NEW YORK (Reuters) - In his fourth book, “Greenmarket to Gotham,” Alfred Portale pays homage to local farmers who he believes helped drive the long-running success of his Manhattan restaurant, Gotham Bar & Grill.
In what he dubbed a “recipe journal,” the award-winning chef who is considered a pioneer of new American cuisine chose dishes from Gotham’s summer greenmarket menu of the past three years.
Buffalo-born Portale spoke to Reuters about relationships with local farmers and tips on becoming a great chef:
Q: Where did the idea of this “recipe journal” come from?
A: Several years ago, we had a long and close relationship with many of the farms in the Union Square market two blocks away. The restaurant got involved with the initiative Grow NYC. They support community gardens; it’s a nice organization. We decided to ally with the farmers in Union Square by offering a program which we called Greenmarket to Gotham. Essentially we chose 12 farms and we created 12 vegetarian menus highlighting produce, fruits and et cetera that are specific to that grower.
It was such an enormous success, we are in our fourth season now. There’s been so much traction since we began. People were asking for recipes, so we decided to chronicle the last couple of years in this dining journal we are calling it and picked the highlights of the last several years.
Q: In what ways has this program changed you as a chef and how you create dishes for Gotham?
A: It had a profound effect on the way we build our dishes - not so much the appetizers, because they are generally a soup or some sort of salad so that’s not such a reach. But to build an all-vegetarian entrée, there are all the perils to build an entrée to begin with anyway. That’s why a lot of chefs are moving toward small plates; it’s much easier to use one or two ingredients as the star ... We began utilizing skills and techniques in our proteins and applying them to some of our vegetarian dishes. Like you confit the vegetables, sous-vide, slow cooking, roasting, grilling. So we use a lot of our existing techniques and apply them to vegetables and grains for that matter. It’s an interesting process, it’s really forced us to think creatively in a different way.
Q: What do you want readers to take away from this book?
A: It works on so many levels. Highlighting the farm is always a good thing. They don’t often get the attention they deserve. Also it draws attention to the restaurant for doing something modern and different. That’s always a good thing when you are a 28-year-old restaurant.
Q: How have things in New York’s dining scene changed since you started out as a chef?
A: Things are always changing. It was very different 25 years ago. Within the last several years, you have seen the rise of social media and all the reality cooking shows. They have fueled a much greater appreciation for good food and ingredients. I think it’s a real positive thing. It elevates your customer base, therefore it raises the bar for our chefs.
As a restaurant that’s been around for awhile, we need of course to do more to adapt. We need to do more modern ways of doing promotions. We spend a lot of time on our website, on our Facebook page. We have a whole social media program.
Q: How do you divide time between the kitchen and promoting your restaurants?
A: I have always worn several different hats here. I‘m still very, very active in the kitchen and the creation of the dishes and menus. I‘m in the kitchen during service most nights. I have a restaurant in Miami and I‘m there every month... And I have always been active in the promoting of the restaurant. It’s part of any chef’s or restaurateur’s job.
Q: What is your advice for aspiring chefs?
A: The path chefs of my generation took is very different than today’s chefs. For us, it was a long internship and externship of many hours toiling away working in the best kitchens. It was a long process. I think getting a great culinary education today is every bit as valuable as when I was starting out. You go two years to a culinary institute, you are committed to the profession. You certainly learn whether it’s something you enjoy ... Also, experience as much food and travel as you can. That’s what I did. I spent a whole year traveling around France, eating at different restaurants and going to different markets. The more experience you have, the better.
Blueberries with Sweet Corn Cake and Yogurt
For Sweet Corn Cake
1 cup butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
4 egg yolks
1/2 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/4 cups corn meal
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp fleur de sel
2 cups cleaned sweet corn kernels, puréed
In a mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream butter and sugar and slowly add the eggs and yolks. Alternate the milk and combined dry ingredients into the mix. Add corn purée. Place on a full-size sheet pan and spread out to approximately 1/2-inch thick. Bake at 350 degree Fahrenheit for 10 to 15 minutes.
For Glazed Blueberries
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
2 pints blueberries
2 tbsp lemon juice
In a medium saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a rapid boil. When the boiling sugar thickens, fold in the blueberries and stir. Deglaze with the lemon juice and pour onto a small sheet pan or plate to cool.
For Vanilla Yogurt
1 vanilla bean
Two 6-oz plain yogurts
With a paring knife, split vanilla pod in half lengthwise and remove the seeds by scraping with the back of the knife. In a small mixing bowl, whisk the yogurt with the vanilla.
Place two tablespoons of yogurt on the plate and spoon drag. Cut a circular piece of corn cake and place it over the yogurt. Spoon blueberries over the cake. Garnish with fresh cilantro.
Editing by Chris Michaud and Cynthia Osterman