When Vitaly Paley left his childhood home in Belarus (then the Soviet Union), to emigrate to New York with his mother in 1976, he had no idea that it would lead him to become one of the most acclaimed chefs in the Pacific Northwest.
He was, after all, a 13-year-old piano prodigy. He was so talented that the world-famous Juilliard School of Music gave him a full scholarship. For five years he lived for the ivories, and his future as a concert pianist seemed assured.
But life took Vitaly in a different direction. He found his calling in the kitchen rather than at the keyboard. His concert hall became Paley’s Place, a restored Victorian home in northwest Portland, where his French-influenced repertoire extended from rabbit ravioli and Dungeness crab risotto to a vegetarian cassoulet.
Finished with school in New York, choosing to take a break from music, Paley found work waiting tables in restaurants. Employed by World Yacht Cruises, which offered dinner voyages on the Hudson River, he met his future wife, Kimberly, a professional dancer, and came under the wing of a French master chef, Michel Bordeaux. His mentor saw Vitaly’s innate creative talent and encouraged him to pursue that profession.
“It took me awhile to realize that I was going to be a cook,” Paley told me. “But Monsieur Bordeaux sent me to the French Culinary Institute, and from there I went to work for a two-star Michelin restaurant in France. Kimberly and I spent most of 1991 at Au Moulin de la Gorce, near Limoges.”
One day in France, Vitaly said, a patron came to the restaurant carrying a basket of mushrooms “from Oregon.” Paley recalls it as “a Eureka moment. We made it our mission, once we came back to the States, to visit Oregon.”
That moment came in 1993, and immediately, the Paleys were hooked. “At first we worried about the rain,” Vitaly said. “But once it stops raining, look what comes out of the ground! We are close to the ocean and the mountains, and we always get the first-of-the-season produce.”
The couple moved to Portland in September 1994, promptly hooked into the local restaurant scene, and opened Paley’s Place in February 1995.
For many years, Kimberly ran the front of the house while Vitaly held forth in the kitchen. “Our concept was always very clear: to work closely with the products directly from the source,” Vitaly said. “We were doing this before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword in Oregon, because this was what we learned in France.”
Vitaly Paley won the James Beard award as the Northwest’s best chef in 2005. “The Paley’s Place Cookbook: Recipes and Stories from the Pacific Northwest” was published by Ten Speed Press in 2008.
It took 17 years after Paley’s Place achieved its fame, but in 2012, when the Hotel Lucia came calling, Vitaly stepped out of his
comfort zone and opened a second restaurant. Imperial immediately achieved acclaim as Portland’s best new restaurant and the best hotel restaurant in the western United States (according to Sunset Magazine).
The carefully trained Paley team of chefs employs a wood-fire grill and rotisserie for many of their simple, three-meals-a-day preparations — plates like pork secretto with grilled leeks and black cod with poached shallots.
In 2017, Vitaly renovated an adjacent café, the Portland Penny Diner, into a mid-range gourmet pizza restaurant and cocktail bar that he calls The Crown. Slices and whole pies include everything from the Captain Pepperoni to the unique clam-and-sausage pizza.
The Crown followed an even more ambitious project: In the fall of 2016, Paley had taken over the celebrated French restaurant at the historic and venerated Heathman Hotel. He replaced it with Headwaters, focused on Northwest seafood.
“Our mission has always been buying from and giving back to our local farmers and purveyors,” Vitaly told me “We work closely with the farmers and the seasons, and we support the local community however we can. We see the region through the focused lens of our restaurant, and I find it immensely gratifying.”
My favorite meal at Headwaters starts with sturgeon pastrami and a smoked herring schmear from the “sea bar,” followed by Petrale sole en papillote with horseradish vin blanc.
The 54-year-old chef hasn’t forgotten his European heritage. In the Heathman’s adjacent Tea Court Lounge, which for decades had served an English high tea with scones and jam, he installed his Russian Tea Experience.
Per tradition, it is centered around the urn called a samovar. In Paley’s childhood home, the samovar was a cherish family relic. Afternoon tea, by reservation, highlights Russian savories (piroshky and open-faced sandwiches) and sweets (such as his grandmother’s recipe for steopka, a sour-cream layer-cake).
Another nod to Mother Russia is Da-Net, a pop-up experience offered, more-or-less monthly, at Headwaters after outgrowing the space at The Crown. Served family-style at communal tables, immersed in decorative artwork and music from the Paley family, the single seating ($75 per person) features a variety of smoked-fish blini, two entrée courses and dessert.
Check the website for the upcoming Da-Net schedule. And plan on vodka pairings.