Welcome to Kitchen Time Machine, an interview series in which author and Toqueland blogger Andrew Friedman sits down with some of New York's most iconic chefs and restaurateurs. Right now: Part Two of Andrew's interview with Tom Valenti.
Again, this interview is running during Classics Week on Eater. You've been associated with a number of landmark places, most prominently Gotham Bar and Grill. How did that come about for you?
Alfred Portale and I met at Charles De Gaulle Airport. I had done my tour of duty [staging in France]. He had done his tour of duty ... Daniel Johnnes, who went on to become a wine god, had done a stage in the kitchen at Guy Savoy when I had first arrived [there], and he introduced us, I don't know why. I think he may have been at the airport at that point welcoming someone off a flight. And then Alfred sat in in front of me on the plane and we talked, and that was that.
I went back to Westchester... [and then] I was working as pastry chef at Le Perigord Park. They didn't pay me what they said they were going to pay me, so I asked the chef de cuisine, if he knew of any place I could pick up some shifts. He sent me to Patrice Boely and Daniel Boulud at The Westbury, and that's where I saw Alfred. Then Alfred and I ran into each other at Bridge Kitchenware, and then Alfred said he was taking a job as a chef position [at Gotham] at the same time I was taking a chef position at a restaurant called Roxanne's on 8th Avenue and 18th Street. And that job did not work out for me, and he was just about to start at Gotham, and that's when he recruited me for the sous chef's position.
What were the early days under Alfred like at Gotham?
It was very slow. We would perfectly roast a duck breast, perfectly render the fat, perfectly let it rest, slice it and fan it out perfectly, all the while doing fourteen covers. So I'm thinking to myself, "Okay, well, this guy..." as I began to understand what Alfred was about, obviously I could tell that he was miles ahead of me in terms of aesthetic. Our cooking abilities were comparable. Comparable. But he obviously had an application and an aesthetic that was so defined then that I thought to myself, "If this place ever gets busy, we're fucked." And sure enough, it went from doing fourteen to forty to four hundred. And we managed.
The food program was exclusively his. I stuck my toe in here or there, but for the most part I was his lieutenant. But my approach to the kitchen staff I think was somewhat different than Alfred's.
Just a little, "Okay, guys!" You know, "What's up, brother? How are you doing, man? Come on, let's kick some butt tonight."
And he was more like?
[affects serious tone] "All right, gentlemen." He's Felix and I'm Oscar.
Was there a moment there when something was introduced on the menu, a dish or a new ingredient, that really stood out for you, that made you realize what kind of game he was after?
I think what Alfred was able to do and what Alfred continues to be able to do is to somehow meld component-driven dishes
It wasn't so much the cooking technique or the ingredients; it was the application on the plate. You know, we braised endive in Paris and we gratineed it. Alfred braised endive at the Gotham, sliced it lengthwise, and turned it into a fan. That was the difference. I think what Alfred was able to do and what Alfred continues to be able to do is to somehow meld component-driven dishes. He melds them with such finesse that they come together so beautifully. And bear in mind, we were pumping three hundred dinners, three hundred fifty dinners out of that place every night.
That restaurant obviously became famous for tall food but my understanding is that his whole reason for employing that presentation was to ensure consistency across all those covers you're talking about.
So that line cooks, not as experienced generally as line cooks in American today, would only have one way to assemble a plate; there was no room for personal interpretation.
Correct ... it was an illustration on the plate. The endive went at 2:00 p.m., the salmon went at 6:00, and the other thing went at 10:00. The volume drove a decision. Because I said it earlier: We went from fourteen to forty to four hundred. We had to come up with something to make it consistent.
Eventually you found your way to Alison Price Becker and Alison on Dominick Street, where you first became known for your signature style, especially braising. You almost had a trademark on terms like "lusty," "soulful," stuff like that. How did that restaurant come about?
Alison was the assistant manager at Gotham under Laurie Tomasino. She and I worked there together. And both Laurie and Alfred took Sundays off so it was me and Alison doing what we called the Sunday Night Supper Club where, you know, I would kind of pull some stuff out of my hat ...
You would run specials that were yours?
Yeah, with a little more of my own thing. And we just clicked. And then she left and went with Thomas [Keller] to Rakel and I did a little spin around including Chelsea Central [the space that is now The Red Cat]. She was looking for a chef partner because she was looking at a property on Bank Street which didn't work out. That's how we ended up on Dominick Street.
What was the conception of that restaurant?
Jewel box; romantic; long, tapered candles on the table. You know, not cheap. I think it was kind of pricey for its day. You know, it was fifty seats soaking wet. And Dominick Street, I mean, you could still shoot a Howitzer off down Dominick Street at night and not hit anybody today. So it had to be a draw. It had to be a destination.
How did you hit on your style?
I think that what happened was is that I kind of held my cards, just because going from France back to New York City, through the kitchen in Gotham, and then I had a couple of chef de cuisine positions after Gotham. I knew that Alfred's and my style differed vastly in presentation. Because of the size of the Gotham, it was really component-driven dishes. My thing maybe had a little bit more influence from the foods of my childhood, which was the braising, the cheap cuts ... we could only afford cheap cuts, so I wanted to have the finery and the finesse of Gotham's style but I wanted it to be more grounded in a more of a peasanty type of...
That was a very deliberate thought process for you?
Absolutely. It was the tripe. It was the shanks.
Did you have to sell people on what you wanted to do?
What was the initial reaction? Do you recall a moment?
Alison saw lamb shank on the menu and she was like, "Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? Tommy, can we do steak frites instead?" I said, "Trust me."
Alison saw lamb shank on the menu and she was like, "Oh, my God. Are you kidding me? Tommy, can we do steak frites instead?" I said, "Trust me." You know, part of that consideration at that time was I could make it in advance. It was me and two other guys in the kitchen. I could reheat it. I could have success. It was a price point issue, too. It was cheap.
That restaurant took off at a time when a lot of American cooks were getting more and more elaborate in their presentations.
More adjectives. More ingredients that had to be explained by your waiter. And you throw this sort-of counter-programing into the mix. Do you remember a moment when you knew that that was going to work?
No. I mean, I guess when people started writing about it when, you know, it was like, "Lamb shanks? What the fuck are lamb shanks?" I guess the defining moment was after a couple of years, they became so popular that, being a young chef, I didn't want them to order lamb shanks. I wanted them to try all of my other brilliant offerings. Took the fucking things off the menu. People went crazy. They went crazy. People calling, "We're never coming back if you don't put those goddamn things on the menu." So it was kind of at that moment I was all pissed off because they wouldn't try other things, when I should have said to myself, "Shut up, idiot. You've got a hit on your hands."
When you think back to being a young chef, did you have a feeling of, "I kind to need to stake my claim and say this is what I do."
It wasn't so much staking a claim as what poured out of me.
It was as much for you as it was for the practicality of what we would now call "branding"?
Yeah. Absolutely. It fit what I felt comfortable cooking and what I felt comfortable eating. You know, if it fell strictly to the latter, it would have been really dumbed down. So it was like that haute cuisine with the grandma gene...
That lamb shank was a big deal, but weren't you also instrumental in popularizing the short rib?
I think that Alison on Dominick Street got formidable press and exposure from it because it started with a lamb shank and then a year later it rolled out to the — I actually did a short rib coupled with a petite filet mignon. It was kind of a beef duo. Yeah, I kind of think it did. Not to suggest that Andre Soltner or Jean Jacques Rachou didn't do it previously, I'm not saying that. I just think that it kind of followed the lamb shank. Almost like the short rib carriage got hooked on the shank pony; do you know what I mean? The press was, like, "shank, shank, shank," and then they were, like, "short rib, short rib, short rib."
I wasn't really aware of that. I always think of the shank.
The shank was a big deal, yes, and it always overshadowed the short rib. But at the same time there was a lot of interest in that. That's when it kind of really started rolling out in terms of finding those secondary cuts. You know, Mario [Batali] would call me and say, "What's up, Shanks?" And I'm, like, "What are you doing, Cheeks?" Because he was the one who started doing the beef cheeks.