How Marc Forgione's Cookbook Will Make You a Better Cook

Tuna Niscoise

What is the oldest recipe in this book and where did it come from?
Some of my dad's recipes are in there, so those would technically be the oldest, but as far as the Forg recipes, the only dish that's been on the menu since day one is Kona Kampaci tartare. I knew I wanted to have a signature tartare; every restaurant I've ever worked at always had that tartare that everybody liked...It's weird; I didn't plan on that being our best seller, but it's kind of turned out that way.

What is one seasonal early spring ingredient you really enjoy?
Spring for a New Yorker kind of just represents going outside and seeing the flowers, and as a chef, when you finally get something green in your hand after dealing with root vegetables all winter long, it kind of makes you feel alive again. So those first things to pop up are usually wood sorrel, and there's lettuce, and the ramps, favas, things like that. I just started working with someone, she's now a good friend of mine, and she goes in to New Jersey, she's got a couple acres where she forages wild stuff for me. And I'm getting ingredients I've never used before that I'm having a lot of fun with.

Where in NYC do you go for culinary inspiration?
I try to eat out at as many places as I can; I just went to Gramercy Tavern, and it was fantastic, and I always love the stuff that he does. I ate at Pearl and Ash the other night, which I really, really enjoyed. I'm not one to follow trends, but I kind of listen to my chefs and colleagues and friends and people who are eating out and find out what's going on.

I use a friend for spices, and sometimes I'll taste a spice and build an entire dish around the spice. He's got a little shop in Hell's Kitchen. There's also a place in Chinatown: It doesn't have a name, just an address, at 318 Grand Avenue, and it actually inspired a Peking Duck type dish. It's a like a shithole restaurant. But most of my cooking is inspired by the stupidest things. I mean, I'll eat a bagel in the morning, or have a fried chicken while I'm watching TV, and I'll kind of say to myself, "How can I turn this into something?"

Your mom tested the recipes; how does her feedback differ from your father's?
I wanted to give the recipes to a novice cook instead of a professional recipe tester, since a professional has tested recipes before. In my opinion, that's not a real guide of how somebody at home is going to follow it. And I know my recipes are not exactly simple, so we started her out with the easier ones, and as she got better at understanding what I meant by something like reducing something by half, or cooking until it's glazed...Once you learn that language, it's repeated [throughout the book], and for the first few recipes she struggled; she almost wanted to throw in the towel. But now to this day, she says the book has really made her a better cook. It was really cool to watch, and to teach my mother something, after a whole lifetime of her teaching me.

And who did the cooking, growing up?
My dad was at the restaurant. My mom's a great home cook, we ate everything home made growing up.

How did growing up in a culinary household impact the way you think about food?
I didn't know that I was eating better than everybody else [laughs]! I just thought I was eating, and I kind of had a rude awakening when I got a little older and started eating at other people's houses. So for me, food has just always been a part of life. Even from my grandfather, never mind my parents. So I kind of grew up the Italian way, where Sundays you went over, and there was the sauce, and it was all home made. Food was just always there, and even as a little kid, I helped my mom cook and I just always liked it...I was making my own breakfast when I was nine years old, and I thought everyone else was, too. It was never forced upon me, but it was just a part of growing up. It blows my mind when I meet people who don't know how to boil water. I just can't get that.

From a cook's perspective, what's the most marked change in the NYC restaurant scene since you were a kid?
I think that the quote/unquote "explosion of American chefs" because of people like my dad and Alice Waters and Paul Prudhomme and all those guys -- back then, there were maybe 10 chefs in the country that you could name by name. Now there are probably 10 American chefs that you could name in each neighborhood in New York City. So, I think that revolution in American cooking, that you don't have to be European to be successful or to be taken seriously has been a really great thing. And American products -- everything from wine to cheese to olive oil -- this wasn't here 25 years ago. So it's been beautiful to watch our country culinarily explode.

What do you look forward to seeing more of with this explosion of American food and cooking?
I think there's a really cool push going on...Going back to those guys I just mentioned, I think the molecular thing was around for a number of years, but I think now, people in general are going back to organic, raw, pristine ingredients, to caring about where the lamb came from and how it's raised, caring about which farmer you're getting your carrots from. I love when guests come in and ask, "Where did the carrots come from?" That question never would have been asked even five years ago. So that's been great for everyone.

On the next page, make Forgione's signature dish

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