Breaking Bread with ...

Chef and owner of Gothan Bar and Grill Alfred Portale talks culinary success.

Oct 3, 2007

Why did you become a chef?

I became a chef because I [had] early love for food. I saw cooking as a craft -- not really an art, but a craft. And I was very interested in art, and jewelry art, and construction, and design and painting and sculpture and all of those things, and somehow the way I was introduced to cooking made me think that the two were closely aligned. And it would be something that I would like to do.

Who introduced you to cooking?

It was an early girlfriend. I think I was at her home and there was an old collection of cookbooks, like Pellaprat, the early old-school French guys. And they did a lot of sculpture... I was looking at really old pictures of classic French cuisine -- doesn't exist anymore, didn't exist even 20 years, but I didn't know that. I thought it looked like jewelry, so I wanted to do it. I had no idea that it didn't exist anymore.

So you went to the Culinary Institute of America?

Yeah, I did. I applied for the CIA and they rejected me because I had never cooked professionally. So I needed to get some cooking experience, and I was living in Buffalo, New York. I grew up in Buffalo, so I thought instead of trying to work in Buffalo, I moved to San Francisco, and got a job in a French restaurant, which gave me enough credits to get into the school. And so I worked in San Francisco in a French restaurant and then applied. Food -- I just loved every aspect, just devoured books and food and restaurants. It was...24/7. It's all I thought about all day and all night: Creating dishes and food, and food, and food.

Is that restaurant still open?

No -- it was for a long time, but it isn't anymore. It wasn't a famous restaurant, although it was very good training for me because it was classic French. And we made our own bread and we made our own ice creams, and we made everything in the restaurant, so it was good. But my roommate was working for Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and back then she wasn't a household name. This was in '79, I think, '78, '79... So I got turned on to the whole California Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller -- the whole circle. I was very much a part of that in the late '70s, early '80s through this introduction.