It took Vitaly Paley 20 years to meet food.
Born in Russia (near Kiev) to a family that valued music, Paley was raised to be a classical pianist. It wasn’t until college that Paley started expressing interests in other occupations. While attending Juilliard Music School in New York City, Paley began to look for opportunities other than classical piano. In his early twenties he took a leave of absence from Juilliard.
“[Food] was never something that I thought about as my future. It was something that happened fairly organically. All my life all I had done was music and I wanted to see what else was out there.”
After Juilliard, he went to culinary school and then came to Portland to work at a restaurant called Pazzo. After Paley left Pazzo, he and his wife Kimberly opened up Paley’s Place in 1995.
“Paley’s Place has always been connected to where we are. It is very much a place that is part of the fibre of the northwest. We wanted to come here to explore the community and be closer to the products that we use.”
A high end restaurant with a Franco-Russian menu, Paley’s Place has received national recognition including James Beard Best Chef in the Northwest in 2005. Paley earned an appearance on Iron Chef America where he beat Chef Jose Garces in a battle over radishes.
Unlike many restaurateurs, Paley did not rest on his Paley’s Place accolades. In 2012, Paley and his wife opened up Imperial – an open fire swanky wild west style restaurant – and Penny Diner – a fresh, high end look at burgers and fries.
“To be able to provide diverse experiences through our brand is very important. The intention is never to clone or repeat yourself but to reinvent yourself.”
But with this comes great risk. The success of Paley’s Place does not guarantee the success of other ventures. However, so far both the Diner and Imperial have been huge successes.
“I want to stay creative myself and then the consumer either welcomes it or not. So far we have been lucky that we have been welcomed by the community in all our venues.”
Then there’s DaNet. Opened in 2014, DaNet is labeled as a pop-up fixed price restaurant with a heavy Russian influence. The recipient of the Cuisine of the Year 2014 by Portland Monthly, DaNet is arguably the most innovative restaurant so far on Paley’s list. When people think of food, they rarely look to Russia as being the food powerhouse for anything except maybe borscht. But Paley tells us that despite the bad rap Russian food has gotten over the years, with Russia’s geography and history, there may not be a more diverse and interesting cuisine. In fact, much of the French cuisine we enjoy today was originally made for Russian aristocrats by French chefs in Russia.
“When the Soviet Union took over, The Soviet era took over all what Russian food was about. The food you think of when you think Russian food is Soviet which is nothing to boast about. But if you go back far enough, you get a lot of really interesting flavors and dishes.”
As Paley and I discussed restaurants and food, I started to see that Paley has two missions in his restaurants. First, he feels a duty to bring Russian flavors to Portland to tell a story about his own culture and past. Second, Vitaly has a specific goal in his restaurants:
“I want [our customers] to leave with something to remember for a long time. People tend to remember the simple things on the menu. That is what brings them back. If they can come back and have the same meal five years later, we know we are doing something right.”
Favorite restaurants in Portland:
Bamboo Sushi, Nuestra Cocina, OX Restaurant
Family: married to Kimberly for 27 years
Where did you grow up?: Russia and NYC
Hobbies: bike riding and listening to music
This is the first story in a four part series about food in Portland.