"No pressure," says Christopher Lee. "I just have the future of the Forge on my shoulders."
As the new head chef of the Miami restaurant, serving the city's well-heeled for 46 years, Lee has his work carved out for him. "This place has a long history, and I'm here to write the next chapter," he says. "I don't want to disappoint."
Lee is taking over a few weeks after his award-winning predecessor, Dewey LoSasso, quit. After four years at the Forge, the 50-year-old chef decided to take his accolades and traditional comfort food style to luxury resort Acqualina, where a high-paid top-chef spot and a more relaxed atmosphere were waiting. LoSasso’s tenure compares to that of the restaurant’s beloved 26-year chef Kal Abdalla. "I was excited by the new business proposition at Acqualina," LoSasso says. "I wanted to expand my horizons."
The Forge is accustomed to hosting the famous, whether it's Jennifer Lopez's birthday party or Derek Jeter's night to throw back a steak. (The infamous, too. Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Nixon were among its patrons in the 1970s.)
To impress these customers, the Forge is conducting a bit of a culinary purge. So far, that means a menu that preserves only three of LoSasso’s signature dishes, including the oak-grilled "Super Steak" ($55), named Best Steak in America by Wine Spectator magazine in 1996.
"We need to be current, and I will push the limits," says chef Lee, 38. Doing that at Manhattan’s Gilt and Aureole earned him three Michelin stars, and it’s what the Forge is expecting.
"We're looking to Chris for more explosive, cutting-edge cooking techniques," says Joseph Day, Forge’s director of operations. Having just sampled the competition at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, in which the Forge didn't participate, Day is eager to see Lee compete with modern, trend-setting chefs. They include Wylie Dufresne -- his festival oysters served in shells of lemon, snow pea and hazelnut explode with flavor -- and Lior Lev Sercarz, who creates his own signature spices and distinguished himself with desserts such as halva and olive oil parfait with figs and Yemen ice cream.
Business at the Forge remains "consistent," says owner Shareef Malnik, who declined to discuss the numbers. (LoSasso says the restaurant was "never struggling.") "I have a passionate obligation to continue my father's legacy," says Malnik. Alvin Malnik, a financier and collector of lavish art, opened the Forge in 1969. His son took it to a new level of flash with a $10 million renovation in 2010.
Liberace, meet Versailles, I think, taking in the cascading chandelier above my head before the striking red Romero Britto oil on canvas commands the room's attention. Over the top? No, not compared to the palace of mirrors adorned with nude prints, which is, in fact, a bathroom.
The cuisine must also live up to the 7.5 million dollars' worth of wine in the pristine hidden cellar beneath the joint. You know, Lafite Rothschild cabernet, 1822, for $165,000. During our subterranean tour of the 150,000-bottle cellar (though down from 300,000 bottles 30 years ago), the very formal and informed sommelier, Dean Forst, has to repeat himself.
"Yes, that's the price. It's one of our most expensive bottles," he says. Standing in the middle of the "exclusively Rothschild" room housing $2.2 million of the Château's namesake, Forst holds up a cheaper Rothschild, the 1858 for $70,800. Now we're talking.
Does anyone actually drink 19th-century wine? "Sure. This wine is drinkable, if it's been properly stored. But most customers just want to add to their collection," Forst says.
After enjoying a delicious, copious plate of the Forge’s current fare, I wonder: Why change anything? It’s classic steak and seafood, with embellishments. Lobster Thermidor with crispy spinach earns its butter-drenched market price ($65). And apparently a parmesan-crusted New York strip ($40) gets even better when paired with beef marrow polenta pudding. LoSasso’s traditions taste pretty good to me, even if they do seem a little out of place in the blingy surroundings and in Miami's increasingly hip foodie scene.
"New restaurants are popping up all the time in this city, and it's important we don't become an outdated institution," says Malnik.
Lee, who comes from New York's no-nonsense borough of Queens, agreed to relocate to Miami with his family because he "wanted a challenge." He got it: the new staff, the steamy climate, the odd sea creatures. (Not to mention some odd terrestrial creatures.)
"There’s a whole new seasonality and product line here. I can’t create a menu my workers can’t produce," he says. "Cutting-edge" local seafood brainstorms are expected for the new menu, and Lee says he’ll deliver, but has to tread carefully.
"I could come in guns blazing and demand things be done my way without understanding the current system," says Lee, who cooked his way up from working-class kitchens to high cuisine. "But if I did that, I'd fail. ... My goal is to secure the soul of the restaurant. To do that, it's important I take time to learn how these people work."
He doesn’t have a lot of time to peer into that soul and ensure its immortality. The competition won’t wait. Here comes the Ocean Drive steakhouse Prime 112, which Zagat calls Miami’s "super sexy" hotspot and which attracts celebrities of its own. Prices are in line with the Forge's, and Prime 112's menu isn't turning upside down.
"Prime 112 gives these guys a run for their money," says Russell Wayne, a local advertising executive sitting at the bar. "It's the only other steakhouse that's this nice."
LoSasso concedes he looked to the Forge’s '70s and '80s menus to make his mark and that it may be time for a change.
"Restaurants like to reinvent themselves every four to five years," he says. "I look forward to what Chef Lee does."