Grilled in a Minute: Alfred Portale
Julie Mautner - May 19th, 2014
In 1984, the brainchild of four enterprising New Yorkers—Jerry Kretchmer, Jeff Bliss, Rick Rathe, and Robert Rathe—materialized in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Gotham Bar and Grill launched with the vision of embodying “a downtown restaurant reminiscent of the energy, feel, and beauty of a Parisian brasserie.” It famously became much more than that.
One year post inception, the team recruited the fresh talents of a young and undiscovered chef, with the intention of improving the establishment’s cuisine. His name? Alfred Portale. And elevate it he did. Portale, a first in his class graduate from The Culinary Institute of America, landed at Gotham, having trained under the helm of Michelin-starred masters—Jacques Maximin, Michel Guérard, and the Troisgros brothers. He wanted the restaurant to echo the caliber of these highly revered kitchens and to construct an elegantly seasonal American menu centered on superior ingredients with big flavors. His foresight to procure foods from small farms and artisan purveyors established him as one of the pioneers of the New American cuisine movement. Just six months into Portale’s control of the Gotham kitchen, they earned their first three-star review from the New York Times. Both restaurant and chef catapulted to fame.
He has now earned a total of five stars, along with a whole host of other industry accolades and awards, including two major ones from The James Beard Foundation: Outstanding Restaurant (2002) and Outstanding Chef (2006). Portale is also the author of four cookbooks, including his most recent title, Greenmarket to Gotham Recipe Journal (Haute Life Press, 2013). Gotham Bar and Grill celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
His first sous chef at Gotham was Tom Valenti, and other top chefs who toiled at the Gotham stove include David Walzog, Bill Telepan, Wylie Dufresne, and Tom Colicchio. “I worked there for seven years combined, first as a cook and then as exec sous chef,” remembers Telepan, who is now chef/owner of Telepan restaurant and Telepan Local (NYC). “When I first arrived, I had never worked in a place like that nor in New York City, for that matter. It was really exciting. The food seemed so ‘new,’ and it got a lot of attention. Alfred stressed consistency and flavors. And that’s why it continues to this day, because it’s consistent, tasty, and still looks fresh. Oh, and Gotham has some of the best service in America.”
Alfred! Thirty years! Bravo! How are you celebrating?
Thank you! We decided that we’d celebrate with a weekly dinner series, launched in March, with some of the most-acclaimed chefs, many of whom spent their early culinary careers in the kitchen at Gotham. We have Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Thomas Keller, Jonathan Waxman, and Bill Telepan contributing two dishes to a six-course tasting menu called the Gotham 30 Menu Series. We wrapped up the series with our Toast to Gotham Benefit Bash on April 28 to support our longtime partner GrowNYC. (For info, click here or www.grownyc.org/gala)
So how has Gotham stayed on top, relevant, fresh? What's the secret?
After 30 years of cooking professionally, I still love what I do. Being excited about coming to work every day is a testament to an amazing veteran staff, back and front of the house, and a team that cares deeply about the restaurant. We all work very hard to make it better every day.
Was there ever a point where you thought seriously of closing the restaurant, chucking it, doing something entirely different?
Absolutely not. Four months into my starting at Gotham, we had a review from New York Magazine and later, three stars from the New York Times. It’s been a very successful run. Lots of positive reviews and excited guests!
How is your cooking, your kitchen, your menu, your attitude different than 30 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago?
There are so many answers to this question. Things have continually evolved at the restaurant over the 30 years, which is why we’ve stayed so relevant and fresh. One of the biggest factors is how much the availability of ingredients has changed. There's much more quality available now, and the success of a dish really starts with the quality of ingredients. Twenty to 30 years ago, this was often a challenge.
As Gotham’s reputation continued to grow, I felt that the bar was being raised and that each year we needed to continue to refine things, to offer more value and stay in front of customer expectations.
Our staff has also grown extensively in the past 30 years, along with a more complex menu, a developed wine program, and matured cuisine.
So what about those architectural/towering/stacked presentations? You were the first and then everyone jumped on that. Looking back, what was the genesis of that?
My cooking experience came from working in Michelin three-star restaurants with 30 cooks servicing 100 diners a night, often with four cooks working on two plates. When I got to Gotham, a restaurant with more than 150 seats, I needed to build into my dishes a level of consistency, and that’s sort of how the architectural, stacked presentations came about. My background in sculpture and design also helped.
The other piece of the puzzle is that as a young chef, I was anxious to create my own style. Thirty years ago, food was flat on the plate, and I thought that’s not how things are in nature. Varying heights on the plate became an important element of my style. Today we’ve moved away from towering presentations in favor of a more natural and relaxed style of plating.
Overall, what’s the biggest difference between then and now? Is the business hugely different than when you started?
Yes, I’d say it’s vastly different. We talked a little about ingredients already, but I can’t emphasize enough how the availability of local ingredients and artisanal products have played a tremendous role in the business. What’s also changed a lot is the consumer. Consumers today are much more sophisticated and informed than they were 30 years ago. TV shows and food literature have pushed out so much more information, fueling this change.
What would you most like your customers to be saying when they leave your restaurants?
The most gratifying sentiment for me is to hear people say that they had a wonderful time and that the food was great. Then I know they’ve enjoyed the whole experience. Yes, the food is very important, but the service, ambience, decor, and wine make up a dinner at Gotham.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that I get to be creative, work on my craft, master new techniques, and be artistic every day.
And what do you love the least?
With all the great restaurants in New York and around the country, it can be challenging to find and keep really talented employees.
What was the last great meal you had in a restaurant not your own?
During a recent trip to San Francisco, I ate at State Bird Provisions. I had over a dozen different dishes, and what’s unique about the experience is that, while there’s a small printed menu, most of the available food is passed on trays by staff, similar to a dim sum restaurant. There’s a certain theatrical element when you can interact with knowledgeable servers; it made for a quality engagement with the meal, something you don’t find in a regular restaurant.
What’s one cookbook you refer to again and again, other than your own?
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
It came from my mother, who always used to pull me aside and repeat, “You should be the best. You need to be the best.” When I was younger, I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on someone, and as I got older, I realized it was very good advice. If you shoot for #1 and you end up number #2 or #3, the result is still very good.
What’s your best tips or advice for a young chef who wants a career like yours?
Well, culinary school is a good start, though not mandatory, and then you have to start working in restaurants…good ones. And it’s important as a young cook to choose carefully which chefs to work for because this will be the time where you learn the most. A chef needs to be literate, so read as much as you can. Start collecting cookbooks from different chefs, different cuisines and restaurants. It’s a great way to expand your understanding and knowledge. That’s one of the most important things.
Best day of your career that you remember?
I’ve had a lot of great days, but I’d certainly say the day I won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef, in 2006. That was a pretty exciting night.
Worst day of your career?
Career wise, what have you done that you’re most proud of?
When I think about what we are today, I’m very proud of how we’ve been able to improve every year. What we’re doing today is a far cry from where we began. Looking back, that makes me smile.
And what haven’t you accomplished that you still hope to?
I have a couple of food/restaurant concepts that I’d be very excited to do in New York.
If you could work with any one chef, dead or alive, who would it be and why? The late Alain Chapel. I had the opportunity to eat at his restaurant in Mionnay and had one of the most brilliant, sophisticated, and magnificent dinners ever. It was a turning point in my culinary education.
If not this, then what? Meaning, if you hadn’t gone the chef/restaurateur route…what would you have liked to do instead?
Before I started cooking, I was into designing and making jewelry, and I still love jewelry, though now I’ve turned to woodworking. I enjoy working with my hands and using different techniques and materials to create beautiful objects.