On the Occasion of Gotham Bar and Grill’s 30th Anniversary, A Few Thoughts About Alfred Portale
[Note: This is our monthly sister post to the Kitchen Time Machine series on Eater. Click over there to read my just-posted interview with Alfred Portale. – AF]
NEW YORK, NY — Alfred Portale once told me: “There are two ways to become great. One is to be born brilliant; the other is to work harder than everybody else.”
He paused for effect, then added: “I did it the second way.”
He has a point: The history of Gotham Bar and Grill, which celebrated its 30th Anniversary with a gala benefit Monday night, followed by a late-night industry party, is dotted with evidence of Alfred’s constant striving. (He became chef there one year into the restaurant’s lifespan.) In our Eater interview, we discuss how he and his partners have periodically shepherded their prized possession through several of what Alfred calls “restorations,” revamping everything from the restaurant’s logo to its color scheme and artwork to keep Gotham from developing a middle-aged frumpiness.
But, of course, it wasn’t effort alone that made Gotham so successful. All the hard labor in the world wouldn’t have led others to conceive dishes as influential and durable as his seafood salad, tuna tartare, or an early, still-brilliant, and seamless mingling of French, Italian, and Japanese influences such as seared tuna with pappardelle and caponata. They also wouldn’t have infused somebody with the populist instincts and confidence that led Alfred—who grew up on Italian-American home cooking in Buffalo, New York—to include a nightly pasta on Gotham’s menu, or to introduce then-surprising elements such as risotto, cous cous, and ginger to his customers way back in the middle ’80s. (And let’s not forget the role of Jerry Kretchmer–who to this day claims not to know much about food but rather to have instincts for what people like in a restaurant–in recognizing Alfred’s talent when Jonathan Waxman recommended him for the job. A few years later, Kretchmer would identify the potential of a young chef at Miracle Grill… Bobby Flay, with whom he went on to open Mesa Grill.)
But it’s surely the hard work that’s allowed Gotham to survive–nay, thrive–all these years. Beyond those “restorations,” I’ve been lucky enough to have been privy to other, smaller moments that testify to Alfred’s relentless tinkering and healthy competitive nature: Back when a majority of restaurants kept physical reservation books, he had the management team scribble the number of covers from the same date the prior year on each day’s page to see if they’d equal or better them on the day. In 2010, hoping that New York Times restaurant critic Sam Sifton would review Gotham, he decided that the blow-ups of the four previous, three-star reviews that hung framed in the window reeked of antiquity, and hauled them off to storage. (The gambit paid off: Sifton reviewed the restaurant in May 2011, upholding its three-star rating for an unprecedented fifth time.)
Alfred’s quest for excellence dates back to his days at the Culinary Institute of America where he was a few years older than most of his classmates because he’d initially set out to be a jewelry designer before taking a turn into the kitchen. More serious, and less of a partier than his fellow students, he earned the nickname “Mr. Perfect.” “And, Andrew,” he once told me, “it was not a compliment.” To which I say, he who laughs last, laughs best.
For all of the complexity of Alfred’s food, much of his career has also been defined by a deceptive underlying simplicity. He’s allowed himself precious few distractions, never pursuing a television show or product line, and only opening two restaurants outside of Gotham in three decades, One Fifth Avenue just down the street from the mother ship, and Gotham Steak at the Fountainbleu Hotel on Miami Beach. (That neither endured is perhaps a testament to the indefinable role of luck, timing, and/or some kind of magic in the restaurant business, no matter who’s behind the endeavor.)
Another hallmark of Alfred’s approach, and one which departs from his inherent conservatism, is his willingness to break in new talent: Jacinto Guadarrama, one of his chefs, began as a dishwasher around the same time Alfred started at Gotham. Alfred moved him to garde manger and recognizing his innate ability and “soft hands” moved him continually on up the line to his current role. On a personal note, I was Gotham’s publicist in the mid-1990s, and writing screenplays on the side. When Alfred decided to write his first cookbook, something he took a characteristically long time to get around to, he asked me to be his collaborator. I’d never written a word about food or restaurants, but had helped him with a few speeches and such and had become adept at getting his “voice,” albeit never for more than a few pages. He saw something in me and brought me on as his collaborator. For inspiration, he pointed me to a few books he admired (Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertoli and Alice Waters foremost among them) and patiently nurtured me through the process as we learned together how to write a cookbook, working draft pages over and over to layer in his viewpoint, knowledge, and instruction. We’d go on to write a total of three books together.
Similarly, Alfred has long been known among New York City cooks as a fine teacher: At the restaurant’s anniversary celebration Monday night, generations of toques who worked for him were represented: his first sous chef, Tom Valenti; Tom Colicchio and Bill Telepan, who came later; and former cooks such as Scott Bryan and Wylie Dufresne.
Perhaps the ultimate sign of any restaurant’s institution status is the fourth estate’s comfort level celebrating with them. Martha Stewart, just off a flight from China, made a showing at the party Monday night, as did Ruth Reichl, who once reviewed Gotham in the New York Times. Gael Greene, the restaurant’s first prominent critical advocate, spoke at the festivities, and the goings-on were presided over by Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chef priestess Kate Krader, even though—almost shockingly in hindsight—Alfred never made the annual list.
Alfred wore a blue chef’s jacket for most of the evening Monday, his eyes darting around, keeping tabs on the orchestration of the staff even as he conversed with guests. At one point during the after-party, Drew Nieporent espied him in the shadowy corridor just off the service floor, pensively looking over some paperwork.
Finally, around midnight, Alfred disappeared briefly, returning in a sport coat and jeans, his typical post-service garb, to order a drink at the bar.
“You’re in your civvies,” I said.
“I figured I could call it a day.”
A day. A decade. Three decades. Gotham may not endure forever – what does? – but the most remarkable thing about this week’s milestone is that with so much history in the rear-view mirror, the finish line still seemingly remains far down the road, and well out of sight.