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Vitaly Paley: Leaving an Iron Chef and Iron Curtain in the Dust
In the back wall of the Hotel Lucia lobby is a series of black and white photographs from David Kennerly. I spent time looking at them as I waited to meet Vitaly Paley at Imperial, his new restaurant under construction in the hotel. The black and white series of famous images of Richard Nixon waving farewell from the ramp of the helicopter took me back to an oddly parallel memory.
I was 16 on that August evening in 1974, and just outside the kitchen of the Abbey Restaurant in Norwalk, Connecticut, I found myself in a VW bus with the chef and two waitresses—the latter two wearing orange, mini-dress uniforms and white, thigh-high patent leather boots—passing a joint as we gleefully listened to Nixon’s resignation speech.
Snapping me back to 2012, Vitaly walked over and pointed to a photo right next to the Nixon images. “My favorite is that one—Brezhnev. That was taken the year I left the Soviet Union—1975.” So here were two guys approximately the same age who came from two sides of the Iron Curtain almost forty years ago, converging at this place and time to talk about two common interests: Food and Portland.
Vitaly was sporting a black t-shirt with “Radish” printed on the front, a nod to his team’s sweet victory over Jose Garces in Battle Radish on TV’s Iron Chef America, 36 years after he left the Soviet Union—not as a chef, but as a young accomplished concert pianist.
It has been 17 years since Vito and his wife Kimberly opened Paley’s Place, a nationally-recognized Portland institution that represents the pinnacle of dining in a city that is now recognized as a food mecca in the USA. A significant part of the credit for that goes to Vitaly and Kimberly. Paley’s has also spawned some of our most notable chefs. Among them, Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon and Little Bird, Jason French of Ned Ludd, and Ben Bettinger, who will return from his storied tenure at Beaker & Flask to join the Paleys as executive chef at Imperial (named after the hotel preceding the Lucia by over 100 years) and the Portland Penny Diner (named for the storied coin-flip that gave Portland its name—over Boston). Not to exclude Paley’s current executive chef, Patrick McKee, to whom Vitaly has entrusted his kitchen at his namesake restaurant.
Opening two restaurants won’t be the only milestones for Vitaly. He will also be celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary with Kimberly, and his 50th birthday. A big year, to be sure. But it’s clear he believes the best is yet to come. Attributing his thoughts on this to Vladimir Horowitz, Vitaly said, “To be a creative person, you not only need a world of experience, you have to believe in fairy tales.”
Tell me about your childhood as it relates to food.
I left the Soviet Union back when I was 13 years old. I was in the music world. I was playing piano since I was 6 years old, and I went to New York to study at the Juilliard School. I have incredible memories of growing up as a kid, and my grandmother cooking everything from scratch in a brick oven, making her own cheese, getting fresh tomatoes on the vine… We ate like we’re supposed to eat—raw milk straight from the cow. All that’s been part of my upbringing. But when I was a student, for me, food was not important. I just ate because I needed to not stay hungry and I’d have their $2.50 special. Eggs, potatoes, toast, whatever. And at times in the afternoon, I’d be hungry, so I ate the overcooked meatloaf, and the overcooked string beans—but that’s all I knew. For me to make the leap into the food world was very, very different. I took a leave of absence from school, and needed to find my way to understand what else was out there. I hadn’t done anything else in my life.
Well, I didn’t want to, but it’s the easiest thing to do when you can’t decide what you want to do. It’s easy money. You become a waiter and decide what to do after that.
Many people have made that decision, but they haven’t accomplished what you have.
The discipline was always there, and so I knew if I decided I was going to make that my profession, I needed to know all I can and immerse myself fully into it. It took me seven years to decide if I wanted to stick around in it. And I just never went back to school. I met Kimberly and ended up in France and worked there for a part of ’91, ’92. We came back with a dead set idea that we have to have our own restaurant, and it would be somewhere that would resemble France. Portland was this place that made sense to us. The proximity was right, the access to ingredients was right, the wine industry was just beginning. All the makings. But the naysayers would tell me, “Yeah, yeah. It’s not happening here for 20 years.” We proved them wrong, you know? The food scene blew up in 15 years.
How does Portland differ from other food cities?
Portland is a very young city with a very free and pioneering spirit, and there are no traditionalists to tell you, “You must do it this way because that’s the way it’s done.” You get to invent with all of your abilities and all of your experiences, and then you just give it that free Portland spirit, and before you know it, you’ve got a cuisine of its own. People go for broke here. And they win most times. It takes somebody like Gabe Rucker. He walked into Le Pigeon and when they said, “Make this work, and you can have this restaurant,” he said, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” and he did it.
The gentleman who is coming with me (to Imperial) is Ben Bettinger. He spent 7 years working for me, and he started out as an intern, and so I watched him grow. And then he needed to leave to spread his wings a little bit to understand what he’s capable of. And now that we’re back together, the synergies are still there. I’ll start a sentence and he’ll finish it.
Same thing with Gabriel. I can’t say I taught him everything, but we had a really good creative relationship, too. I was really bummed when he left, but I was happy to see him grow. Again, it was the same combination: We came in together and we had this energy between the two of us when we worked.
For years you had that passion and exhibited it, and everyone enjoyed it, but the food world hadn’t blown up until there was food TV.
The world of a celebrity chef. I know.
Let’s talk about Iron Chef.
First of all, I couldn’t have done it with or without Chef Patrick (McKee), who is our chef at Paley’s now—he’s our rock star. I depend on him on a daily basis. I’m a pretty competitive guy. I don’t compete very often, but when I do, I go to win. I encourage the guys that work with me to do the same. You have to compete because you approach your art with a very different degree of exactness. You can’t just be off the cuff. Celebrity chefs have brought awareness to the public. I don’t care about TV personalities or celebrities—but two things it did for me is that it brought awareness to the public of the type of food we’re doing and the seriousness with which we approach it, and as a business owner, it made things easier on us because it really puts butts in seats. That’s important because you’re not just doing this for your own kicks; you’ve got 27 employees and their families, you’ve got responsibilities, and that’s priceless to me.
What is it about Iron Chef that might have gone on behind the scenes that people don’t see?
What you see is pretty much what you get on TV. The producers want drama. They don’t want chaos. They gave me just enough information, but not more than you need.
What do you know ahead of time?
Three months prior, they give you a selection of ingredients that MAY appear on the show. And you’re allowed to ask as many questions about any one of those ingredients throughout the process. So you get a chance to really work on some dishes. We went to every single one of those ingredients, designing menus based on these ingredients, and so hours and hours of training—kind of like you’re training for Olympics—that’s what we did. You time yourself. The first time we did it we were like kids straight out of school. We had not tasted our food we put on a plate. We looked like slobs, and we forgot to taste it. And it was like, “Whoa! What just happened?” You know? An hour just went by, BOOM! You gained a whole new respect. They make things really hard on us, because the show is not designed for the competitors to win. It’s the other way around. You go on Iron Chef—there are two identical kitchens, but the Iron Chef gets to pick one, and I get the leftovers. I get a walk-through that includes 25 minutes of just, “Here’s the oven, here’s the refrigerator, here’s the water, we’ll turn it on for you at this degree. Got it? Got it? Good. Let’s go.” That’s basically the way it happens.
We beat them. We’re happy. It was definitely like, “Holy shit, we just won Iron Chef!” You watch this stuff, and you’re like, “How does this happen?” You don’t realize that it’s a real deal. And it was pretty scary.
What did it take to win?
I credit our ability to do what we did with me telling my guys that we need to say yes to just about every event that we’re being asked to do, no matter where it is. It takes you out of your kitchen and gives you an ability to be versatile. I can cook on a campfire with no running water, or I can cook in a million dollar kitchen in someone’s home. It doesn’t make any difference. I just need a heat source and a plate to put the food on. Naomi (Pomeroy) did the same thing when she was competing on Top Chef. I knew exactly why she made it into the Top 4—it’s because when she grew up she never had a million dollar kitchen. She’d done many different types of foods in many different types of situations, and so she adapted easily.
What do you do on days off?
We have a small, little house at the top of the hill—we back right up to Forest Park. And so we literally live in the woods. Small, little pool—we close the gate, we lounge by our pool. She does the gardening, I go for a bike ride. We fire up the grill. Got a little wood-fired oven at home as well, which we like. But we live very simply. We need to check out. As she calls it, “We need to empty out before we can fill back up again.” And our house allows us to do that.
We’re after our American heritage foods here. We’re after the open spaces of the Pacific Northwest and the campfires. So that’s kind of the feel, in general, but a lot of the food is going to come from the wood-fired grill, and the wood-fired rotisserie, and it’s going to be American influenced—you know, from the beginning to end. I spent a little bit of time at the Oregon Historical Society and looked at some of what’s been around since the 1900s. We’re after some of the wording that they used in their menus, some of the foods, some of the ideas that have either gone by the wayside or were forgotten. We’re exploring some of the techniques from that era as well, with a modern sensibility.
When you go out in Portland, are there any specific restaurants you love?
I’m a pretty simple guy. I really like ethnic foods. We, unfortunately, have a lack of diversity here. I like Indian. I like Mexican. I go to either Autentica or Nuestra Cocina for Mexican. I crave sushi all the time. Bamboo Sushi, or even Sinju. Higgins’ pastrami sandwich, which I’ve loved for years, and his selection of beers. Gosh, we just had a fabulous meal at Wildwood across the street. I hadn’t been there in years. Really, I was kind of blown away.
And what do you think of the food cart scene?
You know, yesterday, for the first time, I actually had a little sandwich from a food cart. I was never a big fan. I went to the Grilled Cheese Grill. It was good. It was really good.
If you had a food cart, what one thing would be your specialty?
The idea for Portland Penny Diner started as a cart. A diner is the original roach coach of the East Coast, dating back to mid-1800s, when the diner car was pulled by a horse. I have memories from working a day job on Wall Street in my youth of these food carts you see that serve coffee and breakfast pastries and bagels and breakfast sandwiches—and all the hot dog carts in Manhattan. It’s in my blood. There is a need to simplify food, make it more uncluttered and give it meaning and authenticity. We are trying to bridge the creativity we need to have as cooks, our cultural and immigrant roots, and public needs. The reinvention happening with the outbreak of food carts and all the city’s new restaurant ideas is exciting. It is particularly satisfying for me to observe the growth over the past 17 years. It will be interesting to see how many of the new ideas are left standing. Running out of steam is pretty common in our business.