Marc Forgione Sees a Better Way to Run Restaurants
Finally uniting his New York venues under one group, the longtime chef puts a philosophy of respect into practice.
Marc Forgione is chef/partner in his newly created Respect Hospitality group, which encompasses his eponymous restaurant as well as Peasant and the recently opened One Fifth, all in New York. He has worked with and for a number of accomplished chefs and partners over the years, including his father Larry Forgione, who gave Marc one of his first kitchen jobs years ago. Larry is now a consultant on One Fifth.
How was the opening for One Fifth?
Great. The neighborhood is so excited and curious. The space has been there as a restaurant for so long. People are coming back and telling us, “That’s my bar seat,” or “I always sit over here.” Once they taste the food and the cocktails, they’re pleasantly surprised with how different everything is, and how much they like it.
That space has been a lot of different restaurants over the years—many very splashy big names involved—and often customers are wary of new restaurants replacing their old haunts. But I think that changed a little for places that shut down for good during the pandemic. Customers seem more tolerant, more willing to give a new place a chance, rather than comparing it unfavorably to their departed favorite.
That’s what I mean. I don’t think anybody’s coming there with aspirations that it’s going to be Otto. They’re just excited it’s open. Not to toot my own horn, but when they find out it’s me, they get like like, “Oh, my God, we heard it was you!” Everybody is just so welcoming. We’ve had a full bar every night at 5:30 since we opened.
You had been thinking of a new restaurant before you found this specific space, right?
Yeah, I’ve been shopping for this particular concept for my family. My father’s a famous chef, my brother’s a great cook, my mom’s a great cook, my grandpa was a great cook. Food has been very important in our lives—in our personal lives, not just our professional lives.
The way we eat during holidays—especially as the family got bigger and bigger—was small antipasti, and there would always be some kind of pizza. And then my father fell in love with this particular ancient flatbread called pinsa. So he and I have been looking for this space since before the pandemic. And when I found it, I wasn’t even supposed to be on 8th Street.
I read in another interview that you just made a wrong turn and noticed the space by accident.
Right. But when I saw it, and I saw the “space available,” sign, I was like, holy shit, there couldn’t be a more perfect place for this concept we’ve been shopping for. So here we are.
You were thinking of a restaurant built around these family-style meals?
My parents were living in Napa Valley, probably 2015 or 2016. We were sitting around eating small plates with some homemade charcuterie that my dad made. I think we were actually having a pinsa too. And we just looked at each other—like, you know, it’d be nice to do a restaurant like this
Is One Fifth the first restaurant your dad has been directly involved with in a while? Was he semi-retired or what?
No, he was working at the Culinary Institute of America in the Greystone campus in St Helena. That tenure ended, COVID happened, and then this was the next thing he’s done since the CIA gig.
And this is the first opening under Respect Hospitality, your new restaurant group. Considering all you’ve been through, not only with with Restaurant Marc Forgione, but with other restaurants you’ve been involved with in other contexts, what’s different about this situation?
Well, the obvious answer is that with this one, I’m finally at the top of the food chain. My partners have been a joy to work with so far. They’re part of another group called Apres Cru. We met in summer 2020. It’s been nice and refreshing to have partners where we can agree. And if we don’t agree, we can discuss things.
In my career, I’ve had different partners over the years. I’ve never had all the restaurants under one umbrella. With Marc Forgione, Peasant, and One Fifth together, we can start to make continuity with all the details, and how we treat people, and how we train people.
You’ve been outspoken about trying to avoid the toxic kitchen culture typical in traditional restaurant environments that has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. How do you put that philosophy into practice?
I grew up in the Kitchen Confidential days. That life was real. I think when people get trained a certain way, that’s how they end up training other people. But I decided to take a different route.
Having raised my son, and being humbled by COVID—it just made me take a step back and say, okay, well, how do I want the next 40 years of my life to be? A big part of that for me was spending a lot of time on spiritual teachings. But I never really carried it over into work, where it was always a sink-or-swim mentality.
Now I’m trying to preach some of that. The reason I named the company Respect Hospitality is because I want everybody from the executive chef to the overnight porter to respect each other, respect each other’s workplace, respect the way we treat each other, and respect the way that we treat our guests. And it’s been so much fun.
We had somebody come in the kitchen on a Friday night who’s in the restaurant business, and they were like, “I can’t believe how quiet the kitchen is.” And I was like, yeah, well, we don’t have to yell, you know? Somebody fires up the seppia, they give us the seppia, and they don’t make it right? We tell them very calmly, “Hey, that’s not how we do it, please try again.”
I was talking with chef Daniel Poss at Juniper in St. Louis recently, and he said he also came up in a very traditionally brutal kitchen environment. He was telling me how he was conflicted—that everything has to be very different now, he doesn’t want to mentor people that way, doesn’t want to train people that way, doesn’t want that kind of environment. But he also felt that as bad as all that experience was, it made him tough and disciplined, and it taught him a lot of valuable lessons. So the challenge he faced running his kitchen is how to impart those kinds of lessons without falling back into those toxic behaviors. Do you feel the same tension?
I’d agree with him. That’s a very real conversation. It’s hard for me to say that I would be who I am, and where I am, if I hadn’t had that hard-knocks training. But at the same time, there’s no real way to know. The first ten years at Marc Forgione were pretty hard knocks. But the world is different now, and I don’t know if all that is necessary anymore. I think I can get the same point across without all that. At least I hope so. We’ll see what happens. I can say that right now, with the three executive chefs I have at the three restaurants—they’re all very thorough, calm, intelligent, talented individuals. So far, so good.
How has this approach changed the way you hire people, or the way you talk to people in the hiring process?
The demand for labor is so much higher than the supply, it’s shifted a little bit of leverage. I don’t know if it’s necessarily a good thing, but it’s the truth. Now you’ll hear, “This is what I need, or I’m not working here.” Back when I was trying to get hired, it was more like, “I’ll do whatever I can to work here.”
But at the same time, we are looking for good people first and foremost. I’ve said this verbatim to my chefs—“We can teach a good person how to be a great cook.” It’s going to be a little harder to teach … I hate to say a “bad” person, but someone who doesn’t fall into line with what we’re looking for, from a personality perspective
We can’t change a person. We can hopefully teach chemistry.
Were you able to get everyone you needed to open One Fifth the way you wanted?
Sure, but we’re still hiring. We’re still hiring at the other two restaurants too. It never stops. But on the opening day of training of One Fifth, I think there were 76 people there. By day four, that was whittled down to 40. Most of those missing just didn’t come back.
That’s a pretty high rate of attrition.
And we didn’t even do anything yet! We were just explaining the restaurant. But I will say this, and I mean it wholeheartedly. The people we have at all three restaurants right now are a great crew. Me and my management team, we give everybody a fighting chance. But we’d rather have five really good people, versus ten people where three of them don’t want to be there.
Running three restaurants seems to be the critical number where you have to get comfortable with delegation, and no longer being so hands-on. How is that working out for you?
It’s funny you say that. I literally just sent a note about this to my management team last Friday. When I had two restaurants, I’m not going to say it was easy, but I just split my time fifty-fifty between them. Now, if I wasn’t at service the night before at one place, I’m going to have the manager, the GM, and chef call me once they get settled. And it’s not an hour-long dissertation. It’s just, “How was it last night?” So that’ll be two phone calls a day.
Whenever it’s a new restaurant like One Fifth, I’m always there pretty much full time—for months, depending. But once One Fifth gets settled, I think what I’m going to do is two days in a row at each property. I feel like that’s the best way to accomplish a presence.
Like, I only have one child as of now, but I’ve heard that when you go from two to three kids—I don’t know how many kids you have—
Two, and that’s it for me. I’m done thanks.
Yeah, exactly. So imagine a third. Now you’re not playing man-to-man anymore. You have to figure it out.