Alfred Portale, 52, has been the executive chef at New York's Gotham Bar and Grill since 1985. A native of Buffalo, N.Y., and a graduate (at the top of his class) of the Culinary Institute of America, Portale had a career in jewelry design before turning his artistic vision toward the kitchen. He is the author of three cookbooks and, after maintaining a presence at a single location for 23 years, is branching out for the first time with two outposts of Gotham Bar and Grill. The first, situated in the Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel, will feature a 10,000-bottle wine tower, and is slated for a fall 2008 opening. The second, in Fontainebleau Las Vegas, will open in fall 2009. Portale recently talked to Wine Spectator about making ravioli in France, matching white wine and cheese, and the importance of informed pairings.
Wine Spectator: How did you become interested in wine?
Alfred Portale: I came to Gotham 20 years ago. It was my first chef position, and I really came into it alone. The first person I hired was [general manager] Scott Carney, who had a strong interest in wine and a degree in international finance. While he was here, he studied for and passed the master sommelier exam, and at the time he was one of 30 in the United States. And being an up-and-coming intellectual sommelier type, his tastes ran to German and Austrian wines, French reds and white Burgundies. At the time—and this is both a curse and a blessing—I felt that I needed to focus 100 percent of my study and passion on food, but Scott got me started and I really developed a love for German and Austrian whites, and red and white Burgundy. My taste hasn't really changed so much since then, and those wines are very dear to my heart.
WS: How would you describe your collection?
AP: Well, Gotham is one big collection [laughing], but I do have a modest personal collection. Everyone should have a little stash. I have wine professionally stored in New York, and I also have 100-case storage in my home on Long Island. It's primarily white and red Burgundy, but I also have a strong interest in Italian reds, which tend to make up the bulk of my collection. Certainly I have some of the better American producers—California, really.
WS: What do you find appealing about Italian reds?
AP: Italian reds just tend to be an easy match for the food. They're versatile, not so food-dependent, like Bordeaux, for instance. At Gotham, there's a strong Italian red representation on the menu, along with California.
The menu has always had a strong Italian influence. After I graduated from the Culinary Institute [of America], I spent a year in France, working in two- and three-star Michelin restaurants. One was with Michel Guérard [at Les Prés d'Eugénie]. One of my jobs was to make black truffle ravioli. It started with a whole piece of truffle that was whittled down and we made a duxelle with the truffle scraps. We made the sauce with truffle juice and butter. I thought, "I grew up in an Italian-American household, and if Guérard can serve ravioli, then so can I!" [Laughing.] From the very beginning I had ravioli, risotto, pasta—so it's logical to have a big Italian list.
WS: How involved are you with the wine program at Gotham—do you recommend certain producers, for instance?
AP: I don't make specific selections, but I ask for a number of selections from a certain area, a number of selections by the glass … the mechanics of the list, how it's printed, how the book is bound, all that stuff I'm very interested in. We've had various wine education programs over the years that I've been actively involved in. If a guest is interested in wine pairing, I come up and we talk briefly about where to go with it, so I'm involved on a nightly basis with individual menu pairings.
WS: Do you have a set of rules for pairing food and wine?
AP: I don't think my approach differs from the generally accepted thinking—looking for acidity to balance out a dish, for example. … It really relies on whether you're familiar with a wine or not. I'm certainly familiar with the food here, and if we're using wine by the glass or half-bottle, or Champagne, these are wines I am very familiar with. But when you're talking about different Burgundy producers or vintages, it becomes a little more specific and out of my realm. Without having tasted the wine, how accurate can you be in your pairing? People do it all the time, but the reality is, what works in theory doesn't always work in practice. I was recently in a restaurant in New York, a spectacular three-star restaurant, and I asked specifically for some cheese and white wine. The cheeses were precisely what I wanted, but the wine had some age on it, some oxidation—it was a Vouvray—and it was such a poor match that, in theory, should have been perfect. That particular wine needed to have been tasted with those cheeses.
WS: Is there a particularly memorable food-and-wine pairing that you've made or experienced in your career as a chef?
AP: Well, I do remember the moment in time when I began to appreciate white wine with cheese. It was many years ago, and I was always of the mind that you drink red wine with cheese, but in fact that's not always the case. I don't recall the exact wine, but it was white Burgundy, a Chassagne or Puligny-Montrachet, with hard, nutty cows' cheeses. It was just a spectacular match.
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