Portrait: Smart Food

November 24th, 2007
One morning last spring, Diane Forley stood in the garden behind Verbena, her Manhattan restaurant, pulling leaves of thyme from a planter and rubbing them between her fingers to release their fragrance. It was a rare moment of tranquillity in a workday that had begun at 10 a.m. and wouldn't end until 10 that night. By noon, she had talked to her accountant and suppliers and had changed the seasoning on a dish that hadn't done well with customers. From 12 to 2 p.m., she worked behind the counter of Verbena Foods, her tiny takeout shop. During the afternoon, she discussed menus with people booking parties in Verbena's private dining room. Then, from 6 to 10 p.m., she stood in the narrow, noisy kitchen, sending out plate after plate of full-flavored food.

Dark-eyed and shy, at thirty-five Diane Forley is one of a small group of chefs whose every move is noticed by the food press. Esquire called her "an inspired cook." New York Times critic Ruth Reischl wrote that "it is hard to imagine the person who could resist eating every morsel" of meals served in a restaurant that has "the grace and calm of a particularly lovely private dining room."

Forley and Jody Adams '79 of Rialto in Cambridge, Massachusetts, may be the only two chefs of note to graduate from Brown. There were times, Forley says now, when she wondered whether Brown was the right place for her. She remembers looking at the white-jacketed student chefs from nearby Johnson & Wales University and thinking she should be with them instead.

The summer before she entered Brown, Forley was watching television and saw Michel Fitoussi, a chef who became famous when he charged the then unheard-of price of fifty dollars for a dinner. "I thought it would be fun to work with him, so I called and asked," she says. "He said 'Sure' and put me to work in the pastry kitchen. At the time, I didn't think it was anything unusual."

Maybe not. But how many college undergraduates would go on to make Thanksgiving dinner for fifty at her dormitory, French House, as Forley did? "I like challenges," she explains. "Even when I don't know how to do something, I know I'll be able to learn it and come out ahead."

Born on Long Island to a Hungarian father and a mother whose family had come from the Middle East by way of Guatemala, Forley seemed destined for Brown: two older brothers had preceded her. (Brian '79 is a plastic surgeon, and Glen '83 is the architect who designed Verbena.) But it was the freedom of the University's academic program that let her pursue the new field of food history, which, she says, has had a strong influence on her cooking. Forley began by specializing in languages, but earned her degree in literature and society. She wrote her senior thesis on the gastronomic revolution of nineteenth-century France as seen in the works of Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola.

After graduation, Forley went to work for Fitoussi again, then began the years of apprenticeship that make up a cook's real education. In France she worked with Michel Guerard and at LeNotre, and in New York she did stints at Petrossian, the River Café, and the Gotham Bar and Grill. "The day I went for an interview, the pastry chef had just told them he was leaving," she says. "Alfred [Portale] offered me the job, and I thought, 'Why not?' Pastry is great for teaching you how to be organized."

The years of preparation all came together for Forley when she opened Verbena in 1995. From the start, she knew just the kind of food she wanted to cook: it would draw on everything in her background. From the tradition of her Hungarian father, she created a dish of red snapper with braised cabbage in a paprika reduction. From her Middle Eastern mother, she got the idea of cooking tuna with a crust of coriander, sumac, and cumin, and serving it with minted cucumbers.

An undergraduate job at Providence Cheese, a gourmet takeout shop on Federal Hill, had introduced Forley to whole grains and fresh ingredients. Now she dreams up many specials during her morning shopping at New York's Union Square Greenmarket. Art courses at RISD honed her manual skills and trained her eye. And her academic studies of classical French cooking sent her back to Larousse Gastronomique, the reference for classical food preparation.

Rather than follow Larousse slavishly, creating perfect but stodgy dishes, Forley does a contemporary riff on them. "Once you could get trout amandine at every French restaurant," she notes. "What I did was take classical flavors apart and put them back in a new way by poaching the fish in a court bouillon of almond milk."

It's this kind of thinking that leads critics to praise Forley's food for its intelligence. But at 8 p.m., customers aren't thinking about intelligence. In the serene dining room behind a glass screen, they're sipping wine and choosing from the spring menu. Do they want the ricotta ravioli with fresh fava beans, or the shrimp served with tiny asparagus? The roast chicken with spring vegetables, or the snapper with basil pistou? Of course, they'll save room for dessert.

And Diane Forley? She's in the kitchen, not thinking of much beyond getting out the next plate of food.

Irene Sax is a food writer in New York City.

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