Chef Portale likes to keep it simple
In the early 1980s, traditional French cooking – heavy sauces, complex techniques, a good dash of Gallic snobbishness – was still the rage. Alfred Portale was happy to be a part of it. A native of upstate New York, Portale had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and gone to France to work in a series of three-star establishments. Nearly 30 years later, there is still pride in his voice when he speaks about the cooking universe he entered.”The French style – labor-intensive, technique-driven – that appealed to me, like it does to any young chef,” he said.Yet Portale also felt something was odd about some of the practices. Call it a disconnect between what was going on in the kitchen, and what was happening outside the restaurant walls. “We were making pea puree, pea soup, using frozen peas in January,” he recalled. “The idea of having strawberries, blackberries, blueberries year ’round, from Chile, was standard practice. And I recognized it as flawed.”The exact dimensions of those flaws, and the ramifications, were not sharply defined for Portale. At the time, there was no national dialogue about seasonal ingredients; the idea of the 100-mile diet was a pre-industrial relic from the time when people had no option but to eat locally produced foods. But there was a whisper coming from northern California, where Alice Waters’ Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, was coming into prominence. Portale, living in San Francisco in the early ’80s, had a roommate who worked at Chez Panisse, and got to hear about the odd and inspired ideas behind Waters’ operation, like writing a menu just a week in advance.”Cooking within season – that was a crazy idea,” Portale said. But combining Chez Panisse’s emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients with the French techniques he had learned, Portale says, “I had the best of both worlds.”Portale – who is among the chefs appearing this weekend in the inaugural Snowmass Culinary & Arts Festival – brought both those approaches back to New York with him when, in 1985, he took over as chef of the year-old Gotham Bar & Grill. Twenty-five years later Portale is still at Gotham, and the restaurant is as highly regarded as ever; in 2006, Portale won the James Beard Foundation award for outstanding chef. But he says it was not the use of seasonal ingredients that first established Gotham’s reputation; rather it was a different innovation.”One usually associated fine dining with a stuffy, formal atmosphere,” Portale said. “But we were pro-guest. It was high-end, beautifully presented, but in a relaxed atmosphere.”Seasonality, he said, was a logical extension of that approach. But for Portale, it was also a matter of geographic coincidence. Gotham Bar & Grill happened to be located a few blocks from the Union Square Greenmarket, a year ’round, four-day-a-week happening that is New York City’s biggest farmers market.”You can’t help being influenced by that,” Portale said. “And it continues to be very important. We have relationships with a lot of the farmers, been to their farms. It’s a constant reminder to stay true and simple, all that stuff that’s trendy nowadays.”As much as he appreciates simplicity, Portale can’t escape entirely from his background in French cooking. Some years ago, Chez Panisse caused a stir in the food world when it served a peach dessert that was nothing more than a white peach on a plate.”They argued that it was a perfect peach, ripe and in season,” Portale said. “I thought it was idealistic – great in concept, not so much in practice.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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