Chef and owner of Gothan Bar and Grill Alfred Portale talks culinary success.
Bravotv.com is proud to announce our new weekly Bravo For Foodies series "Breaking Bread with..."
For our first Q&A we had the pleasure to speak with Alfred Portale, Chef and owner of Gotham Bar and Grill located in the heart of Greenwich Village in New York City. Among his many accomplishments, Portale was named the Best Chef in New York in 1993, and in 2002 Gotham received the James Beard Foundation Outstanding Restaurant Award. In 2006, he won the James Beard award and was named Outstanding Chef of the Year. We met with Portale in his four-time New York Times three-star restaurant:
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.
Did you ever consider after you were working in the restaurant not going to culinary school?
No, that never crossed my mind. Again, I think I had a romantic idea of what was going to happen at school. I thought I was going to go there and two years later emerge as a full-blown master chef. I had no idea .... Of course that's not the case at all.
You were first in your class.
I was first in my class.
You came to New York City.
During school I was obsessed with the Michelin three-star chefs. And through their books ... there was an early series of cookbooks called Lafont series. And it had Guerard, ... and Senderens, and Chappelle, and all those guys. So there's sort of late 70s, early 80s superstar chefs ... Maximin ... all those guys. So I had not traveled to France at that point in my life. But I devoured those books even though they were in French and I couldn't read [them], but it didn't matter. So when I was at school, I had an opportunity. There was a job listing for an interview to work for Michel Guerard, and that's all I needed to know. So I went to New York, found out what it was -- it wasn't a restaurant, it ended up being something else -- but saw it as a segue into getting to France. And in fact, less than a year and a half later I was working in France in his restaurant, so it all worked out well.
Why did you leave France?
I loved the food, but the problem with France is that it's full of French people. [Ed: Chef Portale is kidding, of course.] I guess I was ready -- I had a car, a little bit of money, worked at Guerard, and lived a couple of months in Paris, and traveled all over to wineries... I think I was anxious to get back to New York and apply what I had learned.
So you came back here and...
Then, what to do? I had to get a job. And at the time I think it was kind of a beat [time] in New York. Here I had really good credentials. I was young and hungry, and I had first in my class, and I just worked for the greatest chefs in the world. It wasn't clear really where was the best place for me. And I ended up working up at the Westbury Hotel on Madison Avenue at the Polo Restaurant, which has a very interesting history because some of the great chefs happened to work there, so that was great. Daniel Boulud was the sous-chef and the consulting chef was Senderens or I don't remember who...one of the Michelin guys...but he didn't have a lot of influence in the restaurant. Thomas Keller worked there. I worked there. I think David Pasternak might have worked there. And then there's a handful of other important guys, so it made sense going there ultimately. But I didn't last very long there. I was hired to replace Daniel. It was a sous-chef position. But Daniel, he had come from France, this was his first job. He was the sous-chef there and he was hired to be the chef at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, which was under construction, and they hired me to replace him. So that's what happened. I didn't last long -- I lasted six months.
Of your own volition?
No, I got fired.
For being too good, basically.
We'll leave it at that. Daniel went to Le Cirque after?
Daniel went from the Polo to Plaza Athenee to Le Cirque. I mean, I've known Daniel that long -- I mean I'm talking '83 or '4 -- and we became friends right away. He was living in the hotel... The good news is that when I had worked in NYC after school, I had worked with this sous-chef of the Chantecler restaurant in Nice where Jacques Maximin was making lots of waves and noise. At the time he was the highest-rated chef in the world. He had three toques in Michelin, but he had 19/20 or 20/20 [from] Gault-Millau? So he had the highest rating of any chef. And he was doing really innovative stuff. So he got hired to come, he had a consulting contract here, and they opened a restaurant. And the chef, they called me, they were looking for a crew, and he got my name somehow. They got my name because of the past relationship. So I went over there. They called me right after I went to the Polo, but because I had just made a deal with them, I had to respect my commitment. But when that job was over, I was free to go. So I went there, and I went to work for Maximin. And he was there a lot. Basically for 12 months he was there four or six times for a whole week at a time. He really loved NY. We really saw a lot of him. But he had a whole crew from France and it was extraordinary.
Was he most inspiring to you?
Him and Guerard.
So why did you start cooking American cuisine with all of your French background? Did you ever want to open a French restaurant?
No. I want to open an Italian... Well when I came here [to Gotham], I wasn't going to do a French restaurant -- this was an American restaurant... The cuisine was technically French, but you know I didn't use hardly any French words on the menu. But it was really influenced by my experience with Guerard and Maximin especially. I had been mentally training to be a chef for years -- and part to fit was to develop your own style. I mean I guess now that's what every chef tries to do. But I don't know that anybody ever told me to do that, or taught me... So, I really started to develop a personal style that has turned out to be pretty successful I guess.
How would you describe your often-copied style?
Yeah, it was copied a lot. I guess the first thing is -- I mean what we're doing is very contemporary cooking, it's modern and up-to-date, but not trendy. I'm remaining absolutely current. It's not like a museum. It's hardly anything like that. Just always have a lot of respect for time-honored food combinations, flavor combinations, and seasonality...keeping things clean, not too many flavors, [respecting] your ingredients, keeping things in season -- all those sorts of notions, having an organizing principle, whether it be cultural or seasonal, not doing this wacky cross-cultural stuff. I mean, now there are no rules and I think that's great. For me, [my] kind of cooking is timeless, it doesn't, it's like a great piece of fashion -- it doesn't ever go out of style.
Do you still design on the side?
I'm a furniture designer now.
Have you designed anything for Gotham?
No, but I have designed pieces. I still love jewelry. I go to jewelry shows. I buy jewelry. I mean I don't wear a lot, but I still go to shows. [I'm] very interested in jewelry. But the tolerances are so precise. Another interest I've always had is woodworking and furniture making, so about 10 years ago I started doing that. I've made some nice pieces, actually.
How do you separate your roles as chef and owner -- creativity vs. business?
I think being an owner here has given me...it's been very, very important. It's true, chefs sometimes, they don't measure their success. Very often chefs measure their success in terms of creativity, and what they put on the plate, and it's often at the expense of business. So, I was in a restaurant the other night, and I'm not going to mention any names, but this guy is one of the chefs in America...but they'll never, ever, ever pay for that restaurant. I love to create a menu that appeals to a large customer base with 14 choices or 20 choices on the menu -- it's more like 22, 24 -- I can satisfy everybody including myself and my cooks. We can have dishes that are cool, not overly complex, and [others] that may not have a huge customer base. But then we also have great big Berkshire pork chop, and our steak and stuff, so when people come in for business they can look at the menu and it's easy. So I've always understood it's got to be about business. What's the point if you're doing all this work and you're running 50% cost?
What do you think of the celebrity chef phenomenon, and do you consider yourself one? I consider you one.
I certainly am, yes. Most of my friends and colleagues have built mini-empires and I have not. I have reasons for that. I don't think there's anything wrong [with it]. Not everyone is super successful. Tom [Colicchio] is very successful, but you know, these guys are on airplanes, who are flying all over. They work constantly, and they don't have time for anything. I chose not to do that up until this point in my life. Fortunately Gotham is so big and so busy that I can afford not to -- I don't need to have multiple restaurants. I've got a spectacular three-bedroom NY apartment, I've got a house in East Hampton on the beach, and I get to play tennis everyday. But that is all going to change.
Is it? Why's that? Are you opening an Italian restaurant?
There are other things. I've had huge opportunities to do things, to be in Las Vegas and to be everywhere else for that matter, and I've held back, and now that makes me very unique and valuable.
How important are the three-star New York Times ratings to chefs?
There is no chef in NY that does not care. [If they say they don't] it's bullshit. They mean a lot -- they're huge. We're waiting to get another review; it's been quite awhile. But the NY Times is quite important I think in NY. When I first got my three stars, there were only 16 three-star restaurants in the city. That was a major big deal, and the other 15 were all, besides The Quilted Giraffe and maybe Chanterelle, they were all French and they all wore tuxedos and [were] formal...so when we got four stars it really changed the playing field going forward forever. Here was a casual, really young chef in a big restaurant doing 300 dinners...moderate prices, casual in some ways -- how did they get three stars? So that changed the whole dynamic.
I know accessibility is important to you -- so how do you make it accessible so that a foodie would be satisfied but someone could come in and not feel stupid?
Well, the restaurant is very different than it was 20 years ago -- it's extremely upscale right now. The food, the presentation, the wine program, the service -- everything about this restaurant is fantastic. So, there was a time it was a little more casual, but not anymore. It hasn't been for years.
Is this something that you like?
Yes. I think when I first came here, I thought of the restaurant as being ... I spent two months in Paris and I fell in love with these big brasseries, and I thought this is kind of like a big American brasserie without the shellfish, but it really never was that casual. The food always had complexity, lots of technique, highly technique-driven and very labor-intensive presentations. It's always been that way. It's now more elegant than it ever has been. Plus we just brought in a new General Manager who is very involved with the service--- six years with Daniel [Boulud].We have another dining room manager who has come in and has been a GM at Tocqueville and other three-star restaurants. We have another wine director who just came from Cafe Boulud, and we have our veteran wine director. So we are ramping this front of the house and everything about the restaurant. And that's how you can ask "How have you been around for so many years?"
Yes, and remain so relevant.
That's what I do.
How do you make sure you're consistently learning?
It's easy for me because I still love what I'm doing. Chefs that don't love what they're doing stop learning because they don't want to think about food -- they're not thinking about food; it's a job. I love food, travel, the culture -- everything about it, the mechanics of food and the kitchen...all that stuff. I'm a craftsman -- that's what I love. So, it's easy for me to keep learning. That's what I love. And I'm in one of the best cities in the world, and I travel extensively, and I do events with other chefs and I do Madrid Fusion, and I'm all over the place, so it's easy -- as long as you're passionate and you still love what you're doing.
Every feature in this series will ask the chefs the same five questions. Here are Chef Portale's responses:
1. What would you want your last meal to be? Peking duck and I think just an excellent French red burgundy.
2. Is there any food that you won't try or that you steer clear of? No -- there's nothing that I don't like.
Are you allergic to anything? No. I mean, I'm not like Tony Bourdain -- I'm not going to eat all this weird food for the hell of it, but I love everything. There isn't anything I don't like.
3. What's your least favorite word to hear in the kitchen (besides "fire")?
86 is the worst. If I'm in line and they say "We're 86 squab, Chef," that means we don't have any. Somebody screwed up and didn't order enough and now we're out, so now we have to go to the table and say "We don't have this tonight...."
4. Sweet or salty?
5. Is there anything besides your tennis-playing that you'd want people to know about you?
All the really good things I'd like to try and keep a secret.