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Alfred Portale on Self-Publishing a Cookbook and Why He's Against Specials

GtoG_Cookbook_Cover.jpgFamed chef Alfred Portale recently released his fourth cookbook, The Gotham Bar and Grill Greenmarket to Gotham Recipe Journal. Not only does Greenmarket to Gotham feature 36 original vegetarian recipes to take you through the summer season, a portion of the proceeds benefit GrowNYC's educational initiatives. We chatted with Portale about why he chose to self-publish, which '80s-era dishes he's embarrassed of, and how annoying restaurant specials can be.

Even respected writers like David Mamet are self-publishing these days. Why did you decide to go in that direction?

The genesis for the book was to celebrate our relationship with the farmers and the Greenmarket to Gotham program, where we've been involved in buying produce for over 25 years. We wanted something to happen very quickly, have the book out at the start of the season. With the conventional route it usually takes a year. We're changing the menu each week and we wanted to capture the moment.

If it sells well, the idea is you'll make a higher percentage of profits than if you'd gone through a conventional publisher.

I hadn't thought of it that way initially, but yes.

Your previous cookbooks weren't vegetarian. Why this one?

We decided to pick a farm from the Greenmarket for each week of the summer: twelve farms, twelve weeks, twelve menus, so vegetables needed to be the center of attention. It really forced us to think outside the box.

Did you use a ghostwriter when creating Greenmarket to Gotham?

I did not write [the prose], but I wrote all the recipes. Bret Csencsitz, Gotham's general manager and operating partner, wrote a little bit of it and his wife Cassandra wrote the majority of it. I must say she is a gifted writer. She wrote the head notes about the recipes, interviewed me and the farmers.

When you're developing recipes for the restaurant, do you ever have failures?

That doesn't happen. There are certainly some miscues in the development of a dish, but everything I do is meticulously thought through and planned. There's a lot of tasting of the components and once we get it to where we want it, only then does it go on the menu. We've never run so-called 'specials.'

When I first moved to New York, I was really naïve and thought when I ordered a 'special' at a restaurant that meant it would be cheaper. I learned the hard way it could be twice as much as something on the menu.

I never really understood specials. I always used to think: Isn't everything on the menu special? Restaurants don't always tell the prices when they're listing specials verbally; they don't want to print fifty-two dollars on the menu. At Gotham we have what we call 'page three,' listing dishes that go on the menu on a weekly basis, and that's the only page we print every night because I don't like to waste paper. There are some funny Italian restaurants where they tell you about twenty specials, like Rao's. Rao's is the real deal. Carbone has that whole shtick, too. It's a really cool space and they're great chefs, but it seems slightly contrived, the waiters out of central casting. It's a minor criticism. I still think it's a great restaurant.

Are there any chefs you mentored [including Wylie Dufresne, Tom Colicchio, Diane Forley, David Walzog, Scott Bryan and Bill Telepan] who have surprised you with their success?

There have been a lot of successful chefs who have come through here and I'm reluctant to take credit for their success. Working here you can garner a lot of practical, organizational-type knowledge, plus we use a lot of great techniques like other chefs do. If you had worked at Charlie Trotter's you might have forty cooks working on twenty plates, which doesn't necessarily translate well to other restaurants, it's so rarefied.

Where have you enjoyed eating recently?

One place I've been recommending is Pearl & Ash. They have a phenomenal wine program developed by Patrick Cappiello, who used to be at Veritas and has relationships with collectors. He has lots of different wines with age on consignment and just marks them up a little bit. The food is very interesting.

Do you compost at Gotham Bar and Grill? It seems like the mayor is planning to mandate it.

No. I wish we could but I don't see how. The amount of compostable stuff we create in a day would blow your mind, but we don't have a way of hauling it away. You kind of have to pick your battles. We do recycle our cooking oil.

In Gotham Bar & Grill's early years it was famous for vertical, architectural food. Is any of that in the cookbook?

No. Plating is very typical, not like the olden days when we did tall.

Do you ever get embarrassed by looking back at the things you did in the '80s?

I have never felt embarrassed about the skyscrapers we used to do. Well, yeah, maybe a dish here and there. Today things are much more sophisticated.

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