Chef Marc Forgione—the owner of a mini restaurant empire extending from Atlantic City, NJ, to downtown Manhattan—specializes in surprising combinations. Most of them happen in the kitchen, where Forgione is known for his inventive, melting-pot take on American cuisine: He puts corn flakes in his crab cakes, and sprinkles potato chips onto kampachi. Forgione’s beloved “chili lobster”—a dish inspired by Singaporean chili crab—mixes South Asian spices with a side of Texas toast. But, among his fellow chefs, Forgione may be best known for another unusual achievement: his body. At 35, Forgione has the kind of casually buff physique, with a trim waist and ripped upper torso, that would be an accomplishment for anyone. But in the food business—where a typical workday involves taste-testing new foie gras recipes, and the typical physique is best embodied by Mario Batali—Forgione’s fitness level puts him in “freak” territory.
“He’s a chef and sex symbol,” Dean Tsakanikas, Forgione’s general manager, and a husky former college football player, tells me, sounding a bit awestruck. “I don’t know how he does it,” Tara Glick, Forgione’s pastry chef, agrees. “He’s got a secret the rest of us don’t.” Forgione’s own staffers aren’t the only ones curious about his fitness regimen. There are roughly 50,000 restaurants in the greater New York metropolitan area, making the city a cradle of unhealthy temptation even if you don’t spend all your hours working in one of them. But in Manhattan kitchens specifically, the question circulates: How does Forgione pull it off? Is there a trainer on his payroll posing as a dishwasher, keeping a watchful eye on him? Or is he a kind of food-world Hindu mystic, blessed with a superhuman capacity for self-control?
The answer is neither, actually. Forgione’s fitness quest begins on a black BMX bike outside his apartment building in Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhood. A little after 9:30 a.m. on a Friday, he meets me there. He doesn’t look very cheflike: Forgione wears his hair in a Mohawk, and with the bike, black Nike track pants, and visible tattoos, he resembles an X Games athlete. “I was just going to work out,” he says. Gesturing to the footrests on the bike’s back wheel, he suggests I hitch a ride on the “pegs.”
Forgione raises his eyebrows, making me feel like a line chef who’s just botched a soufflé. “You’ve never ridden on pegs before?” I clamber on, warily, and cling to his shoulders as he sets off down the sidewalks of Little Italy, dodging startled tourists as if they were traffic cones.
Forgione is a minor television star—in 2010, he won the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition, and he sometimes appears on NBC’s Today show—so, naturally, I assume we’re on our way to a VIP fitness locale. What will it be, a private workout with Matt Lauer’s trainer? David Barton’s personal boot camp for overweight celebrities? So I’m mildly disappointed when, minutes later, we arrive at our destination: a public park in Chinatown, where a few elderly people are doing tai chi. Forgione stops his bike in front of a battered metal structure that triggers flashbacks to long-ago recess periods and announces with pride, “This is my jungle gym!”
As it turns out, the buffest chef in New York stays in shape by swinging from a set of adult-size monkey bars. Forgione explains that he’s not a gym rat. “I have ADD,” he says. In the restaurant, his menus change constantly. Similarly, he finds pumping iron repetitive and boring. A few years ago he was halfheartedly going to the gym when a trainer friend, Jonathan Angelilli, convinced him to try a program he’d created, called Ninja Fitness Camp. It involved a lot of high kicks and “rolling around in the grass.” Forgione had an epiphany. He didn’t want to be a ninja, but, he says, “John showed me that it’s OK to relax and have fun while you’re working out. You don’t have to just sit there and try to bench-press 400 pounds. You can do other things.”
Forgione isn’t the type to employ a trainer. “I don’t like people telling me what to do,” he says. (It’s a chef thing.) So he decided to cobble together his own workout system, approaching it in the same way he concocts his recipes. Through trial and error, he arrived at a five-day rotation. He does one day a week at the gym, using machines to work out his chest and legs, then two days of weight training at home. Then he takes a “wild card” day—a bike ride up the West Side Highway, perhaps. Finally, he hits the jungle gym for a full upper-body workout and a little bit of cardio.
Forgione happened across the jungle gym by accident, while riding his bike to work. “I thought, hey, it’s one of those things I used to climb on when I was a kid!” He realized it met all his workout criteria. No. 1: “Bang for the buck.” Chefs often work 13-hour days, so he can only spare 45 minutes, tops—including commute. No. 2: It’s outside, which provides a nice contrast to hot stoves and windowless kitchens. And No. 3: It’s not too grueling. This is a convenience issue. “I’ll be honest with you,” Forgione says. “Everybody likes to have a drink after you work 13- or 14-hour days.” The fit chef program must remain hangover-compatible, so it can never be too grueling.
Forgione hops onto the monkey bars and begins his routine. He swings across them once, then hangs from another bar and does 10 pullups. Then 20 pushups. Then, suspended between a set of horizontal bars, he does 10 dips, followed by 33 situps. While it’s not military level, the routine is harder than it looks. After watching him grunt and swing for a few minutes, I decide to attempt the monkey bars myself. I drop to the ground after two bars. Forgione encourages me to keep going.
“I go until failure,” he says. He does the circuit three times and then hops back on his bike. The workout is done in 15 minutes.Forgione wasn’t always in a position to dispense lifestyle tips. He grew up in the restaurant business—his father, Larry Forgione, owned An American Place, a New York City dining institution. As a high school athlete (football, lacrosse), Forgione began cooking, and quickly fell into a less-healthy routine: long hours in the kitchen followed by long nights at Park Bar, near Union Square. Flirtation followed boozing. “When you’re a young cook, especially in New York, that’s all you do,” he says. “You work, you drink, party, meet girls.” He’d stay out until 4 a.m., sleep until 11, and be back in the kitchen at noon to start over again.
This went on until 2009, when Forgione turned 30 and all of a sudden things changed. His life got “really serious, really fast,” he recalls. He moved in with his girlfriend, and acquired a mortgage. And, after years of toiling in other people’s restaurants, he scraped together enough money to open his own place, Marc Forgione (originally Forge), in Tribeca. Then the recession hit. No one was eating out, and Forgione’s new business began failing. “This was my first real-life problem,” he says. “It was like, what are you going to do, man, sink or swim?” Before change comes soul-searching.
From the park, Forgione ferries me to his apartment, which is decorated with religious relics acquired during his time of reflection: Buddha statues, Catholic amulets, Native-American drums. Giving himself a spiritual makeover, he says, was the “first step” to getting his life under control. Having transformed his inner self, he came to realize that the outer self needed some work, too. He’d come a long way from his lacrosse-playing days: “Somebody took a picture of me on the beach from behind, and I was really upset. I had big love handles. It didn’t look good.”
He started working out seriously two years ago. He shows me his home-workout tools, which he uses during the second and third days of his fit chef routine. They’re New York City–apartment size: a Perfect Fitness Multi-Gym—one of those pullup contraptions that fits in your doorframe—and a pair of Bowflex adjustable dumbbells.
Forgione prefers short daily workouts. “For me, a half hour, five times a week gets better results than two-hour workouts three days a week,” he says. He’s also found that he gets buffer if he works just two body areas, rather than trying to do everything at once. On his first day of home weight training, he does arms and abs. For arms: biceps curls using the Bowflex weights (three sets of 12), biceps curls done as “21s” (three sets with varying range of motion), and chinups. For abs: 100 crunches, 60 leg lifts, and 36 more leg lifts using the Perfect pullup bar.
Forgione’s second day of weight training covers shoulders and back. For shoulders, he does a shoulder press (three sets of 12), lateral and front raises (five sets of 12), and shrugs (three sets of 12). To work on his back, he pushes two barstools together, making a “bench.” He then lies facedown on it and rows dumbbells to his sides.
Forgione has been doing his current routine for a year and a half, and says it’s changed him, physically and otherwise. He’s lost 20 pounds. He wakes up earlier and drinks less. “I have more energy, I feel better, and I’m happier,” he says. Oh, and he got his business back under control: By staying in the kitchen every night, and sticking to his cooking formula rather than changing it, he built a small but loyal following. Then, in 2010, his eponymous eatery got a Michelin star, and business exploded. Wandering into his kitchen, Forgione explains how he changed his at-home diet. There was no “dieting”: “I don’t like rules and regulations,” he says. He did reexamine some habits, though.
“The big thing was stuffing my face before going to sleep,” he says. “I used to eat cured meats and cheeses and bread.” Now he doesn’t even buy those things. He shows me his refrigerator, which is stocked with vegetables and sriracha sauce—his new favorite snack. “I know it sounds kinda hippie, but I just keep carrots and hummus and shit like that.”
Later that night I meet Forgione at American Cut, his steakhouse in Tribeca that opened in 2013. A little after seven, the after-work Wall Street crowd is already packing the bar. Customers can choose to top any steak dish with bone marrow, foie gras, chili lobster, an egg, or double-smoked bacon. Downstairs, the basement kitchen is hot and narrow, and Forgione is dressed all in black, pacing.
During a typical workday, he says, “I don’t have a real meal.” (The only thing that comes close is the restaurant staff’s 3 p.m. “family meal”; Forgione has a salad.) The rest of the night is a feat of grazing. He tries whatever the restaurant serves: steak, breads, desserts. “There’s never more than 15 minutes that I’m not eating something.”
A steakhouse diet? Sounds too good to be true. But Forgione assures me it works, because he never allows himself more than a bite. “You have to make sure you’re tasting, not eating,” he explains. I check this out with a sports nutrition specialist, Men’s Fitness adviser Nate Miyaki, who tells me that the key diet factors are the “macro” numbers—calories and the balance of nutrients. You can eat as many small meals as you want, as long as you get the overall numbers right. “By just tasting those things, he’s still probably in the calorie deficit necessary to lose fat and stay lean,” says Miyaki.
Forgione takes me over to the garde manger, the salad and cold appetizer station. Then he begins grazing: A handful of celery root slaw (verdict: “Very good.”), a shred of sun-dried tomato, half a soft-boiled egg (to make sure the yolk is actually soft). There’s a tinful of bacon pieces, and Forgione takes a modest bite although, he admits, “Bacon is one of my favorite things.” The fit chef diet is turning out to be pretty enjoyable.
We move down the line to the hot apps station, and Forgione plucks little snails—to be served with bone marrow—from a tin, and pronounces them adequately garlicky. He samples a spoonful of chili sauce, for the chili lobster: creamy and spicy. He skips a tray of raw meat. “The steak’s good tonight,” he says. “We all tasted it.” Then he grabs what looks like a crispy potato chip made of animal fat. “Chicken skin?” he asks. “They go on the latkes.”
By 9:15 p.m., things are moving fast. Cooks are hunched over stove tops. Runners dart down the line, grabbing trays of food. Forgione is stationed at a marble service area, taking sips of water from a plastic bowl and barking out orders to the line cooks: “Forty-seven order fire! Put the broccolini on a plate!” The cooks shout, “Got it, Chef!” Someone plunks a plate of french fries under a heat lamp and announces, “Fries in the window!” Forgione samples a french fry, and clarifies what it means to be a fit chef.
“I still enjoy my life,” he says. “I live the way I want to. Some people think that, to look good and feel good, you have to drastically change, but that’s not true.” It’s almost 10 p.m., and Forgione has a long night ahead of him. He has plans to meet friends back at his first restaurant, then he’s going out.
“I’m going to see where the night takes me,” he says. “I’ll probably drink until I fall asleep.”