Alfred Portale is in the midst of building a dining room table when he answers our call to discuss the watershed moments in his cooking career. The celebrated chef—who has been at the helm of Gotham Bar and Grill, set on a picturesque street in New York’s Greenwich Village, since 1985— loves to build things, and when he’s not at the restaurant, chances are he’s in the wood shop of his Connecticut home. “I’ve been making furniture for a while—a bookcase, a coffee table,” he says. “Last year, I renovated a house, and a new home needs new furniture. Instead of buying it, I want to make it.”
Portale has long been passionate about the arts, beginning with the painting classes he took in fifth grade while growing up in Buffalo, NY. “I was always drawing, painting, and sculpting, and then I became interested in jewelry-making and apprenticed with a family friend,” he remembers. “I’m thinking of making it again, but with jewelry you’re basically working under a microscope.”
Despite his mother’s affinity for cooking, Portale never considered shifting his artistic inclinations to the kitchen until his early 20s, when his “jewelry career fizzled” and he went to school at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, he set out to broaden his worldview and hone his technique by working in France with culinary greats Jacques Maximin and the Troisgros Brothers.
Back in the U.S., Portale landed at Gotham, which would soon become a coveted incubator for chefs including Tom Colicchio, Wylie Dufresne, and Tom Valenti. Long before New American joints in Brooklyn were braising fresh rhubarb and singing the praises of Pattypan squash, Portale wandered through the Union Square Greenmarket, making fast friends with dedicated, hard-working farmers.
To celebrate his long-time reverence for fresh produce, he recently debuted an all-vegetarian recipe journal, Greenmarket to Gotham—with proceeds benefiting the educational intiatives of GrowNYC—featuring the menus from his beloved, seasonal prix-fixe meals of the same name. Thirty-six vibrant dishes, such as chilled tomato soup with tri-star strawberries, heirloom tomatoes, cucumber, lemon verbena, and red onion get the spotlight in this elegant little volume, interspersed with wine pairings from the restaurant’s sommelier, Eric Zillier.
“For the last three years—this is now our fourth —over the 12 weeks of summer we created 12 different vegetarian menus based on what the farms were producing at that time. It challenges us, but customers and chefs are pleased and the farmers benefit as well,” Portale explains. “I’m like everyone else. I can’t wait for corn, and I love when the heirloom tomatoes start coming in. Beginning in spring, with the first morels, ramps, and asparagus, all the way until September, it’s just a great season for the markets.”
Here, this New York pioneer of modern American cooking talks about the 10 shaped that made his career, from mom’s homemade ravioli to Gotham’s famed (and recently tweaked) seafood salad.