His restaurant in New York City, Gotham Bar & Grill, has held one Michelin star since 2005, and it’s also the city’s only restaurant to earn a record five three-star reviews from The New York Times. What else is left on Alfred Portale’s plate?
“I introduced sous-vide cooking to Singapore Airlines, something we do a lot at Gotham, because it’s a super way to be perfectly consistent,” says Portale, who has been part of Singapore Airlines’ International Culinary Panel (ICP) for 12 years. “There are a lot of talented chefs in the programme and I hope I’ve made some important contributions through innovations such as this one.”
So popular have Portale’s dishes proven on board, especially the braised short rib in a rich beef broth, that guests – both Americans and tourists – visit Gotham asking for exactly what they’ve been served inflight.
“We’ve been successful because we have both excellent service and really fine food in a relaxed atmosphere – something also portrayed in Singapore Airlines’ professional yet warm and friendly hospitality,” says Portale, whose restaurant is considered one of NYC’s foremost dining institutions. “I really want the guests on board to have a Gotham experience.”
Portale translates his insistence on premium ingredients on to his Singapore Airlines menu by developing dishes that are evergreen, so they would always burst with fresh and bright flavours, no matter which city or time zone they are prepared in. And cabin crew, who “do a fantastic job on presentation” convey the chef’s reputation for beautiful plating, although he tweaks a few steps to facilitate the logistics of inflight service.
For Portale, it’s important that every dish he creates on the ICP reflects both Gotham’s relaxed elegance and contemporary American spirit, so it can be travellers’ ‘Welcome to New York’ moment.
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“We’re a metropolis with so many different cultures and my menu is simply food that I love from one of the greatest food cities in the US,” says Portale, who takes seasoning such as spices, and acidity up a notch to compensate for altitude and air dryness affecting passengers’ palates. In spite of the challenges posed by creating delectable cuisine for savouring 35,000 feet in the air, it’s the chef’s passion for his work that makes the creative process joyful.
“Having to sit down and design dishes is a challenge but it’s something that I certainly enjoy doing,” says Portale on how his passion for developing new dishes has made him successful.
“People have greater expectations because food has become so critical to the experience of flying,” says Portale. “There was a time when airline food was not thought of in a good light, but Singapore Airlines has certainly changed that.”
With the constant evolution of its dining scene, the attitude of diners has changed over the last few years. Big, Gotham-style restaurants with 160 seats have been replaced by smaller venues, and casual dining options are favoured.
“The idea of having an appetiser, and then an entrée, and maybe dessert – that’s not the way people are dining in New York anymore,” says Portale on the current trends in New York. “Fine dining exists, but the younger generation are looking for more approachable, affordable options.”
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When he puts aside his toque for an intercontinental sojourn on Singapore Airlines, it’s the wine selection he looks forward to most.
“I have to pay attention on that 22-hour flight from New York to Singapore because it’s not hard to over-indulge,” says Portale. “I’m pretty classic, so I like beginning with champagne. And then something dry and crisp for a white before moving on to a nice red.”
PHOTOGRAPHY: TAN WEI TE, ART DIRECTION: NG SAY LEE, GROOMING: ADELENE SIOW, HAIR: ANNIE TAY
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.
Portale stepped down from Gotham Bar & Grill in July 2019 after a 34-year tenure. He plans to open his eponymous modern Italian restaurant in the fall of 2019.