February 2005

Tom Bernard


Nothing Simple About It

Attempting a critique of Alfred Portale’s Simple Pleasures is, by definition, an exercise in futility. What can be meaningfully said about a book written by a chef (with the assistance of writer Andrew Friedman) who the James Beard people count as one of the nation’s best? More to the point, it’s a book inspired by the dishes at Portale’s Gotham Bistro, which the Beard people named hands down the best restaurant in these United States. I’m supposed to argue with the James Beard people? I’m going to spit in the consommé from the best restaurant in the country? Intending no disrespect to Jessa, to Bookslut’s readers, or to my own considerable talents, but I don’t imagine Portale’s reputation or self-esteem are going to rise or fall that much on the basis of what I accomplish of the next eight hundred or so words.

Never let it be said I don’t welcome a challenge. Hell, I’m a contrarian. I’m never happier than when I can point out that the empereor has no clothes. It gives me something to complain about. It’s a daunting reponsibility, to be sure, but one that I undertake with grace, fortitude, and a healthy appetite.

I’ll start by getting linguistically pissy. I don’t like the word "simple." I don’t trust it. It has too many connotations uncomplicated, unadorned, inelegant, insignificant most of which have more to do with an absence or lack of something than with its presence. It’s a word the value of which is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Simple is one of those words people use when they’re being disingenuous, or ironic. Simplicity is seen as the get out of jail free card for a world that we feel is moving too fast, or demanding too much of us. To call something simple is to imply a diminution of quality, or effort. None of these notions apply to the recipes in Simple Pleasures.

It’s true that the recipes are uncomplicated. The offerings in the book seem well within the capability of the home cook willing to make the effort and play at the top of their game. However, while straightforward, these recipes are in no way lacking in nuance.

Consider the recipe for Rigatoni with Cracked Black Pepper, Basil and Fresh Ricotta. My linguistic reservations about simplicity aside, I’ll go so far as to admit that these ingredients are relatively basic. They’re things you’re likely to have on hand on an occasion when you need to balance the equation “What’s for dinner?”/”There’s no food in the house.” This is an ideal empty pantry meal. Pasta, ricotta, basil, pepper, a little cream, a little grated cheese, a splodge of olive oil and some garlic. What could be easier? What could be simpler?

This, again, is the problem with the whole concept of simplicity. This is one of those recipes that points to how transcendent simple food can be. Given the resources at my disposal ingredients from my local supermarket, including store brand cheeses, and olive oil about as far from virgin as it’s possible to be and still be made from olives the recipe was absolutely fantastic. This merely begs the question of how far above the merely simple best quality ingredients would have rendered this deceptively unmannered preparation.

Moreover, it’s hard to reconcile notions of simplicity and innovation. As Portale (or possibly Freidman) writes in the introduction to Simple Pleasures, “[S]erve dinner party guests a grilled steak with creamed spinach on the side and they can’t help but be underwhelmed. Worse, they will no doubt compare those components to other versions they’ve tasted over the years. But if you present a different take on them, perhaps serving Filet Mignon with Madeira Sauce (page 178) and pairing it with Creamed Spinach Custards with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Parmesan Cheese (page 197), then you’ll be offering something original, though reassuringly familiar, that can be enjoyed on its own terms.” It’s the same dish, but a combination of quality ingredients and creativity elevates the simple into something uncommon. It’s the difference between Julie Andrews’ version of “My Favorite Things” and John Coltrane’s. Portale, like ‘Trane, uses the same notes but achieves wildly different, and arguably superior, results.

Alfred Portale: Simple Pleasures Home Cooking from the Gotham Bar and Grill’s Acclaimed Chef by Alfred Portale & Andrew Friedman
Morrow Cookbooks
ISBN 0060535024
272 Pages