Industry Insiders: Alfred Portale, Top Chef

The 25th anniversary of Gotham Bar & Grill finds Alfred Portale, the executive chef and co-owner, celebrating his restaurant’s continued success but also reflecting wistfully on his own beginnings. He sounds off on the evolutions of both his career and the industry, oversized pork sandwiches, and Top Chef.

How would you describe your role in the kitchen? In terms of the day-to-day operations, that’s my role. Twenty years ago, I would cut fish, butcher lamb, get on the line, and cook. Now it’s more or less being in the restaurant each night and overseeing the service. Spending time in the dining room and greeting guests. We have a huge amount of regular guests and friends of the restaurant who come each night. I’m now sort of splitting my time between here and Miami. I opened a new restaurant in Miami Beach at the Fontainebleau. It was re-opened after a billion-dollar renovation. It’s a wild culture down there.

Do you have any partners? The restaurant was originally opened with my partners. There are four: Jeff Bliss, Jerry Kretchmer and Rick and Robert Rathe.

What’s changed in the past 20 years? I’m more of a global operator now. My role was very much kitchen-centric twenty years ago, but it’s changed.

How did you get your start and eventually end up at Gotham Bar & Grill? I was a student at the Culinary Institute of America, and then I got recruited. While I was at school, they opened up a gourmet food shop in New York City from Michel Guérard, who at the time was one of the greatest chefs. I saw it as my ticket to France. I came to New York and worked for Guérard for a year. Then I was invited to cook for a year in France, and later returned to New York. I did a year as a sous chef for Jacques Maxima, another great chef at the time. And then was looking for a chef’s position. I had heard this place made a big splash. It was a unique restaurant. This is essentially the way it looked 25 years ago — a fun, large, cavernous space that got a lot of attention for the scene and for the architecture, but not for the food. So, I was attracted to the space and the opportunity.

What are a few of your favorite places to wine and dine? Fishtail by David Burke, the seafood restaurant. It’s on the Upper East Side in a very elegant townhouse. It’s not a late-night cool kind of place, although they do serve late. I also go to places like La Esquina. I still love going to Balthazar and getting the seafood towers. I often start with cocktails at Soho House. I also like places like the Gramercy Park Hotel. It has remained really, really hip and cool.

What about guilty pleasures? In Italy, you’ll see these stands where they have a whole pig essentially on a fantastic piece of bread — some meat, some of the crisp skin, some of the heart and the liver. They chop it all up and pack it into the sandwich — it’s extraordinary. It’s called porketta.

Who are some people you admire? The first guy that comes to mind is Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He was so creative and unique when he opened JoJo many years ago. He had two or three restaurants in New York and somehow maintained the quality very well. I thought Greg Koontz was a great chef — I have great respect for his food. Of course, I admire Thomas Keller. It takes so much work and pain and suffering to really accomplish what he does. The demands he places on himself, the kitchen and the staff is extraordinary. I admire hard work and success. I grew up in a generation where if you wanted a culinary education, you had to go to France, back in the 80s. So I was influenced by French chefs and continue to be. Now the big restaurants are in the United States. So if you’re a young cook and you want to be inspired and get great training, you can go to San Francisco, Chicago, or New York.

What’s the one common trait among all these people? They’ve all achieved a level of success through extraordinarily hard work. You need to have a skill level and be creative. There are enough chefs that try and take the fast path to success, more driven by public relations and self-promotion. These guys come in quietly through tremendous hard work and talent and create what are now empires, through perseverance and passion.

What positive trends have you been seeing? Tremendous interest in cooking, chefs, and restaurants in this country. You look back 25 years — which I’ve been doing a lot of lately — and it’s a different landscape entirely. There are chefs and restaurateurs who have gained a lot of respect and popularity. We don’t have the same culture in this country about food or wine that they do in, for instance, Spain and Italy. It’s great to see how far we’ve come in such a short period of time in terms of the restaurants and the fantastic products we’re producing and an appreciation for fine dining.

Do you think reality TV has helped this? Well, it’s had a profound effect. Television and TV stars have raised awareness for sure. I think that I’m speaking about chefs who just embrace farmers and sustainable agriculture, organic and all these things that have crept into and are part of everyday life. I think that was all mainly chef-driven. But certainly the Emerils and Tom Colicchios have turned it into a spectacle.

What else can you say about the 25th anniversary? We’re offering a $25 prix fixe luncheon — which is a bit of a bargain. It’s composed of six dishes from our past, and they all carry the date when they went on the menu. It’s turned out to be a lot of fun for guests who recall, “I remember this dish.” In the evening, we’re doing a five-course meal for $75. We created a champagne that carries our name that we’re pouring freely with that. It’s been great. In these dire economic times, it’s perhaps not such a great idea to have a massive celebration, but to keep it low-key. We’ve invited lots of our old guests and old employees and customers to come back in throughout the month. And there are new faces too.

What was it like overseeing wannabe Top Chefs as a guest judge? I had a lot of thoughts about that. There are two challenges. I was quite impressed during the Quickfire at how free-thinking and spontaneous they were as a group. I was a judge early on, and there were at least 10 chefs I was judging. They had 30 minutes to put something together, and the results were stunning. The next day after they were given a whole night to think about it, a couple hours at night and couple hours the next day to prepare a dinner, they pretty much all fell flat on their face. It’s a funny thing — it’s like if you have to think too much about it, you screw up. I don’t know if that’s real life. I think some of those guys are good chefs. I feel like I oversee the aspirations of a lot of young chefs in the kitchen and have over many years. I’ve seen lots of talent come through the kitchen and gone onto being successful. There’s been a dozen or more stars. That’s been a really nice thing to be a part of.

Do you think that turning it into that kind of competition is a negative thing for the field? No. I don’t. I think in order to be successful in the kitchen or this environment, you have to be extremely competitive, driven, and focused. I’m not worried it’s a negative thing. Chefs, more than any other profession, so often come together in charity situations. I just can’t think of any other profession where we are called upon. We get asked almost once a week to do something for the Opera, C-Cap, City Harvest, or Citymeals-on-Wheels. I think it’s good. We share employees and ideas. Sure there’s a lot of competition, but it’s a close family.

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