Former executive chef of Antoine's in Nola, wife, take helm of beloved Foley restaurant

Lifestyle Editor
Posted 9/14/23

Portabella's served the Foley community for 10 years before quietly closing in March. The local regulars and tourists who frequented the restaurant commented their sadness on the Facebook page, but …

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Former executive chef of Antoine's in Nola, wife, take helm of beloved Foley restaurant


Portabella's served the Foley community for 10 years before quietly closing in March. The local regulars and tourists who frequented the restaurant commented their sadness on the Facebook page, but one regular made a phone call that led to new owners.

Rich and Pam Lee are the new owners of Portabella's and bring with them extensive experience. The couple purchased the business, moved to Alabama and opened the doors in one month. Portabella's reopened at the end of June.

Rich Lee has been cooking for the past 40 years, although there was a four-year break while he served in the Coast Guard. His career has taken him around the world during his seven-year stint as the lone cook for 17 Merchant Marines, but he said the experience taught him a lot and helped him find his love of cooking.

After leaving the Merchant Marines, Rich settled in Panama City, honed his skills and worked his way up the ranks for 12 years. He knew he wanted to eventually own his own restaurant, and he was ready for a chance, so he stepped out of the kitchen and into the front of the house. He got into the business side to learn the ins and outs and worked in management with several different chain fast-casual restaurants.

"I felt like I learned a lot about the back of the house, front of the house and what goes on," Rich said. "Then I decided I needed to get back into cooking and found a great opportunity in New Orleans."

The job that got him to New Orleans was with Sodexo, a global company that provides catering and chefs for hospitals, universities, military bases, stadiums and corporations. Rich took on the role of executive chef over the Energy and Resources Division. His main duties were to train the chefs who would live and cook on oil rigs.

"We cooked for them and did their housekeeping for them as well. My job as a chef trainer was to train these guys to make sure they got out to the rig and knew what they were doing before they were 1,000 miles out in the ocean," Rich said.

After seven years of training chefs for Sodexo, Rich jumped at the opportunity to be the executive chef for New Orleans' oldest restaurant, Antoine's Restaurant. After three and a half years and getting the restaurant through COVID-19, it was time to move on to another New Orleans institution, Dickie Brennan & Co.

During his tenure with Dickie Brennan & Co., Rich served as the catering chef for all the groups' restaurants before taking the position of chef de cuisine of the company's flagship restaurant, Palace Café. He was there for a year when an opportunity came calling and a prayer was answered.


Rich's wife, Pam, worked in the mortgage banking business before retiring after 40 years and prayed the Lord would allow her and Rich to work together. Two days later, Rich got a phone call from his best friend in Foley.

Tyler Higginbotham, owner of 5 Star Air Conditioning and a Portabella's regular, called to chat. Higginbotham mentioned his favorite restaurant was closing and was for sale. Rich and Pam had eaten at Portabella's many times over the years.

"It was easy to pull the trigger," Pam said. "This place is a well-established restaurant that is well-loved. You see on Facebook how many people love this place. We knew that we could continue the tradition of great Italian food, not change anything and go from there."

After a chat between Rich and the owner, Chuck, Pam was brought in to negotiate and make the deal. They bought the restaurant, rented out their home in Slidell, found an apartment locally and opened the doors in a matter of a month, give or take a few days.

The purchase included a hoard of faithful regulars, recipes, a menu he was told not to change (by everyone he met) and a staff. Both cooks and the three servers all wanted to return, which was a good sign to Rich. And the mother of the previous owner also came with the deal.

Rich was excited to get into the kitchen and dust off the Italian cooking skills he gained years ago. He was looking forward to cooking up his osso buco and stuffed veal breast but the "make sure you don't change anything" comments got to him.

"I got here, and it was Italian American but the city and everyone that comes here knows what they like," Rich said. "It took me five minutes to fight with my ego. Ok, maybe five days."


While fans of the restaurant can rest assured little has changed on the menu, Rich has been able to flex his culinary muscle with the specials. Pam said he can do whatever he wants with the specials, but everything else must stay the same, except for two things. Rich did make some changes to the French onion soup recipe, but he spoke with the original owner for his blessing before doing so. The other change was the addition of gluten-free pasta and pizza at the request of customers.

Rich and Pam have big plans for the future. When they purchased the business, it included a second restaurant just behind Portabella's that was once known as The Oar House. It has been closed for many years and used as storage, but it is the same size as Portabella's. The plan is to use the venue for parties, business luncheons and dinners for groups. He also hopes to offer monthly cooking classes in the space eventually.

"We don't accept reservations and there are a lot of people that have 20 in their group," Pam said. "Well, 20 in the group would take up half of Portabella's seats. We want to have a place for large parties to gather. It is now being used as the prep kitchen."

"We are gradually working on it, and by the November and December holidays we would love to be having parties out there," Rich said. "It will be called Bella's Too. It will not be open to the public."

The couple has already joined the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce and is looking forward to getting involved in the community.

"We want to make this place an institution just like the other ones he has worked for," Pam said. "It already has great bones, it just now needs to be developed more."