Vitaly Paley on Feast Portland and the Spirit of a Restaurant

An interview with Chef Vitaly Paley for Feast 2016

John Valls

Vitaly Paley, a Portland icon and culinary visionary.

Vitaly Paley — Vito to his friends  is a Portland icon. When he and his wife Kimberly opened Paley’s Place in 1995 they helped to pioneer what would become the Pacific Northwest approach to food. Twenty-one years later, Paley’s Place remains as strong as ever, and it’s been joined by other Paley spots: Imperial, a bustling bistro restaurant in the Hotel Lucia; Penny Diner, a sandwich shop and cocktail bar; DaNet, a Russian pop up dinner series; and, soon, Headwaters, Paley’s restaurant that is set to replace the iconic Heathman restaurant which closed in March.

How does Vitaly Paley stay so relevant in a town like Portland which continues to grow and shift almost daily? We sat down with Vitaly to talk restaurants, Feast, and his Russian heritage, and the future of Portland’s food scene.

Daily Meal: So Paley’s Place opened 21 years ago now, right? When it first opened, I’d argue that it was among the first, well I don’t want to say “fine dining”, but ushered in a new way of dining, helped shape Northwestern Cuisine, farm to table, etc
Vitaly Paley:
I’d like to remain in the camp that we don’t know what that [Northwestern Cuisine] is. It’s ingredient driven, we rattle off names of ingredients that always involve salmon, huckleberries, nuts, mushrooms, and all of that, but we don’t know exactly what Northwestern Cuisine is. Because we’re such a young place, and we don’t have iconic dishes, we don’t have signature dishes like New Orleans does, so we get to make it up as we go. That’s the fun of it! That plays directly with the pioneering spirit of the Northwest.

Nowadays the market is, dare I say, glutted with restaurants. Yet Paley’s Place and Imperial still remain popular. How do you keep up with such an oversaturated market, and keep things fresh, interesting, and relevant?
Well, you answered your own question: we maintain a fresh and interesting approach, and constantly reinvent ourselves. Since we’re ingredient focused we ask, “How do we use this thing every year, if it’s seasonal, and make it new?” It’s never really the same… So we ask, what does it taste like, and what can it become?

That undying flame of questioning, searching, changing… genuinely caring about what we do and the people we work with. The whole experience… More and more, I realize it’s not just food, it can’t just be about food. I don’t always eat out but when I do, I focus on the full experience. When things are all lined up, when you see the tables and plates lined up and together, subliminally it gives you peace of mind. You might not notice, but it’s there.

What is your advice to someone who wants open a restaurant in the city right now?
My advice is not to. *laughs*

I did think you might say that!
The key is to understand the dynamics between what you want, as a creative individual, and what is the end goal, what is the future. How far in the future do you want to plan? Is it just for the moment, or do you want something that stands the test of time

That’s what Paley’s Place was to us; we wanted it to be part of the community and remain so. The community was, and is good to us, and we wanted to reciprocate, which includes supporting local farms and philanthropy. We were always doing “farm to table”, we just didn’t call it that yet.

If you just want to make a bistro of the moment, by all means go for it. But if you want to have a long term spot, more thought needs to go into it.

How do you think Feast has affected the Portland Dining Scene? Or do you think it has?
I think Feast came to Portland at the right time in our culinary history. I commend Mike and Carrie on being visionaries. They definitely saw the right opportunity and they were not wrong. Everyone wins big on this one.

Feast resonates on a bigger scale. The level of interest from outside chefs, culinary professionals, and media folks is overwhelming, year in year out. We definitely do it Portland style. It’s fun and it’s a party and not totally sponsorship or media driven; it’s homemade and and DYI culture, like we’re so famous for here. It’s very Portland, and people gravitate to it naturally.

It’s the event this city has needed for a long time, and it took someone like Carrie to do it.

Check out how this survival guide to tackling Feast 2016 like a pro.

What are you most excited for at Feast 2016?
I’m doing, we’re doing something really cool at the Headwaters event, it’s a Russian tea pop up. It’s a Russian tea… experience. When we began DaNet, the Russian pop up dinner, we had to finish with something sweet, a dessert. And what do russians have with that? They have tea.

And because the tea court is such an important part of the [Heathman, where Headwaters is going], we’re bringing it forward and digging deep into my roots. It’s satisfying and emotional,  keeping the spirit of the Heathman’s tea court and moving it forward, as well as drawing from my past. We’re introducing it to locals and the outside, and I’m really excited about it.

I’m also working Smoked and I’m excited about that. We’re doing a BLT lettuce cup. Really rich Snake River Farm pork cheeks smoked over hazelnut shells. Put in a butter lettuce cup, topped with an heirloom tomato salad, drizzled with green goddess style dressing, with a little bit of croutons. It’s like a deconstructed BLT.

That sounds amazing.
I’m excited to have some chefs that are going to be staying here in the hotel and maybe working here [Imperial]. These are guys from New York, where you can get anything, but last year I brought out a tray of sushi grade, super fresh Sea Urchins, and their faces when they first saw it… That harkens back to that ingredient based thing that makes our culinary culture what it is.

How do you feel like Feast has changed?
I don’t know if it has; they hit the road running. The first year was fantastic, and every subsequent year has been amazing. They swapped out some events, and it’s bigger…

Do you want to talk about Headwaters? When do you think it will open?

How about the name, Headwaters?
Here’s a tidbit I wrote. I took the first piece from Webster dictionary:




plural noun: headwaters

a tributary stream of a river close to or forming part of its source.

Source, birthplace, origin, starting point, ground zero.....these are the most important words in our vocabulary and are at the core of the philosophy at Headwaters.

For us Headwaters means....

a source of life, a place in life, a place in time, most favorite place, best place to cook, best way of cooking.

a source of emotion, obsession, courage, inspiration, vision, discussion, our comfort zone.

From a farm, farm stand, farmers's market, our garden, our neighbors garden, our home, our back yard......the fire escape....

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a beginning....every day....and when we question where to start.....we start at the beginning......Headwaters....The Source..

Though it’s very fish driven, we also want it to be vegetarian friendly and vegetable based. For example, we’re working on a dish ushering in the creative approach of the fall,  and we want to own the vegetable portions, the vegetable dishes. [Gestures to a sample dish] We take cauliflower and broccoli, two humble items. People know what they are, so how can we make them radically different and surprise them? We want people to say “we aren't really vegetarians but we want to come back here for the vegetable dishes!”

Where does Vitaly Paley eat on his nights off? And what do you think of Kachka?
My wife and are pretty private and eat at home as much as possible. But when we do I really enjoy mexican and sushi. Those are my go-to comfort foods.

[On Kachka] I do look up to the fact that we were placed alongside, DaNet was placed with them on a list about Russian food. Russian food is on our minds! Where I grew up in New York, and in other major cities, you have Russian cuisine that’s segregated in neighborhoods, but less for the general public. What my goal, and what Kachka’s goal is, is to introduce the western world to the joys of that world, which is huge: There’s Georgia, Pakistan, Armenia, Turkmenistan, all those satellites. You speak of, Georgian for example, has elements of the places they border, a little bit of Indian… but the spice mixes are different. Their use of walnut is different, they have khachapuri which is cooked in a tandoori oven.

What interests me today is to go back in time, revisit my roots, bring it forward, modernize it, and understand the connections between my emotional and geographical connections and how to bring those togethers.

The place where I came from has the similar topography as where I live today. Mushrooms and wild berries and foraged foods; people did it out of necessity there but here it’s the trendy thing to do. How do I, as an individual, discover my roots and bring it up to my current vocabulary? It also helps me stay relevant and keep things exciting for me and the people who walk through the door and for the people who actually cook the food.

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