The Untold Truth Of Vitaly Paley

A season of "Top Chef" set in Portland, Oregon, wouldn't be complete if it didn't have Vitaly Paley. Fans of the chef who is Portland-famous had to wait until Episode 12 of the current season. (The 14th and final episode aired July 1, according to Bravo.) Paley appears as a guest judge for the quickfire challenge: The four remaining chefs had to create a modern dish with ingredients that would have been available to pioneers on the Oregon Trail (via Portland Monthly). Vitaly liked the challenge winner's pan-seared salmon in walnut pepper sauce, topped with parsnip crisps (via YouTube). "This is a modern take on what you would find on the trail," he said.

This was high praise coming from the chef and founder of Paley's Place, a restaurant Eater Portland called "the birthplace of modern Oregonian cuisine." If any U.S. city was positioned to bring farm-to-table to fine dining, it was Portland. You need to add foraging and fishing to farming if you want to size up all the ingredients the Pacific Northwest has to offer – everything from strawberries and salmon to truffles and morels (via The Washington Post). According to the Paley's Place website, farmers share the spotlight with the chef at the restaurant. 

Paley's own trail to Oregon wound from the former Soviet Union to New York and then to France. As you'll learn, Paley discovered Oregon, in a certain sense, while working at a restaurant in France.

Vitaly Paley learned farm-to-table from his Soviet grandmother

When Vitaly Paley was a young boy, growing up in the former Soviet Union, farm-to-table wasn't a fine dining concept. It was just about the only option. Paley was born in Gomel, a city in what is now the nation of Belarus (via Russian-Speaking Communities in Oregon). The Soviet-controlled supermarkets were virtually empty, and Paley remembers getting in line for bread even though he wasn't sure there'd be any left by the time he got to the front of the line (via Willamette Week). Paley was raised by his grandparents, his grandmother cooking on the fireplace with ingredients from her garden (via Alliance Française Portland).

While his grandmother's cooking stands out as a fond childhood memory, Paley wasn't aiming to become a chef just yet. Instead, he was following the footsteps of his mother, who was away studying piano. Paley himself was a piano prodigy who performed on Soviet TV. When his mother took him out of the Soviet Union – eventually landing in New York in 1976, when he was 13 – Paley continued on a musical path that seemed written in the stars. As Paley wrote in "The Paley's Place Cookbook," that changed about the time he met his future wife, Kimberly, on a dinner cruise ship (via Google Books). She was a performing artist, too, but both would embark on an entirely different path together. They became lifelong partners in the restaurant world.

A child prodigy at piano, Vitaly Paley chose culinary school

Vitaly Paley wrote about his life-changing decision to go to culinary school and pursue a chef's life in "The Paley's Place Cookbook." He was at Juilliard in New York, and his future wife Kimberly was at the Martha Graham School, studying dance (via Google Books). Both worked for a dinner cruise line to pay the bills, and at the end of a particularly historic night's work they kissed under the torch of the Statue of Liberty while the nation was celebrating the monument's 100th anniversary.

Vitaly and Kimberly's paths intertwined from that point forward. He attended the French Culinary Institute, and they apprenticed together at Au Moulin de la Gorce, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant near Limoges, France. Vitaly worked in the kitchen, and Kimberly honed her wine knowledge in the front of the house. They returned to New York briefly before moving to Oregon to open their own restaurant. Paley wrote in their cookbook that "Oregon reminded us of France, where ingredients are the stars."

Oregon first appeared on Paley's culinary radar when an especially beautiful crop of morel mushrooms showed up at Au Moulin de la Gorce. When he found out where the morels came from, Paley remembered thinking, why would a French chef who was so proud of all things French order mushrooms all the way from Oregon? "This was something that just piqued my interest," Paley told the Lewis & Clark College blog Russian-Speaking Communities in Oregon. "What is this place, Oregon?"

Vitaly Paley built a restaurant empire in Portland

Vitaly and Kimberly Paley moved to Portland, Oregon in 1994 and opened Paley's Place in 1995 (via StarChefs). The restaurant is inside an old Victorian home in a tree-lined Portland neighborhood, according to the restaurant's website, and it is known for its fusion of classic French and Pacific Northwest, per Oregon Live. Paley eventually broadened Paley's Place's menu to reflect his Russian upbringing. The restaurant won Paley a coveted James Beard Award in 2005 (via Portland Monthly).

Paley didn't rush to build a Portland restaurant empire, but he helped start a boom in hotel restaurants in the city by opening Imperial, with its wood-fired grill, in the Hotel Lucia in 2012 (via Alliance Française Portland). Critical acclaim for the restaurant quickly followed. Next, Paley opened Headwaters at the Heathman Hotel in 2016. Paley also had a second eatery in Hotel Lucia, the Portland Penny Diner, which he converted to a New York-style pizzeria called The Crown in 2017, according to Eater Portland. The chef was on a roll. By early 2019, he had opened Rosa Rosa in Portland's Dossier Hotel, an Italian restaurant with a side menu inspired by a recent trip to Turkey and Georgia (via Willamette Week).

Way before 'Top Chef,' Vitaly Paley won 'Iron Chef'

Vitaly Paley didn't need to win a TV cooking competition show to launch his career, but he won one anyway: "Iron Chef: America," in 2011 (via Oregon Live). The competitors had to make a multi-course meal using radishes every step of the way. Paley flexed his creativity when he plated up dessert: a tarte tatin with watermelon radish caramel sauce, granny smith apples, radish greens, and mint syrup. Radishes may have given Paley the advantage, as the root vegetable was a staple where he grew up, near Russia. He said on the show he felt "very comfortable around radishes. ... I feel right at home" (via Eater Portland

Paley appeared on Esquire Network's "Knife Fight" in 2014, not as a contestant but as a special guest who got to watch a battle of chefs from his two restaurants, Paley's Place and Imperial (via Mediaite). Finally, Paley made his cameo a couple of weeks ago on "Top Chef." Host Padma Lakshmi called him a culinary pioneer in Portland, and fellow guest judge Gregory Gourdet referred to Paley as his mentor and, affectionately, his uncle (via Portland Monthly).

If Paley appeared subdued during his appearance on "Top Chef," that's because Episode 12 was most likely shot in October 2020 (all 14 episodes were filmed in September and October, according to Variety) – about the time the chef realized most of his restaurants would never open again.

The pandemic and Portland's protests devastated Paley's restaurant business

Restaurants inside hotels need a steady stream of hotel guests. Restaurants located downtown benefit from a perception that the area is safe. Vitaly Paley had neither of these going for him in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic closed restaurants and severely limited the whole hospitality industry. Portland also was rocked by sometimes violent street protests that attracted national media attention. "If it was just COVID, we might have figured out how to proceed," Paley told Portland Monthly. "But add the political climate, empty offices, empty hotels, windows boarded up. It felt apocalyptic."

In the end, Paley lost four-fifths of his restaurant empire. All four hotel restaurants closed permanently (via KGW8). Paley's realization in fall 2020 that diners weren't returning to downtown Portland felt like a punch in the gut. "It took my breath away," he told Portland Monthly. "I went into the empty dining room, sat alone, shed a tear, and walked out."

All was not lost for Paley. He got back in the kitchen where it all started for him in Portland. Paley's Place is still open, and Paley is excited to tell you that farm-to-table still happens there. Carrot cake was on the menu when he spoke to Portland Monthly, with carrots from Prairie Creek Farms in eastern Oregon. "Our dear departed friend and cookbook co-author Robert Reynolds once said of Prairie Creek carrots, 'God made you perfect, now what can you become?'" Paley said. "I think he'd agree they have found their perfect destiny."