You might think of it as The Fantastic Journey.
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 is Paley’s Place, a restored Victorian home in northwest Portland, and his French-influenced repertoire extends 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 said. “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. Kimberly runs the front of the house while Vitaly holds forth in the kitchen.
Said the chef: “Our concept was always very clear — to work closely with the products directly from the source. “We were doing this before ‘sustainability’ became a buzzword in Oregon, because this was what we learned in France. 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.”
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, co-authored by both Paleys with Robert Reynolds, was published by Ten Speed Press in 2008.