Entrepreneurship



September 23, 2019,   9:48 AM

What Victoria Blamey’s Gotham Bar & Grill Takeover Means For Female Chefs Everywhere

Brianne Garrett

FULL BIO

chef

Image Credit: flickr

In the dynamic world of New York dining—where you can expect restaurant openings, closings and chef changes as much as you’d expect the sounds of honks and sirens on the city’s streets—Gotham Bar & Grill’s 35-year-old record of successful sameness makes it somewhat of a unicorn. Its reviews are as likely to mention “longevity” and “reliability” as much as they are the food; it is the place to go if you want “comforting, old-fashioned stability.”

For nearly 35 years, the person responsible for that consistency was Alfred Portale. The chef-owner made himself synonymous with the restaurant, but earlier this year, that changed. He left Gotham to work on another venture, and in his place stepped 39-year-old Chilean native Victoria Blamey.

“I didn’t quite get it at the beginning that it was such a big deal,” Blamey has said. But it’s starting to sink in. She’s gotten widespread attention for the changes she’s brought to Gotham—swapping out white plates for speckled ceramics, replacing tuna tartare with yellowtail crudo—and the eyes of the culinary world are watching.

“This is a unique challenge,” says Clare Reichenbach, CEO of the James Beard Foundation. “Alfred Portale was not only the chef/owner, but he was also actually cooking in his restaurant for 34 years, which is not necessarily typical for famous chefs. It’s very exciting, but it would be a challenge for any chef, male or female. It will be fascinating to see how it plays out.” 

Blamey is up to that challenge. She told Forbes that she’s approaching her work with “a new sense of diversity,” and is hoping to make the restaurant more inclusive to all guests that enter its doors.

Melissa Fleischut, president and CEO of the New York State Restaurant Association, believes Blamey’s elevation is about more than introducing an Indian dahl to New York’s power lunch crowd; she sees it as a “great step forward” for all female chefs. “The greater opportunity we have in the industry, and the better we can showcase the talents of female chefs, the better it is for everybody,” she says.

Blamey agrees. “We’re so used to kitchens being lead by male chefs,” Blamey says. “I wish there was more female presence in the kitchen, and more restaurants that promote this.”

Indeed, more restaurants need to follow suit: women represent just 19% of chefs and 7% are head chefs and restaurant owners.Meanwhile, 33% of restaurant businesses are majority-owned by women.

Amanda Cohen, who opened her vegetarian-focused restaurant Dirt Candy in 2008, knows this reality all too well. “The fact that a woman was considered for this job says a lot about where we are right now,” Cohen says. “Clearly, the investors believe that their customers will trust a female chef and won’t react negatively to a woman replacing a much-loved, longtime male chef at his signature restaurant. That’s a huge difference from where we were even 10 years ago.” 

In her 2017 film, A Fine Line, journalist-turned-filmmaker and daughter of a female restaurateur Joanna James has been documenting this progress; she’s also been documenting the struggles. “It’s really been exciting to see that even in the course of just the last five years, we noticed a shift in more women being recognized, finally,” she says. “The change is happening, it’s just sort of slow.”

For the first few weeks following her menu debut, Blamey’s main focus is getting Gotham’s many stalwarts coming back while also making newcomers feel comfortable walking through the doors. 

“There have been some mixed emotions, which is to be expected—this has been a beloved establishment for 35 years—but it’s my goal to make sure those loyal guests love the new chapter of Gotham just as much as the previous one,” she said.

If early commentary is any indication, Blamey’s tenure with Gotham is more like a new book—one that, with any hope, will facilitate the introduction of many more female characters.



Recommended Articles