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Perhaps one of Michael Latour's greatest achievement is his uncanny ability to mentor young chefs like Sotomayor and Portscher to go out and grab the brass ring. (Pictured) Fine herb-crusted tuna with saffron wild rice and a roasted red pepper buerre blanc prepared by Michael Latour. (Photo by Chris Marksbury)
Posted: Friday November 9, 2012
By Pam Wyne - (201) Magazine

Even though the world is ever shrinking and technology has brought us "friends" via a click on a keyboard, it is still a fascinating idea that in some way we are all connected.

Six degrees of separation is based on the premise that we are all six steps removed from any other person in the world, creating a "friend of a friend" chain that ultimately leads full circle. Through luck, chance and the alignment of the culinary stars, Ridgewood's top chefs Michael Latour of Latour French-American Grill, Cesar Sotomayor of Café 37 and Kevin Portscher of Village Green share a "six degrees" connection that has launched not only their individual careers but has culminated in creating a successful restaurant triumvirate in the village.

Their story is simple: Latour, master and commander for 15 years in the kitchen of his highly rated French-American restaurant, taught two young apprentices – Sotomayor and Portscher – the art of culinary excellence. After learning the ins and outs of the food business, they both eventually left the restaurant and the Bergen area, only to find their way back "home" again.

Five years ago, Sotomayor assumed the top chef status at Village Green, a crown jewel on Ridgewood's dining scene. Waiting for the proverbial green light to break out on his own, Sotomayor moved around the block six months ago to an empty storefront, renovated it from top to bottom and opened his own space, Café 37.

Was it kismet for Portscher? Or was it a pull of the "six degrees" that drew him back to Ridgewood last summer to embrace what he says is the business venture of a lifetime? Village Green was up for sale, and this motivated young chef seized the opportunity to make the highly rated restaurant his own pride and joy.

Michael Latour: The Call to Cook

Latour has staying power in an industry that at times pushes restaurants in and out of the proverbial revolving door.

For the past 15 years, the accomplished chef and astute businessman, who sharpened his culinary skills in early stints at the Jockey Club, the Four Seasons Hotel and the Ritz Carlton, has been a well-respected fixture on Ridgewood's fine-dining scene. His extensive culinary resume boasts numerous memberships in some of the world's prestigious food culinary organizations, including the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique. In addition, he holds two gold medals bestowed by Les Amis d'Escoffier Societe Foundation for his amazing pulled sugar creations at the Salon de Culinary Art demonstrations held annually in New York.

The question begs to be asked: How has he survived when so many have failed?

He would be the first to say it is a combination of luck, hard work, the commitment to stay the course of consistency, and quality – in and out of the kitchen.

"When I first came to town, I was one of a small handful of specialty dining restaurants, and the only one serving French food," says Latour, a Johnson & Wales alum who resides in Ramsey with his family. "The key to owning a successful restaurant is that you have to recognize that it is a business and understand the fine balance of food versus cost, and to be able to constantly re-invent yourself. You have got to keep up and constantly challenge yourself."

Perhaps one of Latour's greatest achievements is his uncanny ability to not only spot talent but to mentor, to nurture and to challenge young chefs who end up in his kitchen – like Cesar Sotomayor and Kevin Portscher – to go out and grab the brass ring.

"When I first met Cesar, he was so eager to learn," Latour says. "He was very creative and detail-oriented. He has wonderful artistic ability and was committed to mastering plate presentation. Kevin was young and very determined. He had impeccable skills and could conform to any level of challenge in the kitchen.

"I am proud of their evolution. They both have great technique," he says of those rising star chefs, with whom he still has close personal and professional ties, especially now that both own their own restaurants around the corner.

"From the day any chef steps foot in my kitchen, I challenge them to use their knowledge and skills to develop their own style," Latour says. "The hope is that someday, young chefs like Kevin and Cesar will have the drive and the talent to go out and make their own way."

Cesar Sotomayor: A Bon Chance

"Call it luck. Call it fate. It is all that and more," Sotomayor says of his chance encounter with Latour in 2000. "I call it the day my life changed, and I am truly grateful."

Sotomayor, 22 at the time and newly emigrated from his hometown of Curacaos, Venezuela, was working retail at Burlington Coat Factory in Paramus when in walked Latour.

"I saw this person wearing a chef's coat and I went up to him and asked him what it took to become a chef," says Sotomayor, who grew up helping his grandmother in the kitchen earning the moniker of official family taster. "I loved creating dishes with her and even as a young boy thought someday I would love to be able to work in a restaurant."

After a brief chat, Latour gave Sotomayor his business card and said that if he was serious about learning the kitchen, there would be an apprentice position available.

"I was so excited about this opportunity, but it took me two weeks to get up the nerve to call him," Sotomayor says. "I credit Michael with teaching me everything I know. In those early years, I worked on the line learning how to make sauces, butchering meat, filleting fish, making French pastries and plating the food. It was an incredible experience."

Sotomayor worked full-time at the restaurant while mastering English and earning his bachelor's degree in hotel and restaurant management from Bergen Community College.

In 2006, he and his wife, Lorena (who works at the Daily Treat in town), and their then 3-year-old son left the Latour nest for a restaurant opportunity in Atlanta. Within a year, they were back.

"It just wasn't the right fit for us," says Sotomayor, who luckily landed the sous chef position at Village Green.

New ownership and a vacated head chef position quickly opened the door for him to assume the creative reins in the kitchen.

"It was a very exciting time," he says. "I was given a lot of freedom to create dishes that were simple and elegant. I also learned the business end of the restaurant: tracking costs and trying to keep them in line."

Sotomayor's four-year stint at the Village Green would ultimately lay the tracks for his next career move. In 2011, a change in ownership (enter Kevin Portscher) in the Village Green ultimately led the 35-year-old Sotomayor to explore the dream of finding a restaurant to call his own.

"It was time for me to move on and make my own dream happen," he says.

After months of searching for the perfect spot, Sotomayor took over the lease at a vacant storefront on Broad Street, just a block away from both Latour and Village Green.

"I wanted to create a place that was modern and sophisticated in food and décor," Sotomayor says of his casually elegant Café 37, whose doors he opened to much family and friend fanfare in June.

"I want to make this restaurant successful for my family," he says. "It has been like being on a great adventure."

Kevin Portscher: A Love Affair with Food

While most 16-year-olds might listen to music or hang with friends on the weekend, Portscher wanted one thing: to master all things food.

"My dad got me a job at the Emerson Hotel where I learned the basics. I grew up there leaning a lot about the restaurant business," Portscher says of the year-long experience, which built the foundation for his pursuit of becoming a chef.

In his senior year of high school, he worked at Zuma Sushi in Ridgewood, learning the intricacies of Japanese fish skills.

"I was hooked," Portscher says.

After graduation, he enrolled in the intensive four-year program at the prestigious and internationally recognized Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. While at the CIA, he interned at the highly acclaimed Esty Street in Park Ridge. And in 2002, with his degree in hand, he landed a chef's position at the Alpine Country Club.

"It was a great experience," the 30-year-old says. "I learned so much from some of this area's best talent. I made wonderful connections."

And then came Latour.

"He was looking for a chef de cuisine," Portscher says. "I called him. We talked, and he said come in tonight and the job is yours."

Portscher stayed at the restaurant from 2004 to 2009.

"It was an unbelievable experience to learn and work with Michael," he says, "who is not only a fantastic chef but a very good businessman. There is a reason why he has been so successful all these years. He really knows his craft.

"And he recognizes those who share the same passion for creating top quality food," Portscher says. "When he finds the talent, he lets them run with it. You can really create when someone places that kind of trust and faith in you. I have a great admiration for him."

In 2009, Portscher left his post at Latour to try his hand at high-end corporate catering and to enjoy more time at home.

"I had been doing the crazy restaurant schedule for so many years that I needed to take a step back," he says. "It was my wife, Brandy, who urged me last year to be open to the possibility of owning a restaurant."  

Portscher's top-notch food credits include membership and participation in The American Culinary Foundation, Chef de Cuisine of America and the Societe Culinaire Philanthropique, where he is one of the youngest chefs ever to be inducted. This month, Portscher and Latour will once again team up and participate in the Salon of Culinary Art, held at the Javits Center in New York City, where chefs showcase various food principles. Portscher holds a 2009 gold medal for his cold fish demonstration and earned silver last year for his charcuterie platter.

Last August, opportunity came knocking when the Village Green went up for sale once again. Portscher bought the restaurant in hopes of revitalizing that gem of a space.

"My goal is to create a casual restaurant setting in the village that offers high-quality food," he says. "My a la carte and tasting menus offer seasonal American foods. But I also like to incorporate my German heritage into the dishes as well as other European and Asian influences – it makes for fun food experimentation."

If the busy weekday lunch crowd and the packed houses on Fridays and Saturdays are any indication, this young chef is definitely whipping up his own brand of gourmand magic in the kitchen.

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