If you’re eating out and the servers are seriously in the weeds, you can usually tell by their panicked expressions, hurried order-taking, and antsy energy. But if you’re dining at Michelin-starred Restaurant Marc Forgione in Tribeca, they might just focus on their breathing and then deliver your Blue Moon Striped Bass with a mantra on the side.
Okay, the mantra part is an exaggeration, but the renowned chef—known for his time on Iron Chef and his signature mohawk—did recently introduce a staff meditation program at his namesake restaurant, where he’s trying to create a culture that encourages balanced living, a concept that’s pretty foreign in the food service world.
“I think there is a culture that’s starting to breed at the restaurant,” he says, as we chat near the restaurant at Washington Market Park. “Instead of just going across the street every night and getting wasted [after work]. Maybe it’s ‘Let’s start with one day just to focus.'”
Forgione says he’s been on his own spiritual journey, studying and exploring different practices for several years, and when his general manager Matthew Conway presented him with the idea to bring meditation to the restaurant’s staff, he jumped on it.
“We actually had a session about a month ago, where we just kind of played a song at the pre-shift [the staff meeting before dinner service starts]. The song lasted about five minutes and everybody closed their eyes. After that song, I think it really kind of sparked an interest,” he says. (If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, this image will be seriously hard to conjure up.)
So they brought in Lodro Rinzler, a meditation teacher at the Shambhala Institute and the author of several books, including The Buddha Walks into a Bar. In conjunction with the release of his latest book, The Buddha Walks into the Office, Rinzler started teaching meditation at workplaces across the city, but Marc Forgione is his first restaurant job.
What’s it like meditating with a famous chef?
I stopped by on a recent Wednesday at 11:00 a.m., the third week of the series, as staff members were trickling in to the restaurant, and all was quiet except for the sounds of prep work drifting from the kitchen, mixed with Spanish ballads.
The group, three women and five men (including Forgione and Conway), walked to Washington Market Park a block away and sat in a circle, where Rinzler had them first talk about how their practices had been coming along. They relayed the expected New Yorker stories of frantic weeks when they felt they had no time to close their eyes, of apartments filled with moving boxes that didn’t feel conducive to quiet reflection. But also, stories of coming back to their breath in stressful situations and feeling saved from a melt-down, of sleeping better, of committing to five days of meditation and accomplishing six.
Then we all closed our eyes together, as the sounds of children playing and cars flying down Greenwich Avenue hovered, in what suddenly felt like stillness, around us. If there were angry customers complaining about their food somewhere, anywhere, they were a million miles away.
Forgione, who carries himself with an air of inner calm that defies Hell’s Kitchen-inspired chef stereotypes, says his own spiritual practices have helped him learn to channel his anger, to focus better, and to manage his staff with compassion. “As I’ve started to grow with more restaurants, you know, I think it’s very important to spread that culture throughout,” he says. “What kind of boss do you want to be?” —Lisa Elaine Held