American Food Pioneer Larry Forgione Schools a New Generation at the Culinary Institute of America
Thanksgiving, one of the most American of holidays, seems the perfect time to share a story I’ve been sitting on for a little while, about what American food pioneer Larry Forgione has been up to the past couple of years.
Historically speaking, Larry’s a titan. But he’s been without a restaurant in a major city for quite some time, so isn’t as well known to younger chefs and culinary enthusiasts as he once was, or should be. But if you care about food, especially American food, you really ought to know about the man, because he belongs on the same pedestal as contemporaries Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower, and the rest of the gang he came up with in the 1970s and 1980s.
Larry was the first prominent chef to emerge from Buzzy O’Keefe’s The River Café (which later provided a runway for Charles Palmer and David Burke, among others), before opening his own restaurant, An American Place, in Manhattan in 1983. During his heyday, Larry made several essential, abiding contributions to our national restaurant landscape. Foremost among these was the development of a repertoire that was achieved in part by mining under-appreciated regional dishes from across the USA, at times actually working in tandem with James Beard. (On occasion, the two would leaf through books together in the library at Beard’s house on West 12th Street.) At a time when journalists categorized a wide range of styles under the umbrella “New American Cuisine,” Larry was actually cooking American food, elevating it with world-class technique.
His other crowning legacy was establishing a network of purveyors that was sorely lacking on the East Coast in the mid-to-late 1970s, when he returned from cooking at London’s Connaught Hotel and began plying his trade in New York City, first at Regine’s, then at River Café; the lengths to which he went to procure superlative ingredients would floor today’s chefs, for whom any edible esoterica is just mouse-click away. (The victory lap was his menu, which–as Gael Greene once wrote–included “farm, ranch and geographical credits for every periwinkle and prawn.”) He simply couldn’t understand why a chef in New York City didn’t have access to the same great ingredients he’d cooked with in London, and which his grandmother grew on her farm in Eastern Long Island, which he visited on weekends and summers in his youth.
Here’s a snippet of Larry back in the day; if you think “farm-to-table” is a newish concept, pay close attention to his comments, uttered three decades ago, starting at the one-minute mark:
That’s all a story in itself (and one I’ll be telling soon enough), but what Larry is doing these days is intriguing in its own right. Starting at the beginning of 2013, he took on a few interconnected roles at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, in St. Helena, California: Co-Founder and Culinary Director of The Conservatory for American Food Studies and Co-Founder and Culinary Director of the Farm to Table Bachelor Degree Concentration. In both capacities, he oversees a program of his own making that’s technically called American Food Studies: Farm to Table Cooking, but is colloquially referred to by the name of the “Crop Up” restaurant he and his students put on every Friday and Saturday night at the (Chuck) Williams Center for Flavor Discovery at the CIA campus: “The Conservatory.”
The idea for the program was hatched in New York City about two years ago: Late one night, shortly after Larry’s last consulting contract had run its course, he found himself sitting at Barbuto restaurant in the West Village with longtime buddy Jonathan Waxman, pondering what to do next.
“Larry, you were so much on the forefront of what was going on with the American cuisine movement, why don’t you do something where you can pass that information on?” suggested Jonathan, who has a knack for matching friends with the perfect opportunity.
According to Waxman, when Forgione demurred, he pressed: “It’s time to wake up and realize you’re the James Beard of this generation. Stop pretending you don’t know everything, because you do. It’d be great if you could parlay your vast knowledge and teach the current generation.”
Initially envisioning a joint venture, the pair developed a curriculum and class outline and began kicking the possibility around with leaders of the top cooking schools. There was a conversation with ICC’s Dorothy Kalins, but the one that bore fruit was a lunch with Culinary Institute of America president Tim Ryan and the school’s Mark Erickson at The Four Seasons in Midtown Manhattan (the perfect place, really, for this powwow) at which they explained their vision for a farm-to-table curriculum wed to Larry’s historical knowledge.
Ryan’s reply? According to Waxman, it was: “You had me at hello.”
From there it was downhill racing: Part of Larry’s vision was that the program must include a dedicated farm, so all involved quickly agreed that the CIA’s Greystone campus, in the heart of the Napa Valley, with its temperate climate and year-round bounty, was the only logical place to host it. Waxman, realizing the full-time commitment, and with plenty of restaurant and personal appearance opportunities vying for his attention, bowed out, leaving Forgione to run with it, and it wasn’t long before Napa royalty, Peter Mondavi and family, proprietors of the Charles Krug Winery, stepped up with an offer to make the farm a reality– loaning the CIA four acres of land just across Highway 29 from its campus.
“It’s rare to find four acres of land without vines on it in the Valley,” says Thomas Bensel, Managing Director of the CIA Greystone. “To find people who will let you grow produce on it … well, that’s never been done.” It’s basically a lopsided barter arrangement: the family allows the CIA to utilize the land in exchange for the school providing produce for them and their management team every week. The initial term of the agreement is five years.
The heart of The Conservatory program is a weekly “Crop Up” dinner, available to the public Friday and Saturday nights, a seven-course fine-dining experience that changes weekly based on the bounty of the farm. The development of the menu is overseen by Forgione and executed by his students.
The week goes something like this: Each Saturday, the farm manager provides a list of what to expect for the following weekend, and starting on Tuesday afternoon, Larry works with his students, in teams of two, to design a menu that will be served that Friday and Saturday night, with each team conceiving and executing a course.
“Tuesday afternoon is the operations class,” says Larry. “The students bring to that class two ideas for their course, each one is discussed and we then choose which of the two, or a combination of the two, or a third idea we’ll proceed with.” After those decisions are made, proteins are selected and ordered.
As Friday approaches, additional tweaks may be made, especially if an expected ingredient proves unavailable. Forgione admits that he occasionally “makes” an ingredient unavailable, to throw the students a curveball, make sure they learn to think on their feet. “That‘s critical thinking,” he says. “I thought I was getting Dungeness crab, but I got octopus. What do I do now?”
During service, Larry and his manager in-training (a paid position) expedite together. “I ask them at each step to bring a taste of the sauce; if they’re working on butchering, I will assist with that; we get everything in on the bone, or whole animal, all the fish comes in on the bone, so we’re constantly working on basic skills as well as criticial thinking advancement.”
The menu development is complemented by a structured classroom curriculum, including a business management class. And, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the students spend four hours working the farm, assisting a dedicated team. (Some also work there on Fridays and Mondays.) Larry’s quick to point out that the interaction is not meant to turn his students from cooks to farmers, but rather “to learn respect for the people who grow food, to look at them as partners rather than purveyors, and to understand food from seed to plate, planting to nurturing. Harvesting is also part of it. They get to really explore their inner talent in a way they hadn’t had the opportunity to before.”
Larry says that the program, which has run five cycles to date, is a two-way street and that he learns quite a bit from his charges: “We have students who maybe did their externship at a modernist restaurant. Quite honestly, I don’t know a lot about modernist cuisine. So I see things I haven’t seen before.”
“It was fantastic,” say Forgione’s manager in-training Molly Steim of her student days at The Conservatory. “I don’t know what more you could want from the culinary world. You have your own farm and the produce becomes part of you, and then you get to cook it and let the ingredients speak for themselves and showcase your food in this beautiful dining room.”
Steim also appreciates the example set by Forgione’s kitchen disposition: “He’s not a yeller, not a belittler,” she says. That’s been my own experience of Larry, who is among the most soft-spoken toques I’ve ever interviewed; it makes absolute sense that, as a boy, he once thought himself bound for the priesthood.
For Steim, it’s a welcome change of pace from other styles she’s observed. “There’s so much personality happening,” she says. “He’s so even-keel, so refreshing. I was expecting to get chewed into a few times but he’s shown me that you can convey how you want things to be done in a very calm and centered manner and get your point across more effectively.”
Before each cycle comes to a close, hands-on experience is supplemented by a reality-based exercise in imagination: The students’ final is to conceive a restaurant. Forgione assigns each one an American city or town, then “they go through the exercise of opening a restaurant in that area, making a growing chart, a resource list, and building seasonal menus built on that.”
“The interesting thing,” he adds, “Is that it doesn’t have to be an American restaurant but has to be farm to table.”
Competition for spots in the program has become stiff, especially as more students have learned of Larry’s legacy. Forgione himself likens it to a semester abroad, an opportunity to seriously concentrate on something.
Waxman has been impressed at how Forgione has shifted gears for this new chapter in his life. “Tim Ryan was very frank about how it would work and what Larry would need to do and he just plowed right in.” Jonathan opines that part of his friend’s motivation is that “these kids will go out and educate other kids.”
Forgione says his deepest satisfaction comes from hearing from past students: “For me the greatest joy I get is the ninety-eight percent or so that send me an email or a card that talks about how this program has changed their life and how they think about food. When you can get ninety-something percent of your students telling you that this thing changed their life, that’s quite an accomplishment.”
And how does this New York legend, like living in the Napa Valley?
“This part of California is like living in paradise,” he told me. “I thought I died and went to heaven. It’s a lot different than being in New York City, or on the outskirts of New York City. What I really love about St. Helena is that food and wine seem to be the topic of the day, every day. You meet so many people who all they do is talk food and wine, and eat and drink and dine. It’s amazing for a foodie.”