Jacqui Gal

Bun in the oven

NYC’s second-generation chefs keep it all in the family biz

Photo: Mellissa Hom

New York restaurant families, like Chinese dynasties, wield power and influence over the (eating) population. And when it comes to culinary lineage, oftentimes talent and savvy is passed down to the next generation of kitchen blueblood.

We spoke with three families—both parents and progeny—about the glory and perils of working in the family biz.

Marc and Larry Forgione

In the current restaurant climate, news of a young chef opening a laid-back fine-dining restaurant dedicated to local twists on regional, seasonal American food barely registers a blip. That is, unless that chef’s father is widely held as the very godfather of regional, seasonal American food.

This past summer, Marc Forgione, son of esteemed culinary visionary Larry Forgione (An American Place), opened Forge, a rustic, earthy Tribeca space that screams “farm-to-table.” For him, carrying his father’s legacy has been a double-edged sword.

“If you’ve read any reviews that we’ve had on the restaurant, it’s usually two paragraphs about my dad, and then it goes into the article,” says Marc. “If my name was Gary Smith, I don’t think reviews would have been as brutal as they’ve been so far.” But on the other hand, he agrees the critics may not have flocked there at all.

And it’s not as though Marc turns up his nose at his father’s achievements. “[Growing up], I don’t think I really realized how important my dad was to the way Americans eat today. When I worked in his restaurant [An American Place] at 17 or 18, I just thought that’s what ingredients were. I didn’t realize how special and how unique everything was until I started working at other places.”

At restaurants like AZ and BLT Steak, Marc had to suffer through quips like “What would your father say?” whenever he messed up on the line. Eventually, Marc took off for the remote French town of Eugenie, where, he says, “nobody knew who my Dad was, and nobody could give a shit who I was either.” Marc peeled potatoes and washed vegetables for a month before anyone would even let him touch a sauté pan.

It was enough to make Larry—who’s a tough one to impress, says Marc—incredibly proud of his son. “He did it the right way,” says Larry, who’s currently working on the launch of An American Place at the Wynn Casino, in Las Vegas. “He took the right steps in working towards his goals, and hopefully he will have the success that he deserves.”

Lidia and Joe Bastianich

Joe and Lidia Bastianich

“Most people grow up in a house,” says Joe Bastianich, “I grew up in a restaurant.” Little wonder then that he, in various collaborations with his mother, Lidia, and Mario Batali, has opened over a dozen restaurants across the country. But this restaurant empire wasn’t a forgone conclusion. Before joining the family business, Joe worked at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street.

When he arrived one day at Lidia’s restaurant, Felidia, on East 58th Street, and announced that he’d like to instead work there, Lidia says she first shipped him off to Italy for a year, for an internship of sorts. “We set up a whole program where he would visit friends in the restaurant business, work in the kitchen and with wine makers in the field—do the harvest, do whatever,” she says. He had already met some of Italy’s heavyweight vintners during his childhood summer trips to Italy, “Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa,” Lidia says. “He apprenticed with the best, if you will.”

By the time he returned, Joe was well on his way to becoming one of the city’s most respected wine experts (he now produces his own wines in Tuscany and California). After a few months working the floor in Felidia, Joe was ready to set up his own place. That plan grew into Becco, in the Theater District. “He built it from scratch,” Lidia says. He went in there, he was digging, he was hammering, he was doing everything. He’s a great restaurant builder. To this day, he likes to build restaurants.”

It’s true. During our phone chat with Joe, the sound of hammering punctuated the conversation. He says he’s on the construction site at Tarry Lodge, a new pizzeria-trattoria he co-owns with Mario Batali, which has since opened in Port Chester, N.Y.

Despite the joint ventures—and the wealth of experience Joe gained at the apron strings of his mother—he doesn’t advocate going into business with family. “I’d advise against it,” he says. “It’s the worst. Entrepreneurs live and die by [their] decisions, and it’s very hard to have family involved. At least when you’re the only one, you only have one person to blame.”

Marisa and Tony May

Long before she was an official partner in New York’s venerable San Domenico, Marisa May was a restaurant kid. She spent her childhood running around the Rainbow Room, which her father, Tony May, owned and operated from 1968 to 1986. During summers, much like the Bastianich kids, Marisa learned her Italian Culinary 101 from annual trips to Italy: “While everybody went to camp upstate,” she says, “I went to Italy and ate.”

At 15 she began answering phones and taking reservations at Tony’s next restaurant, Palio, but pretty soon she was up to her neck in flour. “My Dad would put me in the kitchen to make the breads and the pastas,” she says. “It was so much work because I would be there at 7 in the morning and then I would have to work in the dining room for lunch and dinner. I remember having flour in my hair and dough under my nails.”

But it was a great education. “My Dad wanted to make sure I knew how to prep, that I understood food, the products, and that I loved cooking,” she adds. By the time Marisa enrolled at NYU , she was shocked at her own knowledge. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, I think I might know more than this professor.’ I had my own accountants teaching me about restaurant accounting. I had my sommelier teaching me about wine.”

Now, all those years of experience are being put to work. Having shuttered San Domenico on Central Park South, the father-daughter team is preparing to reopen on 26th Street, near Madison Square Park. The restaurant’s new name, SD26, suggests a more youthful vibe, as Marisa prepares to take the toque. “He will still be behind it 100 percent,” says Marisa. “He’s my mentor in every way. He’s not retired, but he will probably take a step back.”

Tony agrees: “She’s not on her own yet, and we make a good team. I think she’s in the right business and she’s doing something that she likes.” And when Marisa has kids of her own, they’re going straight into the business, too. “They’re totally going to work the first day they come out of me,” Marisa says with a laugh.