George Germon, 70; chef-owner of Providence’s Al Forno
NEW YORK — George Germon, a chef who teamed up with his future wife to found Al Forno, a restaurant that drew international attention as a pillar of the ascendant dining scene in Providence, died at a Boston hospital Oct. 27. He was 70.
His lawyer, John Harpootian, confirmed the death but declined to give the cause, saying only that it followed a short illness.
Al Forno opened in 1980 in a city better known then for crime and cronyism than cuisine. But offering grilled pizzas — a thin-crusted and chewy innovation, with a hint of charcoal smoke — as well as creamy garlic mashed potatoes and cheesy pastas cooked over wood, Mr. Germon and his wife, Johanne Killeen, made Al Forno into an international dining destination.
In doing so, they drew from a supply of local Rhode Island food, long before "farm to table" became an industry cliché.
"That restaurant has been ripped off more than any restaurant in the history of the world," said Bob Burke, the owner of Pot au Feu, a French restaurant in Providence.
George Germon was born in White Plains, N.Y. Neither Mr. Germon nor Killeen was a classically trained chef. He had been a sculptor who attended the Rhode Island School of Design; she had studied photography there as an undergraduate (although it was not until later that they began dating).
They started Al Forno as a way to supplement their artists' incomes, viewing it as something of an art project. Mr. Germon designed its every aspect, even shortening the table legs to what he considered ideal dining height. He also built the charcoal grills himself, at a time when many chefs cooked almost exclusively on gas.
Al Forno was deeply intertwined with Providence. Killeen told The Providence Phoenix that Vincent A. Cianci Jr., the former mayor known as Buddy, who was disgraced by multiple felony convictions, had helped the couple get a liquor license. The restaurant's presence added luster to a dining scene that has grown enormously in recent decades.
"They could have gone anywhere, and they chose Providence," Burke said. "They helped Providence believe it was the real deal."
Mr. Germon and Killeen eschewed baroque cuisine, developing instead hale and elegant fare with simple ingredients precisely combined. And when they got it right, they stuck to it.
"That was the experience of eating grilled pizza at Al Forno in the 1980s," said Burke, a friend of Mr. Germon's and Killeen's. "Why didn't anybody think of this before?"
Mr. Germon was widely credited with inventing grilled pizza. He and Killeen won a James Beard Award in 1993 for being the best chefs in the Northeast, and Al Forno was named the best casual restaurant in the world in 1994 by The International Herald Tribune.
The story of Al Forno was one of an equal partnership between husband and wife. "There's a great deal of magic when we're together, and our employees know that," Mr. Germon told The New York Times in 1988.
"Nothing is missed," he added. "We can really control the whole situation. There's a great rapport because we're going for the same thing, always tugging in the same direction, so that it makes it a lot stronger.
"I'm in awe of chefs who work by themselves," he added, but "I know when my back's against the wall, I have one person I can depend on to haul me out."
Mr. Germon leaves Killeen.