Jim Poris / June 1999
Food Arts presents the June 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Larry Forgione, the red, white, and blue chef who was among the first of his generation to sound the Sousa-loud clarion call that awakened cooks of all stripes to the goodness of America's regional cuisines and the glories of the country's inexhaustible larder.
For more than 22 years in New York City—first at Regine's, then at The River Café on the Brooklyn waterfront, and then, starting in 1983, at his own empire-anchoring An American Place—Forgione, 46, has tethered his career to food that would be appreciated by Ma and Pa. His all-points bulletin for the wild, the native, the organic, the foraged, the artisanal, the day-boated, and the small-farmed dramatically changed the nature of foodstuffs available first to restaurants and ultimately to the American public.
"If I've been influential at all, it's been in focusing on American ingredients and trying to find the best of them," acknowledges Forgione, who is credited with coining the term "free-range" chicken. "I wasn't reinventing the wheel," he adds, "but turning the wheel back."
Forgione's epiphany came at the Connaught Hotel in London, where he worked from 1974-1977. "IN Europe, everybody got to use the same products as the chefs, but in America everyone was growing for the mass market and chefs had to use the same products," Forgione says. As he cooked in London, he recalled the just-picked, just-killed food from his Italian grandmother's small farm on his native Long Island and the devotion his Irish grandmother paid to the trinity of early-morning church, all-day cooking, and soap operas. "When I came home, I wanted to go after the kinds of foodstuffs I had seen my grandparents use."
At The River Café, he forged a friendship with James Beard by sending doggie bags of his food to the American culinary chronicler's Greenwich Village home, "We'd sit for hours sometimes, going through his visual and taste landscape of what American food is about," Forgione recalls. "The fun part was going through old cookbooks with him, not for recipes, but to see what ingredients were being used in, say, the mid-1800s."
Recently, Forgione has embarked on a flurry of restaurant building—grafting The 16-32 Coach House and Rosehill (a seafood house) onto a portfolio that includes An American Place, The Beekman 1766 Tavern at the Beekman Arms in Rhinebeck, New York, and American Spoon Foods , the Michigan-based mail-order company he started with one of his foragers in 1981. He will soon open three restaurants and runa ll foodservice operations at the Embassy Suites Hotel, Retail and Entertainment Center being constructed in Battery Park City.
By year's end, Forgione will plant the American food flag in a most fitting site—right in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, where, in Liberty State Park (in New Jersey) he'll open a 12,000-square-foot steak/seafood grill and banquet facility. Can't get more star-spangled than that!