To celebrate that continuing evolution, Colicchio invited seven Portale protégés to Alfred’s East Side apartment, where they would each prepare a dish inspired by their Gotham days, and toast their mentor. On March 22—Gotham’s actual twentieth anniversary, as it happened—the chefs arrived carrying ingredients in plastic milk crates and got down to work. Soon, JUdson Grill’s Bill Telepan (’87–Â’89) was delicately flipping potato-and-chive blinis. Next to him, a salad of cranberry beans—a current Gotham dish—was being tossed by Jacinto Guadarrama ('85–'04), Portale's chef de cuisine, who started at Gotham as a dishwasher and has worked there even longer than his boss.
David Walzog (’88–’91), of Michael Jordan’s the Steakhouse NYC and Strip House, prepared a porterhouse steak and vegetables for roasting, explaining how the dish is Portalean: The meat is unadorned, the vegetables fresh and beautifully presented. Portale’s philosophy of “clean cooking,” in which ingredients speak for themselves without overwhelming sauces, is something Walzog thinks about every time he fires up his oven.
“Alfred has a taste memory like no one I know,” said Valenti, who is tall and unkempt, the opposite of Portale. “Gotham is the most consistent restaurant I’ve ever experienced.” And one of the best-run. “Alfred was even-tempered and organized,” says Walzog. “He made you reach for the best. No shortcuts.”
With the help of a rare magnum of Clos St. Hune, a 1993 Alsatian Riesling brought by Scott Bryan (’87), now of Veritas, the group began loosening up. As Gary Robins (’89–’91), now of the Biltmore Room, finished seasoning his giant prawns and clams in bitter lemongrass broth, Valenti took command of the CD player and blasted the Clash’s “London Calling,” the anthem from the early Gotham days, when, after 300 covers a night, they would head to the Palladium or shoot pool upstairs at Julian’s. Did Portale ever come along? Not a chance. “He was the most grown-up guy,” said Bryan, “even when he was young.”
By eight o’clock, the chefs had served up their offerings, which included Portale’s own spring fantasy of asparagus with ramps and morels. Then the table was cleared for Forley’s sugary fireworks—mini-chocolate-soufflé cakes, lemon-verbena crème brûlée, and strawberry-confit tartlets.
As he surveyed the crew, Portale downplayed his hand in their success. “They’re all their own people,” he said. “They would have been stars anyway.” He told them that he will be the consulting chef at Striped Bass, an established venue in Philadelphia, but insisted that Gotham is where his heart will always be. “It’s funny,” he said. “We’re a better restaurant today than we've ever been, but it still feels like we've got a lot of work to do.”