Trattoria Portale: Gathered at Portale’s apartment on March 22, 2004, along window from left, were Scott Bryan, Bill Telepan, Diane Forley, David Walzog, Gary Robins, Jacinto Guardarrama, and Tom Valenti; seated, foreground, Portale, left, with Tom Colicchio. (Photo Credit: Preston-Schlebusch.)
If you are dining in almost any of the city’s top restaurants—at ’Cesca, say, on the Upper West Side, or the Biltmore Room in Chelsea—Alfred Portale has had a hand in your meal. Not because the imperturbable maestro of Gotham Bar and Grill is in the kitchen but because chances are the chef who is has worked in his.
In 1985, Jerry Kretchmer hired Portale to jump-start Gotham, open only a year and already moribund. The young chef—he was 27 at the time and previously had trained as a jewelry designer—immediately began putting his own imprint on the menu. Portale inspired the architectural-food trend of the eighties, provoking the curses of waiters ascending Gotham’s stairway with his eye-catching creations teetering precariously on their plates. Mention Portale’s name today, and for many, these vertical concoctions are what come to mind. But as Gotham and its designing chef celebrate two decades together, it’s clear that Portale’s greatest contribution to New York culinary culture is the extraordinary talent his restaurant has produced—the illuminati of New York’s most popular two-, three-, and four-star kitchens.
“Cooking is an intellectual thing,” says Portale, “but it’s also very physical.” Like a baseball scout, he became a shrewd spotter of potential by observing his young protégés moving around the kitchen: “I look for a certain kind of grace and balance and speed. I look at people’s hands, the way they’re built. Big hands are not good. Hands like a musician—long fingers and slender hands—are.” His first sous-chef, Tom Valenti (’85–’87), made his name at Alison on Dominick Street before storming the Upper West Side with Ouest and, most recently, ’Cesca. Gotham’s second pastry chef was Diane Forley (’86–’88), of the much-admired Verbena, who now has a new venture in Ojai, California. She had no professional experience in pastry when Portale hired her at 23 and taught her how to make Gotham’s signature chocolate cake (Valenti showed her how to write HAPPY BIRTHDAY on it).
Portale has always been tolerant of the changing fortunes that bring people in and out of his orbit. In 1985, for example, Tom Colicchio left Gotham after only one week. “I got a call from Barry Wine at Quilted Giraffe and bailed out,” recalls Colicchio, who went on to open Gramercy Tavern and the Craft mini-empire. “Looking back, I would have been really pissed off at me.” Two years later, Portale not only took him back but let him park his motorcycle in the basement. “Alfred was just finding his style then—I remember the first time he stuck a sprig of thyme in a piece of chicken. It was an incredible evolution.”
Grilled double porterhouse steak with crisp goose-fat potatoes, roasted garlic, bacon-wrapped leeks, carrots, celery, and fennel
Seared diver scallops with fennel and blood orange
Pole-and-shell-bean salad with mint
(Alfred Portale and Jacinto Guadarrama)
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.”