New York — If there's any food more American than mother's apple pie, it's coming from the kitchen of Lawrence Forgione's restaurant here, An American Place. And it's American from all four corners of the map: from California olive oil to New Jersey wild mallard ducks; from free-ranging bison in Michigan to frogs' legs in Florida.
While the debate rolls endlessly on as to what American cuisine really is, Mr. Forgione is articulating it very well in his own way. But not necessarily verbally.
Where Chef Forgione has no trouble defining it is in the kitchen. Through the swinging doors to the dining room pass splendid dishes, including an American field salad, Albemarle Sound Pine-bark Fish Soup, and entrees of Breast of Wild Mallard Duck and fresh New York Duck Foie Gras Saute.
Some of his ideas come from chatting with old friends like James Beard, whom he considers his mentor, or perusing older cookbooks, especially those from the middle of the last century up to around World War II.
''I don't believe in just reproducing old recipes,'' he emphasizes. ''They must be updated, otherwise I'd just be going backwards.''
One example, an old recipe with a new twist, is sweetbreads with a bechamel sauce and beef jerky.
''We serve it using medallions of veal, sauteed sweetbreads, julienne of beef jerky, and a garnish of scallions and red and green peppers.''
As much as he savors the flavors of American food, Mr. Forgione is well aware of its highs and lows. ''The era of Diamond Jim Brady was perhaps the height, and the most interesting. There was a great food surge then,'' he says. ''The lowest point was around the 1950s, when convenience foods really took over. Today, people are saying, 'Wait a minute, I want something better.' ''
The cookbooks he reads are all American ones, of course.
''People think we're still copying the French when we serve mallard duck instead of, say, magret. But Americans served a lot of wild duck in the last century. Just because it's duck it doesn't mean it's French.''
How does a restaurateur get wild, free-ranging game rather than commercially raised products that have been pumped full of chemicals?
Mr. Forgione, and other chefs as particular as he is, hunt for small farmers and ''cottage industry'' folk who will cater specifically to their restaurant needs. Prices are high, but farmers usually bring the produce to the door, which helps costs by avoiding the middleman.
But he has gone another step. He formed a partnership with Justin Rashid and his wife, Kate Marshall, wild foragers, in a company called American Spoon Foods in Petoskey, Mich.
''I just wasn't satisfied with the quality of fruit preserves being sold. Now as well as producing jams without pectin and using recipes I developed, we have what we need, and we are able to put up more for other chefs.''
American Spoon Foods has also reintroduced to the American marketplace hard-to-get items like wild hickory meats, black walnuts, wild blueberries, miniature vegetables, morels, wild thimbleberries, deer, American bison, and elk.
Perhaps the best news for home cooks is that after creative chefs have developed the demand and the sources for new, interesting foods, they begin to appear on supermarket shelves.
''Look at golden caviar, chanterelles, and morels,'' Mr. Forgione says. ''Ten years ago no one ever heard of them until a few chefs got out and looked for sources. Prices were high - $28 a pound for golden caviar, $24 a pound for chanterelles.
''As the demand increased there was competition and a few price wars. Now native golden caviar has dropped to $12, and chanterelles are $7 a pound - and they're available in local markets.''
Irena Chalmers, founder, president, and publisher of Irena Chalmers Cookbooks Inc., speaking at the Third Symposium on American Cuisine in Boston recently, confirmed this trend.
''Game and exotic produce, 200 kinds of cheese, 10 varieties of mushrooms, and new products like pates, once found in only specialty shops in the largest cities, can now be found on local supermarket shelves,'' she says.
Mr. Forgione's next challenge is trying to find someone to raise doves and teal.
''Years ago,'' he muses,''all the top hotels had more or less the same things on the menu: Tournedos Rossini, Sole Veronique, Chateaubriand, and Beef Wellington.
''Now it's the personality of the chef that shines through. I put things on my menu that I think are good and interesting, and people come here to eat it, rather than serving just what the public demands.
''It's sort of the reverse of most restaurants. And as long as I have their trust, I'll take the public as far as I want to.''