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An Interview with Alfred Portale, Gothamís Culinary Genius

by Matt DeLucia

It is very often the occurrence of a seemingly inconsequential event that can change the course of a single life. One such episode occurred 30 years ago when Alfred Portale, then an aspiring jewelry artist, had a collection of silver and brass-etched belt buckles he had designed stolen at a small upstate New York art show, which shattered his dream of marketing them to a large company. Portale had spent time studying with a local custom jewelry dealer in Buffalo who happened to also be a family friend. He made a reasonable living going to flea markets or estate sales, buying silver-plated flatware by the pound, and creating and selling spoon rings. But the combination of the belt buckle theft, along with Portale’s impatience to succeed, enabled his passion for cooking to rise to the top.

“Jewelry design and construction is a craft in the same way that cooking is. It involves lots of dedication, excellent training, and years and years of experience. You don’t understand that when you’re a teenager or a young person. So I sort of gave up on the jewelry career.”

Portale was introduced to the idea of attending culinary school by a family friend, and applied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). Initially CIA refused his application because he didn’t have enough restaurant experience, so Portale went to work at an Italian restaurant in Buffalo, and eventually was accepted into the program.

“At the time, I thought, ‘What an extraordinary idea, to go to college for two years and graduate as a full-blown accomplished chef.’ Of course, I was completely mistaken. But nevertheless, I launched into this career and never looked back.”

His two years at CIA became a showcase for Portales perfectionist nature, energetic and hardworking habits, and artistic sensibilities. He graduated first in his class out of eighty students in 1981. But although CIA launched his interest in cooking, his newfound talent was sharpened by working in New York City and in France with some of that country’s finest chefs. Over the course of Portale’s career, his culinary creations, not unlike his belt buckles, would be stolen over and over again.

NYRI: Tell us about your experience after you graduated from CIA with Guérard, Maximin, and Troisgros back in 1981?

Portale: As a young cook looking to apprentice, your options were extremely limited then, unlike today where there are dozens of restaurants in New York alone that you could greatly benefit from. But back then it was not the case, so everybody tried to go into a three-star restaurant in France; easier said than done. I was nearing graduation at the Culinary Institute, and we were advised to begin interviewing for positions just to gain experience in the interview process and to get some confidence so that when the interview came along that you were excited about, you had a little experience under your belt, and that seemed like very sound advice. So I was taking some interviews, and I saw a posting -- it was kind of cryptic -- asking for some cooks to come to New York City to start a kitchen with Michel Guérard at Bloomingdales. Of course Michel Guérard was one of five or six of the most famous chefs in the world. There were 30 people who interviewed for the position, and as far as I know a classmate of mine and myself were the only ones who took a strong interest. Macy’s had done Macy’s Cellar and they had high-end gourmet foods, and Bloomingdale’s was rushing to catch up to that. So they got Petrosian to open their first store in the United States in Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, they got a chocolate-maker from France, and they got Michel Guérard, who had a gourmet shop in Paris called Compteur Gourmet, or the Gourmet Counter, to open a shop at the store. That was the opportunity I interviewed for. The idea of working in a Bloomingdale’s didn’t appeal to a lot of people, but I saw it as sort of a stepping stone to France. For the first four months prior to the opening, we worked with Gerard’s chef de cuisine and Jacques Maximin. Michel Troisgros came over and he was there for about six weeks, living in New York and having a grand old time. We made sausages; we cured ham, we did all this unbelievable stuff. It was a dream job. So that’s what I did for about a year and three months.

NYRI: So eventually you used this experience to cook in France?

Portale: I asked to go, and was invited to work with both the Troisgros brothers and Michel Guérard. I went to Troisgros first, and I was there for about six months. They close for a couple of weeks in the summer and take a vacation. So I took that opportunity and moved over to Guérard. Unfortunately, it was during those two weeks that Jean Troisgros died. We used to play basketball every Tuesday, full court. The guy was an athlete. He had played a couple of sets of tennis, and I think in the locker room he had a heart attack.

NYRI: So when you returned to New York and began working in New York City, you had quite a bit of valuable experience.

Portale: I was kind of a unique commodity back then, because there weren’t many great, great restaurants in New York. I was young, I had CIA experience, and I had worked with three three-star Michelin chefs, including Jacques Maximin. So I was pretty hot shit. I didn’t go over there and just work for free and do shit work - well, I did that anyway, but I was treated quite well. I did a lot of work; I worked on the line at both restaurants. They knew me because Michel Troisgros and I became friends, and I was treated just like a cook. In fact, I was actually paid a little bit at Guérard’s restaurants, it was unbelievable. But we worked six doubles every single week, so it was tough!

Portale eventually went back to New York where he began working at Jacques Maximin’s Tucano restaurant on East 60th Street. Meanwhile, Gotham Bar and Grill had opened in March 1984, with a menu developed by well-known cookbook author Barbara Kafka. Owner Jerry Kretchmer initially had a restaurant that was a resounding success. But after returning from a European vacation, Kretchmer discovered that Gotham was not doing very well. New York Times reviewer Bryan Miller would later quip that “Like Hurricane Gloria, Gotham turned out to be 80 percent anticipation. The food wasn’t very good.” After several changes of chefs and with Gotham losing money every day that it remained open, Kretchmer was close to a decision to close the restaurant for good.

Portale first learned of the job opening at Gotham Bar and Grill from his girlfriend at the time, who was a chef who worked at Jam’s, a restaurant that was run by Jonathan Waxman and Melvin Masters. Waxman had heard that Gotham’s ownership was thinking about closing the restaurant, so he called Kretchmer with an idea.

“Waxman said, ‘There’s this young man named Alfred Portale who’s cooking at this club at the 59th Street Bridge. He’s very well-trained and he can really cook,’” Kretchmer remembers. “So Alfred came down on a Sunday. We sat at a window at the Gotham, and he was wearing a mauve sweater and very mauve corduroy slacks, and a great watch. I said to him, “Alfred, if you can cook as good as you look, we’ll be doing great.” And he said, “Well, I can cook really well.”

Eventually it would turn out that both men were correct. But several small events had to occur before Portale and Gotham would come together. During negotiations after being offered the job, Portale asked for more money than Kretchmer was willing to pay him, and Portale walked away. “I thought about it for a couple of weeks,” Kretchmer remembers. “And I said to myself, ‘This is really stupid. You just made a mistake.’ So I called him back and said, ‘Hey, I made a mistake. What you’re asking for is okay. When can you start?’ If I wanted to try this one more time, this is the right guy to try it with.”

Portale joined Gotham in May 1985, and by October of that year he had earned Gotham a glowing three-star review in the Times in which Miller exclaimed with glee, “His dishes are visually dazzling but rarely incongruent. And the kitchen’s consistency is all the more impressive, considering the wide range of the menu.” Visually dazzling dishes and incredible consistency immediately became Portale’s claim to fame.

NYRI: You faced many challenges when you started at Gotham; dealing with staff that you had to let go, and completely revamping the menu. What type of challenges did you face when it came to sourcing the products you felt were essential to elevating the quality of the cuisine?

Portale: People don’t understand how difficult it was to get ingredients or products 25 years ago. It was a completely different situation, and of course, the quality of your ingredients is paramount to any good chef. One example is that I was interested in using good sushi-grade tuna, but I had such difficulty getting it back then, although if I would go to any of the top sushi restaurants in town, they had it. So I actually got the name of a tuna specialist who supplied Japanese restaurants from a sushi chef and tried calling. There was no luck, so I got in a taxicab and went there. It was over in the meatpacking district. I walked in, and everybody stared at me. I got somebody who I could communicate with and I ended up buying a loin of tuna. I paid for it in cash and hailed a taxi and brought it back in a taxicab with it on my lap. I did that a couple of days, and then finally I got them to deliver C.O.D., cash only. Over a period of time we slowly developed a relationship with them, and I think now they must sell to 20 or 30 restaurants. They’re in New Jersey now, Yama Seafood.

NYRI: Why was Gotham so very different from other restaurants at the time, and why was it so successful?

Portale: The success here didn’t have anything to do with the tall food; it had to do with my ability to cook really complex and beautifully presented food for hundreds of people every night. No one was doing that back then. I think the three-star model, in New York at least, was eighty or ninety-seat formal restaurants doing small numbers. Here, I came on and we were doing beautifully prepared and thoughtful food for hundreds of people, and more than anything that was what blew people away. They just couldn’t understand how I was doing that.

NYRI: How do you retain the element of consistency when you introduce new menu items?

Portale: Presentation is one of the several things I think about when I’m constructing a dish, but I need great consistency in the execution of the dishes. Everything had a place, a size, a spec, a place on the plate; nothing was left to any individual interpretation. There was no squirting or free saucing or anything like that. So all that structure, all the engineering that went into the presentations was as a response to the 300 covers I was doing every single night. It had to be extremely precise and highly stylized.

Portale soon became known not only as a leading pioneer in New American fine-dining cuisine, but over the years he helped to train a new generation of star chefs who adopted his cooking techniques and applied them, with their own personalities and personal touches, to their own restaurants. Portale says that it was only natural for the best talent to want to come and work at Gotham as an alternative to staging in France, and his string of talented mentors began with his first sous chef, Tom Valenti. “There’s not a day that goes by in my kitchen where I am not utilizing some technique that I learned from Alfred at Gotham,” Valenti said. “The discipline that you learn from him in that environment, and his talent for composition, was simply amazing.” Bill Telepan worked at Gotham in the late 1980’s, said that Portale “is a very good teacher and would always allow us to grow, but was always there to help us along when we needed it. That is why so many good chefs have come from his kitchen.” Portale’s focused, calm manner in the kitchen was also mentioned by more than one chef who worked under him. “He is very even in his temperament, which was always something that I strive for in my workday,” Telepan said, “And he is just someone who is good to be around.”

NYRI: Do you think that, over the years, the presentation of your food got more media attention then the food itself?

Portale: I always thought that there should be more dimension on the plate, not necessarily reaching for the stars with height, but more or less edible architecture or landscaping. When you look at things, they have dimension, they have height. It wasn’t until years later that some journalist had labeled it architectural food, or tall food, and then suddenly it blew up. And for years, I tried to downplay it. It seemed like once a week somebody from Little Rock, Arkansas would call and say, “I’m doing an article on tall food, and everybody says that you’re the pioneer.” And I’d say, ‘I don’t wanna be in that article!’ There was too much emphasis being put on the presentation when, in fact, it was one of the last things I thought about. I have real strong feelings about presentation not having an impact on the integrity of the food, and I always had respect for the ingredients. But we’d see people making a mound of mashed potatoes and sticking a piece of chicken on it and sticking a bunch of herb sprigs on it, and people would say, “Oh, he’s doing your food.” I would shudder - it was awful!

NYRI: Do you still do sketches of your new dishes?

Portale: I did a lot of that for years and years. But when I have to, I still do it. I find it very helpful to understand proportion. Sometimes when you’re creating a dish, you need a placeholder to complete the dish. It’s construction.

NYRI: When you started at Gotham it was already an established restaurant and you had to establish your cuisine slowly there. You also opened Striped Bass in Philadelphia, how was that experience different for you?

Portale: It was a great experience. I learned a lot. It was an opportunity to work with some new young talent. I put together a dynamite crew, and my chef de cuisine, Christopher Lee, has turned into a star. He’s at Gilt now, and he was on the cover of Food & Wine magazine this summer, and he won a Rising Star James Beard award. This was my chef at Striped Bass! I really grew and benefited a lot from it, there was a lot of personal growth and a lot of pride and success. We created the best restaurant in Philadelphia by everyone’s standards.

After 23 years at Gotham, Portale seems open to take on some new and exciting projects, of which he has been offered many, but selected just a handful. The Striped Bass project was a success, however the restaurant he opened in 1993, One Fifth, was not – it remained open for only one year. He currently works as a consultant for Singapore Airlines, which has been rated number one in first-class and business travel for many years. “Needless to say, it’s an extraordinary experience to fly first-class on Singapore Airlines. I just did it last week. They have an excellent food program, and they have something called the International Culinary Panel, which is made up of six chefs.” Portale is the New York chef for Singapore Airline’s Culinary Panel, and the other five chefs include Gordon Ramsay as the chef from London and Georges Blanc as the chef from France. “It also allows me some travel to Asia, which I haven’t done a lot of,” says Portale. He’ll also be traveling to Japan with his staff this May for a promotion at the New York Grille, a famous Tokyo skyscraper restaurant at the top of the Park Hyatt. Daniel Boulud and Tom Coliccio have done the same promotion in years past.

But the biggest move Portale could make is, of course, a new restaurant, which he is currently considering.

NYRI: Your food has evolved considerably over time. Can you describe how your cooking philosophy and your cuisine have changed over the years?

Portale: I think that the philosophy of my food in terms of its orientation, creation, respect for ingredients, and classic flavor combinations that use seasonality or culture - all that has not changed. I find that philosophy to be very sound and successful. The other thing is that, over the years, a lot of food fads that were in fashion have come and gone. I’ve kept those principles as the way I think about food and the creation of dishes.

NYRI: Are there any new concepts that interest you, if you were to take on a new project?

Portale: Fortunately for us in this profession, there are multiple concepts out there, exciting concepts. Some are silly, some are not. My training is French, but my background is Italian, and I’m Italian American. Certainly, the focus here has mainly been more Mediterranean European based as opposed to Asian-influenced, although certainly Asia has crept into the menu a bit. So it’s hard to say, if I had to pick one concept, what I would like to do. But I think something that is maybe a little more relaxed, maybe with more of a theatrical kitchen component, open kitchen perhaps, with a very strong wine component as well.

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