By Daniel Leef
Short trees line the nearby sidewalk with their autumn leaves spotting the pavement of NW 21st street. A quaint set of stairs leads up to a wooden patio with more leaves covering the floor and cast iron tables. Sadly, as a seventh grader, I don’t appreciate this quintessential Portland setting. The restaurant seems like every other one my parents have taken me to on the weekends. There is the usual desk with the reservation book on top, as well as the same, old white tablecloth-covered tables to the right of it. Soft music plays in the background, giving me the impression that the place is something of a formal venue. A pale poster of a woman in a white dress hangs on the left wall, with bland photographs of weathered, old people hanging on the right. I am too young to recognize or care about this place. Among other things, I ignore the small name inscribed on the diplomas and certificates hanging around me.
The first time I met him was on a rainy night at the newly opened pop up restaurant called DaNet in downtown Portland. The place was reservation only, and my mom had reserved a month prior. My friend and his family were with us as well, all of us chatting while awaiting food. A man wearing a chef’s jacket walked out of the kitchen to greet the customers. He was a little shorter than six feet tall, had thinning light, gray hair, and walked with enough purpose to let people know he was important, but not to the extent of projecting cockiness. He had a stubby frame along with a slight belly, and always seemed to be standing perfectly straight; the signs of a good chef. I assumed he was the chef because of his outfit, and that the only reason he was greeting all of his customers was simply because the pop-up restaurant is supposed to give a more intimate experience than that at a regular restaurant, yet I was still surprised by the lengths at which he talked with the customers. Throughout these conversations, including the one with my parents, he seemed genuinely interested in what people had to say. He didn’t seem like a chef but rather a personable entertainer; that is until I got the food.
The first course was Zakuski, a collection of small, Russian appetizers served before the main entree. They consisted of small pieces of dark bread with thin slices of raw fish, as well as large blinis (pancakes) that were served with sour cream and Salmon caviar. The sea-saltiness from the small fish eggs perfectly balanced out the sweetness from the pancake and bitterness of the sour cream, leaving a sweet yet brackish aftertaste in my mouth. For the second course, I was served a dish I instantly recognized as Borsch; beet soup. The soup came with a side of sour cream, which one was supposed to put into the soup to enhance its flavor. It was sweet and earthy, with small remnants of the purple root vegetable floating around in its broth.
My empty soup bowl was soon replaced by the third course: a Salmon, Sturgeon Cheek, and Porcini mushroom pie with dill butter sauce. According to Vitaly, this dish dated back to medieval Russia and was a delicacy in the culture. The crust of the pie had a coat of the dill butter sauce on the outside, with a medley of fish, rice, and herbs within. By the time I had finished it, the pie seemed to have left a pool of its delicious sauce on my plate, and I seriously contemplated whether I should finish it like soup or leave it as is. Before I could decide, the dessert had already arrived. Tea was served in the traditional Russian tea glass holder, Podstakannik, along with baked milk ice cream and sesame-chocolate candies.
After each course, my parents would go on rants about their times in Moscow and how the chef had perfectly recreated the dishes from their childhood. My parents told the chef this, and he was genuinely happy in his expressions. His charm and personality somehow made the lights brighter, the music smoother, and the food even tastier. He laughed with the customers as they ate his delicious creations, always acting somewhat surprised and humble when someone complimented his cooking skills. Everyone that night jubilantly left Vitaly Paley’s restaurant with full stomachs and a smile on their face. I needed to know who this man was, where he came from, and why I hadn’t heard of him before that dinner.
Having been born in Kiev in the former Soviet Union, Vitaly is the opposite of a Portland native. The food at DaNet definitely reflected the Eastern European aspect of Paley’s life, almost serving as a public service announcement to all of Portland that he was, indeed, a foreigner. Not only was he a foreigner to the land, but he also wasn’t very accustomed to the ingredients native to the Pacific Northwest. While in Ukraine, the staple foods consist of plain root vegetables such as beets, cabbage, and potatoes, the Northwest contains a widely varying abundance of ingredients such as kale, salmon, and wild mushrooms. These new ingredients acted as tools for Vitaly, and with them he was able to build completely new and innovative dishes. Even the selection of ingredients in his dishes reflect somewhat risky combinations that some chefs wouldn’t dare attempt. What Vitaly knew, and what those other chefs didn’t know, is that in order to stay afloat in Portland, one has to always be taking risks.
Before Paley was a chef owning three successful restaurants in Portland, he had actually attended the Juilliard School where he was training to become a concert pianist. To switch from one form of art to another, a person has to be both gifted and dedicated to his or her occupation. Vitaly made the choice to pursue a culinary career instead of musical; a choice that many would frown upon, especially if said person were attending an incredibly prestigious school such as Juilliard beforehand. As if his musical career had never really existed, Vitaly went on to earn a Grand Diploma from the French culinary institute, and apprenticed at a two michelin star restaurant in Limoges, France with his wife, Kimberly (“Vitaly Paley Bio”). Vitaly’s life story is scripted for culinary success somewhere in France, or maybe even a popular city like Manhattan or Los Angeles. Yet, the next location Paley finds himself at is the unexpected and, at the time, unpopular Portland, Oregon.
With so much previous success, Portland is an odd choice for Vitaly, and maybe even a risky one. In the late 90’s, when Vitaly came, Portland was not nearly the food powerhouse it is today. “Portland is famous for so many things: beer, books, the Oregon rain, coffee — and what’s that other thing? Oh yes, roses,” writes Susan G. Hauser, a writer for the New York Times. Susan’s article on Portland was published in 1998, just three years after Vitaly settled and opened his first restaurant, Paley’s Place. Not one person at that time, including Susan G. Hauser, would list food or restaurants as one of the main attractions of Portland. The city was simply noted for its wet weather, Powell’s books, and some boring coffee shops. There remains only one explanation as to why an expert chef like Vitaly would come to Portland during such a depressing culinary drought: its close proximity to fresh ingredients.
Salmon, wild mushrooms, berries, and kale are all tasty ingredients native to the Pacific Northwest. “In Portland or Oregon we’re an ingredient driven culture”, says Vitaly on the topic of Portland’s food scene. Instead of recreating traditional dishes with different twists, Vitaly can create any dishes he wants with a selection of nearby ingredients. The food of the Northwest is not represented by a certain set of dishes deeply ingrained in its culture. In cities that are tightly bound to their traditions, chefs are burdened with a certain responsibility to recreate these traditional dishes with their own little twists, allowing little to no creativity. This is why the Northwest is such a unique destination for chefs like Vitaly. “The ability to create without any type of traditions or history or rituals or anything that was [written] before that,” is what differentiates the Pacific Northwest from other regions, Vitaly states. In other words, Portland doesn’t have any culinary restrictions compared to other places since it doesn’t have any food dishes deeply rooted in its history. The South has their hushpuppies and grits, New England has their clam chowder and lobster rolls, and the Pacific Northwest has a plethora of fresh ingredients, yet no dishes to accompany them.
“Whether the Pacific Northwest has developed its own cuisine remains in question,” states Suzie Boss, another writer for the New York Times, “but there’s agreement that the region boasts fine fresh ingredients. The best Portland restaurants make use of them, and most offer a selection of Oregon wines.” Vitaly’s first restaurant, Paley’s Place, is one of these “best Portland restaurants” that implements fresh Oregon ingredients in all of its dishes. Even shortly after Paley’s Place opened in the February of 1995, Paley and his wife were renowned as experts in their use of local ingredients in all of their dishes. “No less adept at the artful use of indigenous ingredients is fellow chef Vitaly Paley, of Paley’s Place, in northwestern Portland,” writes Christopher Brooks for Country Living magazine in 1999, just four years after the restaurant’s opening; “Paley also demonstrates great skill in transforming local marionberries into a savory sauce, and he frequently incorporates Oregon-grown truffles, both white and black, into his restaurant offerings.” Vitaly’s ability to implement these Oregon native ingredients, such as truffles and marionberries, is what made him so popular among critics and people alike in late-90’s, as well as current, Portland.
It’s because of these ingredients and Portland’s close proximity to them that Vitaly stated “Portland had the right makings,” and that, “It was ripe and ready for a nice food revival.” According to Vitaly, the ingredients are actually the main reason Portland has all of the great chefs it has today. Every chef in Portland had a moment of decision in the past, where they decided if they should establish themselves in Portland or a city whose food culture was already defined, such as Manhattan. For all the chefs, like Paley, who decided to come to Portland, the payoff has turned out to be well worth it. Not only was real estate in Portland much cheaper when Vitaly came, but he, along with his fellow chefs, also got a head start on the Portland food scene before everyone else. Portland’s food culture was akin to a hip, new startup, while food cultures in big cities were like established, large conglomerates.
Growing up, I didn’t appreciate the city I lived in, and only recently have I discovered what makes it so unique from anywhere else in the world. An urban utopia, filled with all forms of art and excitement, sits between the Cascade mountain range and the Pacific ocean. Almost like an oasis in a desert, Portland acts as a haven for artists looking to feed their creative hunger. Now, I’m not saying that the entire Northwest sector of the United States is void of culture, because that would be an absurd statement. I’m simply stating that Portland seems to have a very high concentration of talented artists for its size. Small boutiques and cozy restaurants line every street, with trees blanketing even the smallest areas between buildings. An overcast sky hangs above the city, seemingly indefinitely, with intervals of rain occurring every half hour. The roads almost always have that slick, after-rain glare which reflects the headlights of oncoming cars, giving off the illusion that the road is slightly illuminated. While its weather is predominantly wet and damp, Portland is always vibrant with an artistic energy that never dies. It acts as a light in a dark place, slowly attracting more and more artistic talent to its warm, lively core.
Some of this artistic talent finds itself wanting to work for top-notch chefs like Vitaly. With over one hundred employees under his command, Vitaly is not just a boss but a caring mentor to everyone who works for him. This attribute is not just a differentiating factor of Vitaly as a chef, but also as a person. “I know everybody that works here, I know them all by name, I know what they’re like, I try to follow their memories, and I try to remember their birthdays,” Vitaly tells me. Not all chefs do this, and especially not those who have over one hundred people working in his or her restaurants. Paley is genuinely interested in the well being of all of his employees, which is not only uncommon for chefs, but for businesspeople in general. “They’re also part of a family, part of something bigger,” Vitaly tells me, “It may be a job for them, but it’s also a place they call home for a little bit.” I have no doubt that Vitaly’s love and attitude towards cooking will rub off on his employees and that they will one day aspire to be like him: not just a chef and a mentor but a person who understands when to take risks. “If you firmly believe in something you kind of have to just go for it and not look back,” Vitaly tells me, “You don’t want to be reckless about it, you want to be thoughtful, but at the same time unless you’re fully committed you’ll never fully realize your potential.”
With over 22 restaurants for every ten thousand inhabitants in 2013, which has increased to 25 since, Portland has the fifteenth highest number of restaurants per capita out of all cities in the US (Satran, 2013). This isn’t to assume that all of these eateries actually serve good food, because if that were the case, Portland would be in the top five. Sreekar Jasthi did exactly that study and found which cities would be the best for foodies by using the the number of restaurants per one hundred thousand residents, the ratio of restaurants to fast food places, and numerous other factors. Portland ranked second in the nation just behind San Francisco and eight spots ahead of New York City (Jasthi, 2015). This abundance of high quality eateries throughout the city makes it necessary for chefs like Vitaly to adapt a competitive mindset. “It’s a friendly competition,” Vitaly tells me, “each one of us makes each other better”. In order to not fall behind, chefs and artists alike have to closely watch their competitive counterparts to see if they do anything interesting or different that the consumer ends up liking. Restaurants in Portland are completely diverse and different from one another, yet chefs still compete for the same client. “You’re really only as good as the last plate of food you serve,” Vitaly says, “and if you didn’t serve a very good one it will take you a while to come back”.
It’s Autumn again, and as I walk up the steps to the restaurant four years later, I recognize the trees around me, with their fiery, autumn leaves littered across the wooden patio. I notice certain details that didn’t catch my eye before. A dining room sits to the right of an intricately carved, wooden desk with a smooth, mahogany bar sitting to the left. Black and white photos of farmers and their produce cover the left-most wall, implying a connection to local ingredients. A woman in an elegant, white dress dances in the center of a French white wine poster hanging on the middle wall. A beautifully arranged assortment of artisanal cheeses sits on a cart in front of the door underneath four different awards. I lean down to read the small name, “Vitaly Paley”, on one of the framed certificates written in a cursive font. The name rings in the back of my head, and I remember it being the same Eastern-European chef from that rainy night at DaNet.
Paley’s Place seemed different than when I had last been there. I found myself greatly appreciating the food with its diverse combinations, such as the sweetbreads with chestnut spaetzle and mushroom jus, or the Coho salmon with a butternut squash puree and pomegranate relish. The food truly reflected the region I have lived in my whole life, and tasting it made me happy to call Portland my home. The place didn’t feel like a restaurant but more like an old, Victorian-style house, with me being the hungry guest and Vitaly being the owner and my gracious host. I feel that in a city full of restaurants and creative minds, Paley’s Place is less of a place and more of a testament to Portland’s food culture. It serves as a reminder that Paley established himself in Portland at a most unexpected time. A time when Portland was just another boring city on the Western strip of America, when it was nothing but a drive-by destination for tourists going from Seattle to Los Angeles, Vitaly stepped in; he took the risk few chefs would even think of attempting: making his culinary footprint in the unknown city sitting on the Willamette river in Northwest Oregon. It was at that time when Paley’s Place earned its permanent spot on the streets of Portland. It was at that time Paley knew he had Portland in the palm of his hand.
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