When a transition at a legendary restaurant turns into a pandemic-fueled implosion.
By Victoria Blamey as told to Devorah Lev-Tov
Victoria Blamey, originally from Santiago, Chile, has cooked in some of the world’s best restaurants and is known for taking over two legendary kitchens in New York City. First, the almost-100-year-old bar/restaurant Chumley’s when it relaunched in 2016 after nearly a decade of being closed, and then in 2019, she was tapped to run the kitchen at the famous Gotham Bar & Grill on the departure of Alfred Portale, its head chef of more than 30 years. Despite a three-star review from The New York Times, Gotham Bar & Grill closed its doors for good on March 14—one of the first restaurant victims of coronavirus closures.
Every time I landed a job, I’ve been so precise to know where I wanted to go. It was almost neurotic. Like I knew exactly where I wanted to work in England with Gordon Ramsey, and I got that. I knew that I wanted to go to Mugaritz in Spain—I got that. When I got to New York, again I started doing my homework, investigating the chefs here and the only place that sounded like it was everything I wanted was Corton.
Eventually, after opening Atera, and being at The Elm, Il Buco Alimentari, and Upland, I felt I needed my own challenge. I went back to Chile to see my mom. And then I met Alessandro Borgognone. He took me to Chumley’s, which I’ve never even heard of. It reeks of beer, and it was a dark place. And he’s like, “Well, we’re going to open, we’re going to make food here. And I was like, “But this is a bar. I’m not going to do bar food.” And he said, “You do what you want to do.”
It was hard. I feel bad, it was a painful breakup, unexpected, and not on good terms at all. It was very difficult for me to navigate. I never thought I was going to leave the way I left, I never thought what happened was going to happen, I never imagined Chumley’s was going to come to that end, and my career was going to be in transit again.
So I went back to Chile.
When I heard from someone at Gotham Bar and Grill, I wasn’t even sure if the restaurant was still open. I go online and I’m like, this restaurant looks like it’s from the 1980s. How would I, Victoria Blamey, fit in to that place? But they wanted to meet right away. I’m in Chile, like 11 hours away from New York. But they seemed so eager, they had this constriction of time. I literally arrived at the airport, went home, got changed, and then I met the owners.
And it was weird, I’m not going to lie. Alfred Portale was there, with three of the four owners. They were really charming. Alfred barely looked at me and didn’t really talk to me. They were looking for a new chef because Alfred wanted to leave, and it was a polarizing situation. It looked like a very tired marriage, like they’d been together for 35 years and did not want to be together anymore. And I was the awkward person in between.
It seemed like no one really knew what they wanted to do. They said they wanted to change, but they didn’t know how. I was a little worried about that. I was assuming that someone would know how they were going to do what they wanted to do.
I was excited to work again, and I thought the challenge was tremendous. I mean, I totally didn’t even know what tremendous meant at that point. I didn’t really understand what an institution it was at the beginning. I knew that it existed for a long time, but to me an institution has a different meaning. The fact that I never went there, the fact that a lot of the people that I know, that I admire, that I look to—they haven’t been there in 15 years. That was concerning to me. So I wasn’t nervous because of the institution part. I was nervous because being there felt like going back in time. The clientele was very homogeneous. And the style of cooking—everything was cooked very well, but it just felt stale.
I wanted someone to give me an idea of how we should do it, and no one really knew. And my concern was more around the so-called transition. We talked about it so much, the transition, the transition time, the transition. The main thing I knew was that I had to come in quietly. They wanted no one to know I was there. I went in, and I knew that I had to observe first and act later. And there’s almost this clock ticking, and it was difficult, but I did it and I was proud of myself because it was for three months. Nobody knows, but for three months I was there before we made the announcement.
In the end, Alfred did it, when he announced his new restaurant. And the owners didn’t know and they were upset. They had no idea Alfred was going to come out with this in the news. And I was like, “Look, I don’t care about the noise, but I’m going to tell you right now, Alfred really wants this controversy, and I’m really not up for it.”
When I went into the kitchen, it was not the type of kitchen I’ve ever worked in. Very old school, of course clean and everything, but very, very old school. There’s no point in me sugarcoating it. There was a little complacency. It was a restaurant where the kitchen had been run the same way for 35 years. People there confused loyalty for complacency. That’s exactly what it was. I wanted to make sure that the chef de cuisine knew that I wanted him to be part of this. But I wasn’t surprised when staff started leaving. Well, I was a little surprised. Because even though I’ve been through difficult situations, when I’ve seen people behaving in the worst ways, I keep thinking that camaraderie, that teamwork, is going to prevail. And sometimes, I’m wrong.
The owners were emotionally supportive—they knew that the struggle was real with not having enough staff, but they didn’t know where to find them, they didn’t know how. Restaurants were struggling every day with hiring cooks. I was trying to make them understand that the industry hasn’t been the same in the last ten years. We worked like animals. And then the moment that Alfred’s new restaurant Portale was going to open, I lost the rest of the staff to that place. It was super intense.
We had to close lunch indefinitely because I didn’t have the staff. I had to close Sundays because I didn’t have the staff. When we reopened Sundays, I was one of the cooks, and then I had two more people—we were three behind the hot line and one person on garde manger. It was just pathetic. And it was like that for months, and no one knew. The moment that I had to take pasta off the menu was devastating. I was the one picking up pasta, the chef, the one who’s expediting, plating, I’m the one cook also behind the line. And it’s all very much okay if you’re able to maneuver all of that, but at the same time, working over 25 days straight—it’s a recipe for disaster.
All I did for those first three months was try to implement systems that were very basic to me from kitchens that I worked before. I didn’t change anything on the menu at all until that three months was almost done—the two weeks prior to when we closed for two weeks. When I did start making changes, I was very sneaky. I did a lot of changes on the lunch menu because the crowd was kind of different. It wasn’t so upsetting when they didn’t see their tuna tartare anymore, even though a few customers were sending emails and letters and phone calls.
I don’t think they were trying to be hurtful, but people took sides—either the Gotham side or Alfred’s side. It was hurtful, it was painful. A lot of customers actually called the owners and complained that Alfred left. Where is my cod, where is my Caesar salad, where is my tuna tartare? Once, someone said to tell the chef to shove the burger up her ass. I was shocked. I would have never expected how polarizing this was going to be. It was about much more than just the food.
Maybe this should have been a bigger, longer transition, closing for a little longer, or having a statement saying that we’re going to do something completely different from before. I really don’t know, to be honest. The people that were going there, they were going there because they felt like they had that restaurant that doesn’t exist anymore, trapped in time. And it wasn’t necessarily my job to be the one to translate what was going on.
I was sort of numb when I saw the New York Times review. I had been there about seven months at that point. It was a very emotional day, and I’m not going to lie that I did shed a tear when I read the review and saw the three stars. I was relieved. It was a weight off my shoulders. Jerry, one of the owners, came to congratulate me, and he was extremely sweet. But I also wish all the owners were a little bit more ecstatic. It was the shadow of the other reviews they had from the Times, how is it possible that every review is three stars—it’s mind-blowing. Every day I went to work, I looked at those reviews because they were hanging by the window in the restaurant. It’s traumatizing, but then at the same time, I’m going to do what I think I need to do and this is my cooking. You’re going to like it or not.
I didn’t care about the old Gotham or the new Gotham, I just cared that I had a job to do, and that the team also deserved that. Every single cook in that review deserved those stars. It was insane work. And I was very happy that the team I was building was coming to life.
And then all I wanted was for Portale to be reviewed, and then have it be over. It’s like the War of the Roses, right? I wanted that war to be done. And then I thought it was fine, he got reviewed, and I was like, this is done. But it wasn’t. Looking back, I think the battle would have always been there. The good thing that happened though is that once our review was out, people were more open to the food. They were less judgmental, they were less hurtful.
I wish sometimes that I would have heard the owners be more grateful for the fact that we got three stars. I don’t think it was a given. I never expected anything apart from the fact that I knew I was going to get reviewed—and that’s not me being a smartass or arrogant. You have to be stupid not to think that anyone would have been reviewed at Gotham. And that’s also not why I took the job. I didn’t take the job because I thought I was going to be in the news. I took it because I wanted to prove that I can do more than just the food at Chumley’s. And I know I can.
There’s no bad blood. It’s nothing like how Chumley’s ended. And I say this with a lot of respect—I think if the owners had been younger, or if this had been something that they had just started doing, maybe they would want to fight. But we had a bad January, a bad February, and then you start seeing coronavirus. Our clientele was still senior. And that’s not a criticism, that’s a reality. A lot of older people were not going out. We were still having a really good Thursday, Friday, Saturday, but you can’t maintain a restaurant with only Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
So I knew that was happening. But did I have a feeling we were going to close just like that? No. One week, we saw a crazy change in covers. We’re going from one of the Saturdays having 170 covers, and then we start dropping, dropping, dropping, and we went to 60. It just dropped like a bucket of ice, that we’re closing and not reopening. It was a challenge for ten months, and then at one point the numbers don’t make sense, and then you have coronavirus.
The owners owed millions of dollars to purveyors—those purveyors are never going to get paid. So the money that they’re losing right now, they’re never going to make it up. Ever. Even if they reopen. So the future looks way more grim for them than I could have ever known. I’m 40 years old right now, I have way more years of fighting this. The owners were like 41 when they opened Gotham, now they’re like 70-plus. So am I upset? No. I’m disappointed and I’m sad. I’m not angry.
It’s almost like someone jinxed it, you know. I had all these people saying, how long is she going to stay there? Well you know what, I didn’t plan to leave. And I also feel ashamed that the restaurant closed, and I feel responsible for my cooks. I mean, it’s their livelihood. I’m grateful because I’m in touch with them. I was very hopeful in January, and I worked so hard to hire people. Things were turning, and I was seeing the results of so much struggle, and then this happened. So yeah, of course it’s sad.
I cried when I found out—I mean trust me, I cried like you have no idea. I felt like I was jinxed, I seriously did. And then I blamed myself, like women always do, and then you have the guilt. Right now is not really the moment to, at least for me, think what could have been done differently. I’m happy that I’m in touch with my cooks, I’m happy that their experience was good, for the people that actually stayed and were part of the team. There’s nothing better for me than that. So I try not to go to that dark place of guilt, because it’s not going to do me any good right now.
I did what I was hired to do. Of course, I’m demanding. You can be the star when people want to congratulate you or you can be the asshole when people want to blame you, but at the end of the day, I’m both. I am okay living with that, and I understand what it means. Because you’re the face of what you do.
I think it’s a time for me to understand how I want to make my own rules. I don’t want to keep fitting into a different restaurant. I don’t want it to be, oh Victoria Blamey took over another institution. I don’t want that, and I can at least say that now. You know, I just want to do something that I believe in, the core of it. Because I realize that I don’t just want to run a restaurant, I want to build something that can also provide. I felt incredibly devastated by the fact that I had a crew of people that the next day they were not going to have a job. So I really want to see how to make sure that something like that doesn’t happen again.
I tried to do that when I was there. I tried to share that little bit of light that people give you sometimes. I don’t need to be in the spotlight anymore. On the one hand, what we had was just not feasible, it wasn’t something that could go on for so long. But at the same time, New York is known for its restaurants, its food scene, its diversity, and that’s exactly why I fell in love with this city. And I need to remember that.