Alfred Portale became Gotham Bar and Grill’s chef in May of 1985. The restaurant had been open for a year: despite a strong opening, business was seriously flagging and the food didn’t taste so good. Portale basically cooked his pants off for six months, at which point the restaurant was re-reviewed and awarded three stars from the Times. It was also around that time that the chef started attracting young, talented cooks with names like Colicchio, Telepan, and Valenti to work in his kitchen. Later, Wylie Dufresne and Chris Lee spent time on Portale’s line, and the talent roster continues to grow.
This month is Gotham Bar and Grill’s 25th anniversary, and the restaurant has now selected different dishes for special retro/commemorative menus. Throughout March, $25 fixed price three-course lunches and a $75 fixed price five-course dinners highlighting the restaurant’s past are being featured alongside its regular contemporary American menu. We spoke with Alfred Portale last week about 25 years of Gotham, Tom Colicchio and the art of motorcycle maintenance, and the chef’s undying love for ice cream bars.
Is it true that Jonathan Waxman hooked you up with your Gotham Bar and Grill job? He did in fact tell me about the position, that's true. I came in and interviewed and was hired as chef. It was a year, almost to the day, of the opening.
And the story is that a food writer devised the opening menu. My partners, Jerry Jerome Kretchmer and Robert Rathe wanted to open this place. The Rathe brothers had their own business; Jerry was into politics and he had the idea to open up a restaurant. They didn't know much about it but they had all the necessary skills to find the space, open it, get through the permiting and that stuff. And they did. They hired a consultant, Barbara Kafka, but they went through three chefs in the first year. There was a lot of buzz about the restaurant and it was one of the few really big soaring spaces designed for fun, casual dining. But the food and servers weren't very good so they fell on their face.
Is that around when New York Times first reviewed the restaurant? It was reviewed in the first year so, yes. And I've never seen the review but I know it was a satisfactory, zero stars. And six or seven months after I came on board we got the three star re-review.
And you've mentored a lot of chefs here. Well, we've been around a long time. The fact is that back then, if you were a young chef coming out of culinary school you had very few choices. I had a great reputation and I was one of the few chefs who had worked with Michel Guérard, Jacques Maximin, and Michel Troisgros. I was hot and on the scene and doing some new food so I attracted a lot of talent. I was very fortunate—continue to be very fortunate. Our staff is our most important asset. I mean, basically I worked in French kitchens where everyone screamed at each other and there was lots of anxiety so I wanted to create a calm, nurturing environment.