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.