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Q&A: Marc Forgione on ‘Iron Chef’ stardom and his Hong Kong pop-up

Marc Forgione needs no introduction: The son of Larry Forgione (known as “The Godfather of American Cuisine”), Marc has long since extracted himself from his father’s spotlight and forged ahead with his own legacy in the culinary world, becoming the youngest American chef to earn a Michelin star in three consecutive years for his namesake restaurant in New York City, and winning The Next Iron Chef Season 3 to compete alongside culinary legends such as Mario Batali and Masaharu Morimoto inside Kitchen Stadium.

Nowadays with the cameras off (Iron Chef is rumoured to be making a comeback this year on Food Network along with host Alton Brown), Forgione is spending most of his time balancing the roles of chef and restaurateur, with Restaurant Marc Forgione celebrating its ninth anniversary this year in Manhattan’s Tribeca district.

In town for a pop-up at Lily & Bloom (we’ve heard he’s always been scouting around for potential restaurant sites), Forgione dishes on his unique blend of “New York style” cooking, stepping out of his father’s spotlight, and the best advice he has for young chefs and budding restaurateurs in the industry.

Let’s start from the beginning. What got you interested in food?
I was hungry. No, just kidding. Some people think that because I grew up with my dad that it was forced, like, I’d been training since I was a kid. It was nothing like that; it was actually the opposite. My dad was working a lot obviously, so my mother was the one who cooked for us everyday, and I was always in the kitchen with her. I wanted to learn how to flip an egg, or make meatballs with her or whatever it was. Our kitchen has always been at the heart of our household. My grandfather was also a great cook (the Italian side in us), so I just grew up with this food culture, not even knowing that my dad was a great chef until I was like 18.

And when did you start cooking professionally?
Well I did it during the summers when I was still in my teens. I went on a trip to Europe and I was really impressed with some of the stuff I saw up there. When I came back, my dad had just lost a sous chef or something and they needed my help. I didn’t even have time to unpack my suitcase, I just came home, washed my face, went to work, and I don’t know, I just started to really love it. At that time I was 20, I just got bit by the bug and got really serious about it. I started working at other kitchens other than my dad’s, which was interesting because with my last name, 10-15 years ago, it was tough. Every chef would push me a little harder, treat me a little different, and not in a good way… It was always like, “Oh, you’re Larry Forgione’s son, how do you mess that up?” But in turn, it made me better in the long run.

Marc Forgione is the youngest American chef to earn a Michelin star for three consecutive years (2010-2013).

Has it been hard trying to forge your own path and step out of your father’s spotlight?
I never started my career to try and recreate An American Place. I wanted to open up my own restaurant. An American Place in the beginning was tablecloths, you know iconic New York City, very upscale restaurant. My restaurant has no tablecloths, we play rock and roll, but I still consider my food to be the highest quality we can do. I think as the years have gone on, I’m starting to be recognised as me, but at the end of the day I am Larry Forgione’s son, so I have no problem with that. I’m very proud to be Larry Forgione’s son.

Who have been your biggest chef mentors in your career? 
The first chefs I worked for were Patricia Yeo and Pino Maffeo; both of them had very different styles and since it was my first experience outside my dad’s restaurants, it had a really big impact on me. Pinot, in particular, he taught me discipline, like how to be a man. You know, like you can stay out until 4am in the morning if you want to, but you better be the first one back to work. And don’t let anybody see you sweat. He helped shape me at the time when I was still a young punk in my early 20s.

And then with Laurent Tourondel, I just got to watch the creation of BLT from the ground up. There’s like 30 BLT‘s now, and I opened the first five from start to finish, just me and Laurent. He’s a great chef, great mentor, and now a great friend. He really showed me how you have to care about every single thing, whether it’s your signature dish or chopped chives, everything has to be perfect.

When did you decide you wanted to open your own restaurant?
I had always wanted to own my own restaurant, and I think it was when I went to France that I got really serious about the business. I think I went there to see if there was really something else out there, and I knew they wouldn’t care what my last name was (they didn’t), and I think that was when I just realised I really want to do this. When I came back I was a little more motivated with a clear path, but like, I never wanted to be on TV, I never wanted to be famous, none of that stuff was ever any part of my goals. My goal was to own a restaurant.

Restaurant Marc Forgione celebrates its ninth anniversary this year in New York’s Tribeca district.

So how did you get involved in the Next Iron Chef? 
I had been asked to do a couple different shows, but I always said no. I said the only show I like is Iron Chef because at the end of the day it’s just cooking, there’s no bullshit, theres no drama, there’s no video clips of the house with drama, I mean it’s just cooking. I thought maybe I’d get to be on Iron Chef one day, but I never ever thought I would have the chance to become one. I got a call from the Food Network and they’d noticed at the time I had a Michelin star, and I’m sure my haircut and my name didn’t hurt either. I mean I’ll be the first one to admit that it’s a good story. Once I got on the show, again I never really had any intention of winning it; I think I was like 31 at the time, I was just doing it to get people to come to my restaurant.

Tell us what the moment was like when you were announced the winner.
I mean you can probably find a clip of it online somewhere, I don’t want to say I passed out — but I like fainted, for half a second, and my sous chefs caught me. I started crying, I mean it was crazy. I had gone through so much shit in the year and a half leading up to that because of the recession in New York, my restaurant was struggling and just personal stuff. It’s really hard to explain how hard that year really was, from almost losing my restaurant to having to second guess myself and my whole life, and then all of a sudden it just completely got flipped around.

What’s it like in Kitchen Stadium?
When you’re a little kid you grow up watching it and then all of a sudden you’re walking into it, it’s like the coolest thing in the world. It’s like if you’re a baseball fan and all of a sudden you’re a New York Yankee, you’re like how did this even happen. Now I feel like an old man when I go in there. But in the beginning it was such a magical thing to experience and be part of.

Do you remember a favourite battle?
The finale for The Next Iron Chef, “Battle Thanksgiving”. I think just the stakes that were involved and how much pressure there was, and how good everything came out. I’m just very proud of that whole victory. I had to really dig deep for that, and it was really outside the box. I didn’t cook turkey and it was Thanksgiving. Everyone was like you’re crazy for not cooking turkey but I just followed my gut and we ended up winning.

Did being on TV have a big impact on your restaurant business?
New Yorkers are smarter than you think when it comes to restaurants. I think getting on TV got people to come check it out, but you know we’re still busy now coming up on our ninth year anniversary, and in New York these days, that’s not easy to do, and you can’t do that just because you’re on TV. You have to have a product that you’re giving them. At the end of the day I’m proud of what I’ve done on TV. Sometimes the term TV chef gets thrown around almost as an insult to some people, and I don’t pay attention to that, it’s like I know what I am, I know what I do, and people who eat at my restaurant know what I do, and you’ll never hear me apologise for being on TV.

Would you consider another show?
It would have to be pretty pure. Again, I’m not into the drama, I’m not an actor.

Fish en croute is one of chef Forgione’s signature dishes served as part of the seven-course tasting menu at Lily & Bloom.

Tell us a bit about your cooking style and what we can expect at the pop-up.
I think the best way to describe what I’m doing these days is what I like to call “melting pot cuisine” — it’s New York City. I’m a born-and-raised New Yorker that had the opportunity to travel and to work with a lot of different chefs and at the end of the day that’s what New York City is — a giant melting pot of different cultures. I think you’ll experience that with the menu that I’m serving here. There’s barbecue, there’s a dish inspired by Singapore, there’s a dish inspired by the pastrami from Katz’s Deli, we’re doing a play on an everything bagel, and there’s a fish en croute that’s very french style… it’s a melting pot.

What’s one of your favourite dishes on the menu?
Well, I don’t know if anybody else in Hong Kong is doing a pastrami-spiced steak with homemade sauerkraut? I think it’s going to be a cool opportunity to really bring some flavours from NYC to Hong Kong.

What about plans to open a restaurant here?
Sure. Again it’s my first time here so you know, we’ll see what happens. Hopefully I get to meet some people, and if the reaction’s good, maybe somebody eats here that wants to do it, who knows.

Can you talk about some of the big food trends in New York right now?
Everybody’s really getting in to making everything from scratch. People are making their own butter, making their own sauerkraut, their own cured meats. Everything is really going back to the artisanal, everybody wants to make their own everything and I think it’s great. At the restaurant now we’re making our own breads, we do all of our own sausages and our own curing. I think it’s a cool direction that it’s going in.

Chef Forgione’s BBQ oysters are perked up with ararat, a type of Middle Eastern spice blend.

And what about the restaurant industry in general?
It’s getting harder and harder and harder. They’re raising rents, they’re raising minimum wages, I honestly don’t think that independent restaurants are going to have a chance in 10 years. It’s sad, it really is. I mean who knows though? Maybe the bubble will burst. And it’s not really the landlord’s fault, if he can get US$50K a month for the same space, why shouldn’t he? The market’s being created. It breaks my heart but I don’t blame them necessarily, it’s just like instead of everybody making some money, it’s turning into some people making a lot of money.

What keeps you going at the end of the day?
I’m really enjoying being a “restaurateur” now. I still spend my nights in the kitchen, and expediting on the line, but it’s a different chapter in my life. It’s more being in charge, and collaborating with my chefs and trying to mentor, teach and create other chefs. And doing things like this, being able to come to Hong Kong. I just did a dinner in Miami with my brother and father, it’s cool being able to do events and meet different people and chefs.

What advice do you have for upcoming chefs and restaurateurs?
Raise more money than you think you need. Whatever you think you need to raise, add US$250K to it. Because you need it, trust me. And just make sure that you’re doing it because you want to and not because you think it’s cool. Sometimes people get caught up in this whole “I want to do it”, whether it’s for ego, or whatever — just make sure you love what you do, because there’s nothing harder in this business than being a chef and an owner at the same time. You’re in charge of everything from paying the rent to a random lightbulb breaking. But it is definitely as rewarding as it is challenging.

The Marc Forgione pop-up at Lily & Bloom runs from 22-25 March. Dinner is priced at HK$880 for a five-course menu (6-8pm seating), HK$1,280 for a seven-course menu (8.30-11pm seating); includes a welcome glass of champagne. 

Lily & Bloom, 5/F-6/F, LKF Tower, 33 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2810 6166, lily-bloom.com

Leslie Yeh
Editor in Chief
Having worked as a lifestyle editor for almost 10 years, Leslie is thrilled to be writing about the topic she loves most: wining and dining. When she's not out pounding the pavement for the latest new restaurant opening or tracking food trends, Leslie can be found at home whipping up a plate of rigatoni vodka and binge-watching Netflix with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc in hand.