"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."
Chef Marc Forgione doesn't really need an introduction, but let me paint a picture of the breadth of his resume just in case you haven't read the Businessweek piece I found to be the perfect framework for today's interview: he's son to Chef Larry Forgione, "the godfather of American cuisine."
Having cooked in his father's restaurants since he was 15, he went to school for psychiatry, then forestry, then economics, to "figure out if there was something out there other than cooking," until he succumbed and graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management. He became as sous chef at Pazo at age 23, then realized he had much more to learn and jumped ship to France, where he was as "bottom of the totem pole as you could get."
Returning home, he opened Laurent Tourondel's BLT Prime empire as corporate sous chef, opened his own namesake restaurant in 2009 (which garnered him a slew of accolades including being the youngest American chef to grab a Michelin star), nabbed the next Iron Chef spot in 2010, opened American Cut steakhouses in Atlantic City and Manhattan, and teamed up with his own sous chef Soulayphet Schwader to open the Laotian Khe-Yo. His first cookbook, Marc Forgione; Recipes and Stories..., comes out at the end of April. And the dude's only "34 years young."
"If you look at the numbers," he says, "I probably have another 50 years of life ahead of me. So who knows! Maybe I will become a forest ranger someday."
You started as a dishwasher. What did it teach you? 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. 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.
Did you ever feel pushed or judged because of your father? Definitely both. 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 couldn't hide in the corner; my nickname at one of my jobs was "Son of Larry." When I worked in my dad's restaurants, he made sure no one treated me like his son.
Is there a parallel for kids who want to become cooks? 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 it's too hard, stop. I was broke until three years ago, and I was the chef/owner of a restaurant. 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; I love the people, the camaraderie, the food, seeing somebody smile when they taste something, 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, all the charity work I get to do. It's a fulfilling life, if you do it the right way.
You remarked that you feel your first sous chef position came too soon. What were you struggling with? 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. 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 making fucking barbecue sauce or steak sauce or a vinaigrette, 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.
Did that experience change your perspective on what American cuisine could be? I think American cuisine changed anyway. If you looked at it 10 or 15 years ago, American cuisine meant regional cuisine. Now I think, at least in New York, the kind of cuisine we're doing is a giant melting pot. And I don't think that would be possible without what was laid down by those American guys.
Looking back, 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, Khe-Yo, 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.