Jim Poris / April 2004
Silver Spoon Food Arts presents the April 2004 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Alfred Portale for being at the forefront of the seismic movement that created a thoroughly American breed of restaurant. For 19 steadfast years as chef and operating partner, Portale has guided the ever-soaring triumphs at Gotham Bar and Grill in New York City's West Village, gathering oohs and ahs for his Erector set dishes delivered to the table with nary a well-balanced parsley leaf disturbed from its perch. But glue-gun food construction is only half of it, for, under Portale's guidance, Gotham threw out the frigidly formal bathwater that was casting a chill on fine ding for maturing boomers and saved the baby, a newborn, democratic, pro-guest restaurant that brought high-end feeding down to earth.
"Our approach to food and to the front of the house is neither rarified, nor intellectual, nor jump through the hoops with a bad boy chef," notes Portale. "We come at it with intelligence, efficiency, and honesty. And as we've grown, the food and experience have become finer and finer in order to keep pace with people's expectations. It's fine dining, yes. But it's not precious."
By the time Portale arrived at Gotham in 1985, the restaurant had run through four chefs and a food consultant in its first year. He came with an impeccable résumé: first in his class at The Culinary Institute of America, work with Michel Guérard and the Troisgros brothers (Pierre and Jean) in France, and a turn in Jacques Maximin's short-lived New York City restaurant. Gotham's open-ended, high-ceiling space appealed to Portale, who had initially ventured into the art world before getting hooked—"obsessed," as he says—on food. At Gotham, he mined the new way of cooking just beginning to take hold—"simple, pure flavors" borne of regional European and American influences—and then deliberately pumped it up to artful heights on the plate.
Practicality, as much as art, accounted for the plate arrangements that thrilled the eye and challenged (at first) the fork. "How could I do for 350 covers what I had seen in France, where 30 cooks did 100 dinners?" he reflects. "The design had as much to do with speed—cutting fish fillets into triangles to reduce cooking times, then stacking them—as it was to make sure there was no variance in how each plate looked. It's really a cookie-cutter approach to running the line."
Under Portale, Gotham has spawned a stream of household name chefs—Tom Colicchio, Diane Forley, Gale Gand, Rick Tramonto, Tom Valenti, David Walzog, Scott Bryan, and Bill Telepan. He's won two James Beard awards—including outstanding restaurant in 2002—and has written two cookbooks, with a third on the way. But Portale, a committed family man with two daughters, refuses to translate all that into a restaurant empire.
"I have a chef's dream—a big, beautiful, successful Manhattan restaurant," Portale says. "At the moment, life is good."