Russian-born, French-trained Portland chef Vitaly Paley was recognized with a James Beard award last year, an honor commonly thought of as a culinary Oscar, intended to spotlight the work of established, innovative, high-quality restaurants in various regions of the U.S.
Chef Paley co-owns Paley’s Place with his wife Kimberly. The bistro and bar is located at 1204 N.W. 21st Ave. and features a menu that is a bit pricier than your average student can easily afford, but with a proven track record and plans for the future that include publishing a cookbook, being the featured chef at one of the prestigious award dinners hosted by the James Beard Foundation, and a line of energy bars, the place will definitely be there the next time you are thinking of a special event dinner.
Chef Paley took a few moments to discuss culinary philosophy, the state of the Portland food scene and share a bit of what makes his restaurant so good.
Your exact award is “Best Chef: Northwest/Hawaii.” Do you think there is such a thing as “Northwest” cuisine?
Wow, you choose to open up with a big one. I think that there are a number of us here and in Seattle who are trying to define something. The other regional cuisines are definitely thought of as groups of dishes, but not ours. You can think of typically New England or Southern dishes. We have cedar plank roasted salmon, but mostly you think of ingredients, like blackberries or hazelnuts.
There was some discussion of the fact that all of your contenders were from Seattle. What do you think the Portland food scene can do to get out of Seattle’s shadow?
Well, that was an anomaly; you really don’t ever see that. The fact that there were so many chefs from Seattle split their vote. Actually though, in the past six years three Portland chefs have won the award. There are a lot of other great chefs working here too that aren’t eligible for the award because they haven’t stayed at one place long enough or something like that. I think that Portland is getting a lot more attention than people realize.
What is your advice for a person who is interested in cuisine but hasn’t had the chance to experience much in the way of fine dining?
Never stop experimenting. That means to keep doing something until you develop an understanding of it. Go to the farmer’s market and pick up something you have never seen before, do some research and prepare it. It’s things like that which give me the most pleasure, even after all these years of professional cooking.
Do you have any cookbooks that you find yourself going back to?
Well, there is “La Russe Gastronomique.” I have two copies, one at home and one at work that is very beat up. Inside, it just lists the ingredients and very terse instructions.
Yeah, the language in that one is almost poetic, especially in French. I really like “Aioli” myself. Do you have any others?
“The Joy of Cooking.” It has all of the basic, foundational recipes you need to refer back to from time to time. Like if you need to look up shortbread or something. And if nothing else you can read the game section and learn how to roast a bear.
What are a couple of dishes that you think everybody should learn how to make?
Probably roast chicken. You can get really good chicken at the farmer’s markets. Roasting a chicken is actually really simple once you learn how. You should probably learn how to make soup too. It is mostly pretty simple but there are surprisingly technical aspects too. You should focus on simple dishes with fewer ingredients, fewer things to obscure the flavor. It’s best to stay simple.
You can visit the Paley’s Place web site at http://paleysplace.citysearch.com to see a sample menu and wine list.