What Happens When a Chef Plays Event Planner

Media company Swoop partnered with Marc Forgione to create a no-rules dinner for its clients. Shoes optional.

By Michele Laufik October 22, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT

Photo: Cornelia Stiles/BizBash

Swoop and Marc Forgione Elements Dinner
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Despite its short history, Swoop’s annual client dinner has already gained a reputation—expect the unexpected.

Thanks to the creative culinary juices of chef Marc Forgione, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based media company has been able to grab the attention of a discerning group of clients, advertisers, and media types with its unusual gathering.

“We wanted to create an annual event that people would talk about, that people would want to attend,” said founder and C.E.O. of Swoop Ron Elwell, who organized the dinner with Lonny Sweet, C.E.O. of the Connect Group, a Glen Ridge, New Jersey-based marketing company that represents the Iron Chef.

Swoop typically invites a select group of business partners, including executives from advertising agencies, digital and mobile publishing companies, and leading pharmaceutical, consumer packaged goods, finance, and automotive brands. “This is our way of once a year saying a special thank-you to them for all their help in growing our business,” said Elwell about the company tradition that began three years ago.

Unlike most corporate events, which include a myriad of restrictions, stipulations, and guidelines, Elwell gives Forgione free reign. His only instruction to the chef: “Do whatever you want.”

“The first challenge was coming up with the concept. When you have a blank slate like that sometimes that's harder than being told what to do,” said Forgione. “Once we figured it out, the only challenging thing was seeing if we could pull off all the little details that we wanted to pull off.”

For last year’s event, called “Where the Wild Things Are,” noteworthy forager Tama Matsuoka supplied wild edible ingredients, the staff wore outfits inspired by the beloved book, and the restaurant was decorated with vines, leaves, and moss with animal sounds playing as background music. This year, the chef wanted to go a step further, invoking a raw, primitive vibe.

“For me, it was like being a kid let out on his own,” said Forgione, whose only concern was whether guests would be willing to go barefoot.

With help from Jersey City, New Jersey-based Petal Rush and Coombs Sod Farms in Elmer, New Jersey, the chef carpeted his TriBeCa restaurant in real grass, so that attendees would feel closer to nature and Mother Earth. “Be prepared to lose your shoes and experience all of the primal elements in what is sure to be a meal to remember,” read the invitation.

Forgione credited a trip to Burning Man and his meditation practice that includes standing barefoot 15 minutes a day as his inspiration behind this year’s culinary walk through the forest—which literally began from the ground up. “I started from the grass and worked up to the food.”

Each course celebrated one of the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water. The water course featured fish and seafood, such as Golden Osetra caviar, served with “Schezuan button” to heighten the flavor, and scallops, black bass, and swordfish from local supplier Blue Moon Fish; the earth portion highlighted ingredients from the soil, including shaved truffles atop whipped eggs, potatoes, snails, salsify, and Matsutake and Buffalo mushrooms; the air course featured poultry dishes, including Jurgielewicz duck, foie gras, and wood pigeon; charcoal-grilled veal and roasted turnips made up the fire round.

The 60-person event, which was held on October 7 at Restaurant Marc Forgione, also included a cocktail hour with passed hors d’oeuvres and entertainment from one-woman rock band Idgy Dean, flutist Emily Wespiser, and fire breather and bartender Dave Schmidt.

“It has become an event that our partners look forward to every year and ask us, ‘What will chef Forgione do this year to top last year?’” said Elwell. “We make it a special point to provide him a blank canvas. Anything goes, and when you let a chef of his talents loose the result is always an amazing mix of creative and extraordinary food blended with a complementary experience that creates a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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