Isenberg Hospitality Graduate Reveals a Celebrity Chef’s Savvy and Grit
November 09, 2017
“Remember, it’s all about journeys. Be patient!”
HTM graduate and high-profile Manhattan-based chef Marc Forgione ’01 advised his mostly student audience in the Campus Center Auditorium in late October. Since its debut in 2008, Marc’s establishment, Restaurant Marc Forgione, has earned coveted Michelin stars and review kudos from the New York Times, Forbes magazine, and the Zagat Guide. In 2012, Marc won the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition, instantly gaining international “chef” celebrity status. So why did Chef Forgione regale his student audience with the good, the bad, and the nitty gritty details of his notable ascent?
“It’s never been about instant gratification,” he told the students. ”It’s always been tough. That included working summers during his UMass years in the kitchen of his father’s New York City Restaurant. (His dad, Chef Larry Forgione, sports the moniker, “The Godfather of American Cuisine.”) After graduation, Marc worked eighty-hour weeks in sous-chef posts in New York establishments. “New York City is rough and tough,” he emphasized. “But I was slowly falling in love with the business,” he remarked. “The kitchen,” he noted, is unforgiving. There’s a beautiful camaraderie. It’s a team thing.”
Overseas Assignment.Next on his career menu, Marc learned culinary ropes in a small-town (population 404), Michelin three-star restaurant in southwest France. His tenure began in a claustrophobic prep room where he peeled potatoes, chopped carrots, etc. under the watchful eye of a chef who evaluated him on speed, neatness, and other niceties. Passing those tests, “You left the prep room into one of the most beautiful kitchens in the world,” he recalled. A key takeaway for Forgione came from the restaurant’s farm-to-table sourcing of animals and vegetables “from the ground,” which he “took apart” for culinary preparation. Although he rarely had a day off, “I had a lot of time to think,” he reminisced.
Returning to New York at age 25, Marc excelled as chef at the celebrated BLT Prime. Building on that success, he became the parent enterprise’s corporate chef, traveling around the country, opening restaurants and ensuring best practices. One misgiving: “You lose the camaraderie working with all of those different teams,” he remarked. But Marc did take pride in opening BLT Market, which graphically listed the ingredients in its entrees. “At the time, it was a completely new concept,” he recalled.
A Place of His Own.In 2008, the 27-year-old Forgione opened Forge (later renamed Restaurant Marc Forgione)—his own restaurant in lower Manhattan. After raising $600K in one month toward its $750K price tag, Marc missed the opening, landing in the hospital with an intestinal inflammation. “With hundreds of reservations, we couldn’t not open,” he insisted. A year later, with the restaurant gaining momentum, the Great Recession left its calling card, leveling the young restaurant’s nightly covers (i.e., individual diners at table) from 120 to 20 per night and its staff from 25+ to ten. “We almost went out of business,” he confessed.
Then, his fortunes abruptly changed for the better. A one-star Michelin rating added 20 covers to his nightly output. A confrontation with a patron, whom Marc ejected for waving fingers in his face, fueled a viral media article, which “added to our momentum.” (Marc had unwittingly given the boot to a NY Times reporter—fortunately not its restaurant reviewer.) A year later, Marc got a glowing review from the Times’ Sam Sifton.
Finally, in 2010, Marc prevailed as the long-shot winner in season 3 of the Food Channel’s Next Iron Chef. For the competition’s final round—preparation of a Thanksgiving Dinner—he rejected the customary turkey in favor of a medley of cod, oysters, duck, and venison—a November feast that would have appealed to the Pilgrims’ native American counterparts.
Don’t Stop Now.Since “making it,” Marc has continued to expand his culinary and business footprint. With leverage from thirty investors, he has opened additional venues, including two steakhouses—American Cut—one in Atlantic City and another in Manhattan. He has also teamed up with a celebrated Laotian chef in opening Khe-Yo, a Laotian inspired venue in Tribeca that deploys local market ingredients.
“If you’re not business savvy in Manhattan, you’re in trouble,” Marc insisted. And if you aim to succeed in the restaurant business, plan on extremely long hours. (Most of Marc’s career has been in the 80 hour per week range.) Finally, expect more than a normal human being’s share of stress. For Forgione, that just might be a good thing. After all, he told the students: “I’ve always enjoyed pressure situations.”