New York’s iconic Gotham Bar and Grill has always belonged to Executive Chef and Partner Alfred Portale- who began his career there twenty five years ago. Today one may say a great chef staying in one place that long is a rarity, but Portale has chosen to perfect this classic restaurant, and he’s expanded the concept to Miami’s Fountainbleu with Gotham Steak. In a city where a decade is usually the maximum survival rate for any given restaurant, Portale has created a spot that’s stayed timeless for twenty five years. Portale’s kitchen has hosted an array of culinary rock stars including Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne, Tom Valente, David Walzog, and Bill Telepan. Today, we sat down with Portale to find out why his kitchen has proved to attract so many culinary stars, and why he’s a pioneer when it comes to New American cuisine.
What would be your ideal food day?
I don’t really eat breakfast. But I must say I’m always intrigued by the people at Balthazar eating breakfast, so I’d probably do that a classic French breakfast with great bread, butter and jam, a little bit of eggs and smoke bacon. For lunch, I’d go to Sushi Seki – this place I love – for some sashimi and a little seaweed salad and spinach. Dinner would be at Tertulia. I love the cuisine there and love what Seamus Mullen is doing. It would be something wood-fired; that would be ideal. Then I’d probably finish [the day] on the rooftop of the Soho House with a glass of champagne, watching the sunset.
Among many things, you are known for somewhat saving Gotham Bar and Grill. What was it missing before you came along?
Oh well, what Gotham had then that I think attracted people (and attracted me) was the location and the architecture. Jim Biber, a young architect, designed it and he really got the design elements right – and to this day it’s still right. Beyond that though (laughing) not much else was good. It needed a tremendous amount of work. To this day, I thank them for building it. It’s such a great open space where you can see the crowd and really be part of the energy. There are elevated spaces that also provide privacy at the same time. I started in the kitchen, with the food, and then moved out to the dining room to fix the wine, food and service aspects.
In your opinion, what’s kept it so timeless?
It’s a number of things. Early on, we were always anticipating what customers wanted and needed and really tried to stay ahead in dining trends. We also knew that diners in New York are sophisticated; they want excellence, but at the same time, they want it without pretension and formality. Gotham provided that, and that was very unique in the late eighties. We also have a veteran staff that’s really kept incredible focus over the years.
What’s made you stay for so long? Have you ever considered moving on?
I was hired as a chef at Gotham years ago, and in a relatively short period I’ve become largely a managing owner. Having a restaurant like Gotham – a 165 seat restaurant – that’s been so busy all these years; I’ve never underestimated how special that is. So I’ve always just kept trying to nurture and perfect it over the years. Having said that, Gotham Steak, which I opened two years ago in Miami, has been a really exciting collaboration.
Why do you think your kitchen has attracted the likes of Tom Valente, David Walzog, Bill Telepan, Wylie Dufresne and Tom Colicchio? Is it a coincidence they’ve all gone on to be huge chefs?
There are a couple reasons. I had very unique training; I’d worked for the three greatest chefs in the world in France. And Gotham was hot; when you’re a young cook, you want to work at a place with progressive food that is hot and current. Aside from that, Gotham is unique. A good example is this: If you’re working at, let’s say French Laundry. That restaurant is extraordinary, but at the same time comes at a high cost. As a chef working there, you have a very rare and unique experience, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well to other kitchens when you leave. At Gotham on the other hand, you’re learning how to consistently produce creative and good food for hundreds of people. People take that experience with them when they leave and they can apply it to any kitchen, rather than an experience one may have working at Per Se. And I am not at all belittling Per Se; there you’re obviously learning from the absolute best and your techniques become highly honed. But the way we at Gotham create and produce food during service is a valuable lesson for chefs starting out.
Do you think that’s the one common thing you passed down to all of them?
Precisely. And being a successful chef requires a lot of different skills. One is the ability to build an amazing team and keep them motivated, believing and working. We really do that at Gotham. There’s a great sense of teamwork, and everyone cares so much about the job we’re doing there. I like to think that’s the management style people take away with them after working here as well.
You are known as one of the leaders of New American Cuisine. People have a variety of definitions for it. What’s yours?
For my generation, our role models were French chefs. In the eighties, a chef had to go to France to further his or her education. Now, it’s obviously very different. When I think back, I was really trying to develop my own personal style then. Even though I was truly working under the best chefs in the world, I was actively trying to develop my own style. I think you take classic techniques, flavor combinations and ingredient combinations and you modernize them; you make them contemporary and modern. I often rely on those classic combinations for inspiring and creating new dishes.
Today’s the Julia Child 100th. What was it like cooking with Julia on her Cooking with Master Chefs series in 1995? What was your most memorable moment?
It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Very early on, one of the first cookbooks I had was Mastering the Art of French cooking. I would pour over cookbooks over and over, and at the time I didn’t really understand the cuisine, but it was such a huge influence. When we did the show, we filmed it at her home. It was incredible how much energy she had. I remember she wanted to have dinner after the show – so Julia and I were going to meet at 9:00 PM at Gotham. She flew in from Paris (meanwhile she’s in her late eighties) and she had a couple glasses of wine and was just so entertaining, fun and brilliant. I was awestruck at how special she was; it was so inspiring. I first met her when I graduated from Culinary Institute of America; I was working at a shop in Bloomingdales with Michel Gerard. It was a charcuterie shop called Comptoir Gourmand, and they had a lot of visitors. Julia came in with James Beard one afternoon. I had just gotten out of school so that was pretty special.
You tend to judge televised cooking competitions rather than compete in them. Is that a conscious choice?
I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to compete. I think I was asked do Iron Chef. I was actually asked to do the original way back when, in Japan when it first started. I think it’s exciting and challenging, but I haven’t had much opportunity. I’ve done a lot of judging and I enjoy that. I love seeing how spontaneous and creative the contestants can be under such time restraints. It’s hard.
What do you think of competitive food TV in general? Do you like the direction it’s going in?
I like the direction it’s going in. It’s very entertaining. I don’t watch them often but occasionally I catch myself watching Top Chef. I think it helps everyone’s awareness of fine dining. As long as the quality and production value is done well, it has a very positive benefit.
If you could pick a chef to be in the competitive arena with, that you haven’t yet gone up against, who would it be?
I have great respect for Morimoto, I think he’s a champion on television, so I’d love to work against him.
What ingredient would you want to be assigned?
I’d want any sort of fish or shellfish.
Which would you dread?
Something I’d dread would probably be beef. I find it difficult to be super creative with – and hard to plate.
What made you decide to open Gotham Steak at Fontainebleau? Why Miami?
I was actually looking for an opportunity in Las Vegas; I had some deals working there. Then when I went down to Miami during the Food and Wine festival, I was approached about a Fontainebleau location. They were looking to expand their brand. I honestly hadn’t thought of Miami, but I quickly learned that the people from Fontainebleau really understand food and hospitality so well. When you do things in Las Vegas, mainly you’re working with hotel and casino guys. They don’t necessarily understand everything about what does into fine dining. The Miami Beach property opened first and it’s been fantastic. Miami now is very hot; Jean Georges is down there as well as Geoffrey Zakarian and Jose Andres. Everyone’s going to Miami now, which is really great. The other thing I love about Gotham Steak is it’s six foot wood fire grill, so we can cook over wood, which I love. That’s nearly impossible to do in New York, because of fire safety regulations. You won’t find many wood fire grills in New York; they’re very rare.
What are some of your other favorite New York spots to eat?
I mentioned Tertulia before. I love going to ABC Kitchen; they have a wood fire oven there and great wood-grilled lobster. For sushi like I said before, Sushi Seki. I go to Balthazar a lot. For pizza there are so many amazing places in New York – Motorino, Co., Don Antonio, which just opened on 52nd street near me. And I love the Peking duck at Shun Lee.
What is your advice to young chefs starting out?
Get the best education. After school, pick the restaurant you go to carefully, stay at least a year and be patient. (Laughs) I remember when I went to CIA, I believed I’d graduate and within a year be head chef. I think people still think that way. Cooking is an art and a craft; it takes years to develop your craft. So stay focused, aim very very high, try to be number one…and aim for perfection.
If you could predict the next wave of cuisine, what would it be?
It’s already sort of happening, but it’s starting to switch to where proteins are getting smaller and smaller on the plate at a restaurant. I think more people are concerned with where their food is coming from and they’re more conscious about healthy eating. There’s more demand for food to be really healthy and well-prepared. People want to know how what they’re eating is raised, and where it comes from.
*To view Alfred’s recipe for Striped Bass Ceviche, Click Here