Alfred Portale's Advice for Vegetarian Diners: "Call the Restaurant in Advance"

Chef-Portale.jpg
Courtesy of the Fontainebleau
Considering he's the dude behind Miami's Gotham Steak and New York City's Gotham Bar and Grill, Chef Alfred Portale's expertise on all things vegetable might surprise more than a few people.

But expertise, he has. So much so that he recently released a vegetarian recipe journal, Greenmarket to Gotham, and he's hosting a vegetarian dinner at the upcoming South Beach Wine and Food Festival. So we spoke to Portale on his South Beach Wine & Food Festival plans, the evolution of herbivorous cuisine, and New York's famous Union Square Farmer's Market.

See also: Five Awesome SoBeWFF Events That Aren't Sold Out

Short Order: Tell me a little bit about your plans for the SoBeWFF vegetarian dinner. How did the concept come about?
Alfred Portale: Here in New York we're located near the Union Square Farmer's Market. Basically we've had a long relationship with the farmers and in season we buy a lot of our products, fruits and vegetables, directly from the farmers. We've developed a relationship with them over the years. About four years ago we decided to come up with a fun summer program to honor the farmers with which we'd worked with for so long. We came up with a summer lunch series called Greenmarket to Gotham. For nine weeks, each week we create a menu based around what the farm is producing. The time of the year is summer, so we decided to really let the vegetables be the star and made it all vegetarian. The response was so tremendous with the public and, I would say, internally with myself and my chefs in creating these weekly menus. It was a revelation in many ways -- we really still enjoy doing it. Last summer we came up with a cooking journal with some of the dishes we'd done over four years. Around that time we were asked to participate in this vegetarian dinner and the timing of it couldn't have been better. That's really how it came about.

The dinner is Saturday the 22nd and we expect it be a sit down dinner for 140. It begins with each chef preparing two canapes that will be passed during cocktail hour and each chef has come up with interesting menu. At Gotham for the vegetarian journal we did a press party and I took the recipes in the journal and scaled them. I used them to create canape-like dishes and they were fantastic. So we're doing a couple of those -- a sweet corn croquette with a chipotle aioli. We're doing these vegetable summer rolls with lemon grass and we may do these really cool soy sauce pearls on top. We have these absolutely beautiful black sesame seeds, we're going to do an artichoke tortellini. Alex [Guarnaschelli] and I are doing one of the mains and Matthew [Kenney] is doing the first two courses. I'm doing a tortellini with globe artichokes, a wild mushroom fricasse finished with black truffles -- and that's how its going to go.

What do you think hinders adoption of vegetarian experimentation by more chefs?
I think in this week's New York magazine, if I'm not mistaken, there's this whole thing about vegan/vegetarian. It's a very interesting article. I mean, it's a long time coming. Certainly the whole advent of artisanal farming and heirloom varieties and all the mphasis and care that's gone into raising our produce and vegetables certainly has heightened a lot of people's awareness. In professional restaurants you've slowly seen a shift based on a couple of factors. One being healthy choice and another being the rising cost of fish and meat. The cost is skyrocketing and it goes up tremendously and it's a real concern for a restaurant because we work at such a small margin. The size of protein is shrinking a little bit. Instead of a 14-ounce steak it's maybe 10. There's more emphasis on grains and vegetables. We've been doing this for a long time. People prefer to eat that way -- going all vegetarian I think is just a natural progression

What do you say to people who think vegetarian or vegan food can't be as good as food with animal products?
Well I'm sure there are people who would say that vegetarians or vegans from 20 years ago are very different from the vegans of today. People have gotten a lot more sophisticated in being able to build complete proteins with combining grains and legumes and things like that. Along with a healthy lifestyle and exercise, nutrients and juicing that contribute to a healthy diet ... I would argue that you can be totally vegetarian and still be healthy. In terms of coming up with dishes, when you think about it, you think about beef, you have various cuts of steak and most of them are grilled, roasted or braised or whatever. Honestly you're limited in a restaurant to which cut of beef you can use and how you can serve it. At home or on your own it's not that difficult. But in the context of a fine dining restaurant ultimately you need dishes to become more complex because you're trying to put variety on the plate. It's not just a chunk of fish, sauce and a couple of vegetables. There's really no limit to combinations of fruits and vegetables in savory dishes and grains and beans. When you're working with all vegetables and grains it can actually be more complex.

What advice do you give vegetarian diners who might visit a place like Gotham Steak or other meat-strong establishment?
I would say in general your best bet is to call the restaurant in advance while you're making reservations and ask them what they offer. What kind of vegetarian options are available? Very often you'll be surprised. Good restaurants are prepared for that question. They get it probably once a night here at the restaurant. Letting them know in advance when you make the reservation is wise, again that's some general advice. It's much better than just showing up and saying, "I'm a vegetarian." I think if you call the restaurant in advance and let them know there's one or two vegetarians and what do they do you'll get a sense of how well equipped they are to deal with it.

Follow Hannah on Twitter @hannahalexs.

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