What does Debussy have to do with pan roasted oysters served with sea urchin butter? The path from piano prodigy to “Iron Chef” may seem unusual, but it makes perfect sense to Vitaly Paley, an accomplished pianist and award-winning chef and restaurateur widely recognized as a trailblazer in the American culinary scene.
Vitaly, an alumnus of Kaufman Music Center's Lucy Moses School and serious piano student from the age of six, immigrated to the U.S. from Russia at age 13 and grew up assuming he would pursue a career as a classical pianist. After three years at Juilliard, however, he became disenchanted with that plan and took a leave of absence to do some personal searching. He ended up in the restaurant world, earning a Grand Diploma from the French Culinary Institute and apprenticing at the two-star Michelin restaurant Moulin de la Gorce near Limoges, France. Lured to Oregon by the bounty of the Pacific Northwest, he and his wife Kimberly opened their first restaurant, Paley’s Place, in 1995, and followed up on that success with Imperial this past September and the brand new Portland Penny Diner. Vitaly takes a historic approach to cooking American foods, carefully researching where they come from and interpreting dishes for the contemporary palate. “For me personally, seeing American food through the eyes of an immigrant is a profound statement, the veritable house with the white picket fence,” he explains.
The food world has taken notice. In 2005 Vitaly was awarded the James Beard Award for “Best Chef Pacific Northwest,” and in 2011 he won a battle on the Food Network’s “Iron Chef America” (secret ingredient: radishes). The December 2012 Food & Wine named him one of the country’s 10 best food entrepreneurs. He has appeared on the Martha Stewart Show, and O, The Oprah Magazine recognized Paley’s Place as one of the nation’s best food destinations. You can find praise for his culinary creations in Saveur Magazine, The New York Times, Food & Wine, Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Wine Enthusiast, GQ, USA Today and Travel & Leisure. We had to ask: What’s it like to be on the Martha Stewart Show? “Pretty spectacular – all was done to perfection,” says Vitaly. “They rolled out the red carpet and were very professional. I was blown away.”
Have his many years of piano lessons contributed to Vitaly’s current success? At first glance it may seem like there’s little common ground between nailing a Chopin Étude and presenting an exquisite plate of albacore ceviche, but Vitaly draws important parallels between his musical training and his work as a chef. Both require an intense focus on detail, repetition and exactness as well as hard work, determination and creativity. As a chef, he explains, “when you’re done practicing you perform – three times a day. Even though the curtain doesn’t open or close, you’re always on stage, judged by others for your performance – it’s just that my performance is on a plate rather than a stage.”