By Erica Nonni, Foodable Contributor
Chef Christopher Zabita (34), Sous Chef at Restaurant Marc Forgione in NYC’s Tribeca, is an experimenter, a forager, an open mind, and a rising star who maintains a flair for reconsidering things that is charmingly down-to-earth for such a revered restaurant. He has worked with Chef Marc “Forge” Forgione since before the latter won Season 3 of “The Next Iron Chef” in 2010. Here, Chris shares his ideas about menu creation at one of this city’s most respected restaurant groups.
I sat down in Restaurant Marc Forgione in Tribeca on a late afternoon in September, right after the staff meal and before the restaurant opened for the day. Chris walked over to join me, stopping on the way to hand something small to Chef Forgione, which he popped in his mouth while taking a phone call and pacing the floor.
An approving nod.
“It’s good, right?”
And with that, Chris sat down and started telling me about spice blends, as my fingers started racing over the keyboard and my mind started racing over what he was saying. “Lior [Lev Sercarz, of La Boîte à Epice] makes our spice blends. His Amber blend inspired housemade ‘ndjua sausage. Some housemade cornbread was around. So I decided to make it into madeleines. Shallow bowl with consommé, mussels and cockles, potato, madeleines on the side to soak up the consommé… I’m still figuring it out. It’s 4:02 p.m. and I still don’t know what tonight’s special is going to look like.”
Then I understood. This dish was for tonight. The item that Chris passed to Forge was a madeleine, but it was made from the restaurant’s renowned cornbread. It would be part of that night’s special. The spice blend started it. The nod confirmed it.
A colleague approached and handed Chris a draft copy of the night’s menu for approval. He gave it a minute’s review, made a small change and turned back to our conversation about farmers’ markets and foraging.
Farmers’ Markets and Foraging
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, Chris goes to the Union Square Greenmarket. On Saturdays, he goes to Washington Market to buy fish from Blue Moon and whatever unusual or seasonal produce he can find – “the stuff you want to buy locally this time of year, like tomatoes and beans.”
At this time of year Chris loves the lima bean. We agreed that we both grew up hating them. Many people do. But when he rediscovered them at the Greenmarket—where they look remarkably like the more fashionable fava bean—he decided to educate himself, his team and his customers about how delicious they could be.
We moved on to foraging, which was the part of Chris’ work that intrigued me most in the first place. He forages juniper berries, which he pickles; wineberries (wild raspberries); and especially wild greens.
“I don’t mess with mushrooms, but I’m pretty good now at identifying wild greens. Wood Sorrel is one of my favorites. It looks like clover, with little buds. Before they sprout they are the tartest, most citrusy thing you’ve ever eaten. Our tasting menu earlier this summer had several little, one-bite things. One had two little buds of wood sorrel. Chef called it ‘Size Doesn’t Matter’ because the flavor of this tiny dish was so intense. This restaurant can get away with doing and saying things like that.”
Next Iron Chef
Chris worked as sous chef to Forge for his “Next Iron Chef” win. “I started at Restaurant Marc Forgione on my birthday in 2009. Within a few months, Chef was asked to go on the show. He sat down with us and told us about the opportunity. He said he might not make it far, he might be back tomorrow. When he got out there and saw what the show was like, he called us and said, ‘You guys better get ready. We’re in it to go the final.’ So we went on and we battled our butts off. It was a Thanksgiving battle. He decided to go with a Native American approach. Marco Canora went with a traditional approach with modernized platings. Chef (Forgione) served venison and plums. Plums are out of season in November these days, but we learned that they were in season at the first Thanksgiving.”
And they won.
“Think of any produce that’s weird-o and we’ll try it. If no one’s ever seen it before, we’ll try it. We educate guests. We educate ourselves. We don’t push the envelope with molecular gastronomy or chemicals, but…”
But. Chris dehydrates tomato skins, turns them into powder and uses it as a garnish.
But. He makes savory Garlic Bread Pudding. It’s garlic bread. It’s bread pudding. He starts with the proportions of butter and garlic for really garlicky garlic bread and the butter, milk and eggs for bread pudding, and then just pulls the two dishes together, with bread cubes as the unifier.
“We don’t do anything that an ordinary cook couldn’t do. Yesterday Chef said, ‘Take raw polenta and smoke it. Just try it.’ So we did it. And it was good and it was fun. We do things like that. What we do is very straightforward, but we just seem to elevate it.” That smoked polenta would also be featured on the menu that evening, served with squab and concord grapes and anise hyssop that Chris found at the Greenmarket and boiled down with port.
It all comes down to seasonal ingredients, experimentation and education, a combination found in good restaurants in foodie cities everywhere. Yet Chris and his colleagues seem to have a particular knack for it. Somehow they just seem to “elevate it.”
Bonus: Garlic Bread Pudding Recipe
Mix 1 lb. melted butter, ½ cup minced garlic, parsley and chili flakes to taste. Make a standard bread pudding custard of eggs, milk and cream. Dump the garlic butter into the bread pudding custard mix. Add cubed bread and bake.