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:…