookies. I wouldn't say that was hospitality, but I had the great fortune of growing up with two grandparents who were excellent cooks. My kids are good cooks, too. In addition to Marc and Bryan who are chefs, I have a daughter who is a fashion buyer, and my youngest son Sean, is currently deciding what direction he wants to go in his career.
Marc: I remember the first time my dad showed me how to flip something in the pan without touching it, just with my wrist. It was a hamburger. I think I just stood there and flipped the hamburger a thousand times just because I thought it was so cool. I could hardly even reach the stove.
Larry: Once Bryan and Marc made the decision to become professional chefs, I encouraged them completely. Prior, while they made the decision, it was something that I never thought they would do because all their lives I think they felt that the profession removed me from a good portion of their lives. I just thought that as a result they would not go in that direction. I was kind of surprised when they both decided that that's what they wanted to do. But I guess if I look back, it doesn't seem all that foreign when you consider that since a young age, they were constantly in restaurants, and exposed to the culinary arts from a young age.
Marc: He was never one of those dads that was like, “You're going to do what I do,” trying to train me at a young age or force-feeding me or anything like that. He used to bring me to work, but for me, it was fun. It was like going to an amusement park. They'd set up a box for me and I'd clean strawberries or pick parsley, literally, when I was like 10 years old.
Bryan: I didn’t realize when I was a young kid what my dad was doing and how amazing it was. We didn't realize until we got older. Growing up, we were very blessed to do things like take a trip with my dad to California for a Meals On Wheels event with Wolfgang Puck. My father was friends with Mark Miller, Dean Fearing, Paul Prudhomme, Jonathan Waxman. I remember meeting James Beard when he was in the hospital, and I called him, “Grandpa Yoda.” For whatever reason, he just looked like Yoda to me. It was funny because he was this Jedi master of cooking, if you will.
Marc: When I was a kid, I didn't know that my dad was a famous restaurateur. I just thought he was dad. And then when I was like 16 or 17, I needed to make some money, and he said, “If you want to make some money, you can work the summer in the restaurant.” All my other friends had paper routes or were delivering pizza and I was working in a three-star kitchen in New York City making $65 a week. But I actually enjoyed it very much.
Larry: I didn't look at their decision to enter into the culinary arts as a feather in my cap. I thought that that was a decision that they made, not me, and it was a very serious decision on their part. All three of my sons worked at An American Place. I loved just seeing their enthusiasm, and seeing that they had tenacity for learning. But I think there's always an added burden to a family member working for, or working in an atmosphere with another family member. So I think that causes people to be very driven to try to always perform well. But that, to me, turns out to be a good thing.
Bryan: At An American Place, we'd go in there as kids every once in a while and run around the kitchen, help clean mushrooms and really irritate the cooks. But my father was always very laid back and cool. It wasn’t until I was out of high school that I really got involved with working at An American Place. I came to my father and I asked him for a job, he didn't offer one to me.
Marc: I didn't go to college for culinary, I just went to college, initially, I guess to play lacrosse. And then, basically, just to have fun after I decided I didn't want to play lacrosse. I majored in psychology. I majored in forestry. I majored in economics. I was just kind of floating around. But I used to always cook for my friends. They'd all give me ten bucks and I'd cook for about ten of us. And one of the times that I was doing that, I just looked around and realized how much fun I was having doing it. It was just like this light went off in my head. You know, if you don't like going to psych class but you do like cooking and being with people…what the hell are you doing, dude? I think I was running from it just because my dad did it, with the attitude that I didn’t want to do what my dad did. And then, I just had that moment. That was when my dad sat me down. He didn't try to scare me, but he just told me the truth, that one out of every hundred chefs actually makes it. He just gave me the lay of the land. “Say goodbye to your normal life. Your friends that you know now, you probably won't know in five years. Say goodbye to holidays. Say goodbye to weekends.”
Larry: I think anybody going into this profession, you have to give them the advice that it takes a great deal of hard work and dedication to succeed. And that success should never be based on the opinions of others. You should base your success on whether you've accomplished your dreams and your goals.
Marc: They were always very, very, very serious about not treating me like the owner's son at American Place. I'm sure there were some instances where I might have looked at him and said like, “Come on, Dad.” And I'm sure when I did, he gave me that look that says, “I'll ring your neck if you call me Dad again.”
Bryan: There's one moment that stands out to me. It was when I just started working, I think I was helping somebody out on the pantry station. And my father doesn't normally do expediting as far as calling the food out, as he had a chef de cuisine that would do that. But for whatever reason, one night my father came into the kitchen and he started calling out the tickets, and he did it differently than the way that the other chef did it. And I didn't even think about it, I just said, because he's my dad, “Dad, that's not how you call it. You're supposed to say ‘order fire.'” And I said this in front of his whole staff. The look that he gave me, I will never forget. And the whole kitchen went silent. After seeing the look on his face, I tried to never step out of line again. I've heard of people working in kitchens where you're getting s**t thrown at you. But that's not the way his kitchens operate. People, they had pride. They had honor. They were very respectful. And everybody appreciated that, even me.
Larry: There are many aspects of the business today that are a lot easier for my sons than it was for me. First of all, the availability of ingredients is miles ahead of where it was 20 or 30 years ago. And the internet has helped dramatically in research of ingredients, finding ingredients, getting the history of different ingredients. Everything is more expensive, today, however. But in general I think that the same rules apply, whether you opened your restaurant 30 years ago or five years ago.