For Alfred Portale, the Manhattan chef who gained fame in the 1980s with towering culinary creations that resembled architecture more than cuisine, the hardest thing in the world is cooking simply. Consider an appetizer he whipped up for Gotham Bar and Grill's 20th-anniversary party this year: hamachi tartare with yuzo-orange vinaigrette and jalapeno pepper topped by a wasabi microgreen. Not the guy you'd expect to write a cookbook featuring recipes for popsicles and pizza.
"Simple Pleasures" arrives in bookstores next month, bringing with it Portale's hopes that it will re-energize his career. While Emeril and Wolfgang Puck were turning themselves into brands with TV shows and eponymous restaurants, Portale, 50, stayed committed to Gotham and raising two daughters. But his elaborate cooking style drew increasingly less attention as Food Network-watching Americans came to favor simple fare they could re- create at home. Thus the inspiration for "Simple Pleasures," which joins a growing list of cookbooks by famous chefs who are replacing the haute with the homey. As simple as creating simple recipes might seem, for a perfectionist like Portale the effort was herculean.
Hunched over a small white stove in Gotham's kitchen in late 2002, Portale dips his fingers into a pot of pappardelle with braised lamb shank and pinches a bit to taste. Something's missing. Instinctively, he reaches for a bottle of truffle oil, but restrains himself, remembering that most home cooks don't keep that delicacy in their cupboards. Committing his ideas to paper requires equal restraint. "I don't know if it tastes 'darkly of the Tuscan countryside'," he says to coauthor Andrew Friedman, chiding him for his description of a mushroom minestrone. Photographing the food is just as challenging: "It won't fit in this f---ing dish!" Portale grouses after trying unsuccessfully to figure out how to best show off a dish of baby turnips with apricots. Stoked on 10 espressos, Portale rummages through his apartment and comes across a square bowl, then carefully spoons in the apricots, arranges the sliced turnips and sprinkles on a few chopped pistachios. "That's it! That's the shot!" he declares, handing the bowl off to photographer Gozen Koshida, who had flown in from Japan that morning.
After receiving Portale and Friedman's 400-page manuscript and trying out some of the recipes herself, William Morrow editor Harriet Bell breathes a sigh of relief. "I've had cookbooks I've taken home and the recipes just don't work," she says. The reviews for her preliminary book-jacket design--featuring a shot of a carefree Portale in a golf shirt, washing leeks--aren't nearly as positive. "His arm hair is in focus. Can we redesign it with long sleeves? I think hairy arms and food is just weird," publisher Michael Morrison tells Bell. She reassures her boss, but privately she knows it took six hours for the photographer to capture the intense chef smiling.
When a messenger delivers the printed book to Portale, the chef is so nervous that he can't open the package for an hour and a half. But when he finally does, he breaks into an ear-to-ear grin--just like the one gracing the new picture on the cover (in which he wears long sleeves). Inside, the photographs are mouthwatering. The recipe for pasta with braised lamb shank and fontina is as easy to follow as the one for kiwi-tangerine popsicles. Most importantly, the book distills Portale's greatest passion: creating and sharing good food. It's a simple idea, but it took a lifetime of cooking to fully express it.