Chef Marc Forgione grew up around food; his father is Larry Forgione, the celebrated chef sometimes referred to as the "Godfather of American Cuisine." He attained independent success in the restaurant world at a young age, opening Restaurant Marc Forgione (originally named Forge) in 2008. But after weathering the recession and riding the initial hype of his appearances on Iron Chef America beginning in 2010, Forgione, 38, has found a comfortable groove at his acclaimed downtown Manhattan spot, now a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence winner. Nearly a decade since its opening and years since his first taste of fame, Forgione still remains planted behind the stove. His wine director Matthew Conway, 35, has been with him since the start; he too still brings a personal touch, working both the cellar and the floor.
At the start of his career, Forgione transitioned from his father's An American Place to work at chef Laurent Tourondel's BLT restaurants before opening Marc Forgione. "We built up slowly, being the really good neighborhood restaurant," says Forgione, remembering the gradual cementing of his status as an established "New York City restaurant."
Conway also made strides in the dining scene young. He worked in his mother's restaurant in Northern California growing up, and moved to New York in 2003 to attend wine classes at the American Sommelier Association. He landed a job at chef Gray Kunz's Café Gray at just 22, rapidly rising to the beverage director position. When the restaurant closed four years later, Conway met Forgione, who was looking for someone to helm the wine program. He has grown the list from around 60 wine selections to more than 400.
Forgione and Conway spoke with assistant editor Emma Balter about the restaurant's rough start, the surprising successful—and failed—wine pairings they've discovered, and the secret to a long-lasting working relationship in restaurants.
Wine Spectator: Can you recall when you got into restaurants?
Marc Forgione: I was kind of born into it. I worked in restaurants my whole life. Being Larry Forgione's kid, it wasn't like being a normal line cook. I got a lot more shit for it, or sometimes people treated you better. It's just always Larry's son, Larry's son, Larry's son. So I wanted to get away from all that. I went to France, and trust me when I tell you they didn't give a shit who Larry Forgione was! Up until that point I was just kind of like a young punk, trying to figure out who I was as a person. But while I was in France, that's where I kind of grew up. I didn't have any friends around, I didn't have any distractions, I didn't have a TV, didn't have a computer, I had nothing, literally just, like, a bed and a refrigerator and a stove, and then I worked every day for a year. That's when I decided I wanted to be a chef.
Wine Spectator: You opened Marc Forgione restaurant almost 10 years ago. What was that like?
Matthew Conway: Well, we were broke. Opening a restaurant is not cheap. The list started small out of necessity, and then the recession hit; we weren't very busy.
MF: The best thing to ever happen to this restaurant was the recession. Because it humbled us; I think we came in a little cocky. Then when it turned around, because of what we went through, we looked at everything from a different view.
MC: There was a point in time when I was breaking cases for by-the-glass [selections], which some companies get mad [at]. Now I buy 5 to 10 case drops for things. Back then I was like, "I'll take six bottles of this, and three bottles of that."
MF: It was also around the time when I was like, "Can I get 17 oysters?"
WS: How would you describe the restaurant to someone who's never been before?
MC: We have regulars come in and they're like, "Why I keep coming here is because Marc is going to come out at the table, and you're going to pour my wine." I think we're very genuine about what we do. We're not always perfect, we're not always right, we're not always the classic way to do it, but everything that we try to do is genuine.
I remember years ago sitting here, tasting sake for another pairing. [Marc] was working on the menu and put up a raw buffalo dish that his father used to do, and I tasted it with the sake, and it was amazing. We ended up putting that on as a pairing. His dad came in to try it—you're pairing Japanese rice wine with his American buffalo tartare—and for the first time ever in my life I was like, Aaaahhh …. And he actually gave me the nod of approval.
[But] we tried to do coq au vin and vin jaune because it's a very classic pairing. I got old vintages from a private collection, we tried to do a special, [for] $42 you got the coq au vin and a glass of vin jaune … and we sold one a night. It just didn't work. But it was coming from a genuine place.
WS: Have you taken on new wine regions or focuses over the years?
MF: We've had a bunch of "Forge" favorites, private labels. When we fall in love with something, we usually call [the producers] and say, "Hey, would you mind …?"
MC: They don't make the wine any differently for us, they just label it with us, and it's usually in magnums. [Now] we have magnums of Fred Loimer Grüner Veltliner with our label on it. Our first Forge label was Sancerre rouge. I put it in the cooler because it's commonly sold chilled. Rick Bayless [of Frontera Grill and Topolobampo] came in and we sent him a midcourse of our infamous chili lobster dish, which is a hot lobster appetizer with spicy Sriracha sauce, and he had ordered a bottle of chilled Sancerre rouge. He was like, "I would never guess that red wine and this hot, spicy [dish] … but don't listen to me, you guys be the judge." A couple days later we tasted it, and the temperature-heat of the dish and the spiciness of the sauce, and then the cold temperature of the wine, and the simple straightforward Pinot Noir fruit. To this day on the tasting menu—now it's Irancy—we always have a bottle in the fridge.
WS: What do you drink on your own time?
MC: He likes funky, natural whites. What did I send home with you? Hirotake Ooka St.-Péray, really funky stuff. No sulfur, funky, nuttiness …. He takes it to a level where most people bow out.
MF: I brought it once to my dad, and he almost caused physical harm to me. He got so mad. You know what though, my favorite wines over the years, that Sancerre rouge was one of those, that [Lopez de Heredia] white Rioja—when we have that wine here, it's hard for me to leave without having a glass, which is bad for business because I drink most of the inventory. Because of Matthew I've gotten into Grüner. I know it's not wine, but over the years we've developed a serious love for mezcal.
MC: I love Grüner, anything high-acid, Chablis, Loire Valley. And then reds: Northern Rhône. Whole-cluster Syrah does it for me big time. I drink a lot of rosé year-round. It's fresh, it's light, it's simple, it's quaffable. I drink rosé like other people drink beer.
MF: He has rosé in a keg in his apartment. At all times.
WS: You've worked together for almost 10 years. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for other beverage directors and chefs working together?
MF: Meditate in the morning.
MC: We both do, now.
MF: During that recession, he could have left. I told him to leave, because I just didn't see light at the end of the tunnel. But he didn't, he stuck it through, and it's almost like going to war with somebody. You remember that. Both of us have a mutual respect for each other; it takes time.
MC: And an appreciation for the finer things in life. It doesn't hurt to enjoy what you're doing.