Q&A: Kim and Vitaly Paley adapt to recession -- and 15 years -- at Paley\'s Place
Kim and Vitaly Paley opened Paley's Place restaurant in Northwest Portland in February 1995. He was and remains the chef; she is the indomitable spirit running the front of the house. There have never been any other partners or investors, though many former cooks and servers now run kitchens and dining rooms of their own.
Fifteen years and countless accolades (including being named The Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year in 1999) later, the Paleys -- owners and restaurant -- are still going strong.
The menu remains bright and interesting; ingredients still come from nearby, and the tables are full of happily chattering locals and visitors. In a business where quick flash and flame-out are common themes, hitting the 15-year mark is an achievement.
The Paleys celebrated the achievement -- two months late -- by sitting for an exclusive interview. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: To what do you attribute Paley's longevity?
Kim: We are very hands-on. We are physically in our space all the time. And when we aren't, we are doing other work to promote the place.
Vitaly: It's been a journey of discovery learning what it is we do here, and I can honestly say that it's only been in the last year that I really have begun to feel confident in my own ability and potential and to feel happy in the kitchen.
The thoughts don't always translate to the fingers -- the technical prowess lags the thought process. So, sometimes you are able to think of these crazy interesting new ideas that seem perfectly logical in your head, but when you get it on the plate, all of a sudden you say to yourself, "What was I thinking?" These days it seems like my fingers and head are a lot better synchronized. Not that I would compare myself with Beethoven, but now I understand more the ability to feel the outcome of what I do. But it's taken me 15 years to get here.
I've been through back surgery. In fact, that was in 2005, the year I got the James Beard Award for Best Northwest Chef but was out of the kitchen for six months. Before the surgery I held my meetings with kitchen staff lying on my stomach because I couldn't stand and they ran the kitchen for me. I consider myself lucky to have been given the award that year.
Q: After 15 years, how do you keep it fresh for yourself and your customers?
Kim: At least in the front of the house, every day is still different. There's no routine.
Vitaly: We in the kitchen push it on a daily basis. I keep all my cooks on the edge. You have to stay creative. With the recession, last year we revisited every aspect of our business. We kept buying the same quality ingredients -- the truffles and other expensive products -- but we just became more creative in how we used them. And from the need to be more creative evolved a new style for us. We began to print a new menu daily, which we had never done. We began bringing in whole hogs and breaking them down more than we had ever done.
And being creative means being able to use and sell in some form all the different parts of the pig -- to give the pig's head, for example, mass appeal. I created a cold cut that we call testarossa, which is head meat that's spiced with local fennel pollen and piment d'Espelette, rolled and slow-cooked for 18 hours. It melts on your tongue and we can't keep it in on hand, and it's become a model for us to expand our horizons . But without creativity ... if we sold it simply as "head cheese," a lot of people would say, "Head cheese? Are you kidding?"
Kim: And our job out on the floor is to be educated enough, smart enough and confident enough to describe it and feel with utter abandon that this is fabulous.
Vitaly: We aren't fueled by the product so much anymore. Instead, the leading factor is the need to create interesting new ideas. So, for example, there's this guy from southeast Washington who raises these incredible poussins and squabs. The other day, he walked into the kitchen and in the middle of the afternoon we decided to change our menu to include poussin. So, the kids in the kitchen are scared and they're psyched at the same time. There's this feeling of excitement that keeps it fresh.
There's a section of the menu that are classics: mussels and fries, escargot, beef tartare and sweetbreads. The rest changes. The idea is that I walk into the cooler and say to myself, "Today is a brand new day. What are we going to do?" For any new dish I come up with, the three questions I have to ask are: "Does it make sense in terms of being up to our standards?" Number two: "Will the item evoke a reaction from the diner, some kind of emotional response?" And, number three, "Will we be able to execute the dish consistently?" So it's this daily creative process we go through and it's how we find meaning and respect for ingredients.
Q: It was the recession that moved you in this direction?
Vitaly: The vision was always there, but it had never been so focused and as clear as it is today. That's the funny part: It was always there, but I was never so sure. When we walked in here 15 years ago, we were going to buy from local people, we were going to work with local farmers and support the local economy. And this was before local and sustainable became buzz words. This is our motto. So, we are just hitting our stride, but now everyone wants to know what's new and what's hot. So we are at a crossroads: Do I want to open a new restaurant so I can be heard or do I sit back and do what we normally do and cook for people who want to eat our food?
Q: Is there a second restaurant in your future?
Vitaly: We have been seriously looking. We looked at the old Zefiro space on Northwest 21st, but there are too many ghosts floating around so that's not in play. But I would love to do a fish house. There's no good seafood place in Portland. And I'd like to come in and show that we do have a bounty from the sea.
Kim: And it doesn't have to be local. We want to be able to get stuff from all over.
Vitaly: There are plenty of sustainable items we can explore from around the world. I don't know if we would ship directly, but there's a monopoly of seafood companies in Portland, and unfortunately they are not the best if you compare the quality of what else is out there. And the same way we have been supporting local farmers, I would like to explore new ideas with seafood. We need to look past halibut and salmon.
Q: Are you ready to take the flak if you open a seafood restaurant that's not locally focused?
Vitaly: I'm ready. I've been waiting on the sidelines for a long time, kept a low profile and said all the diplomatic things, but it's time to stir it up a little bit. Focusing locally is really important and it should be the only way people do business and the only way they live their lives. At the same time, though, by bringing in the really good, quality products from elsewhere, we will be able to show the local purveyors that what they have right now isn't good enough.
I am prepared to begin making connections with people in Seattle, San Francisco and other places and see if we can find some really interesting sources. And then the idea would be a restaurant that would very seafood-focused. We would sell whole fish by the pound, but we would still need to keep it accessible and within people's price range. And that's the challenge because seafood is inherently expensive. Anyway, for now we are still mulling this over.
Q: Other than changing your culinary focus, how did Paley's survive the recession?
Kim: We worked harder. We looked at our numbers, tightened up our payroll. We bought a point-of-sale computer system that tracks all sorts of things. We treated the restaurant as a business and saved a lot of money because of it. We also promoted the fact that we have half portions -- which we have always had -- but that became huge for us because our customers saw it as great value. We did not follow the herd, though. We never went with the happy hour thing. We did not want to lose our identity or integrity. We had to stick with what worked for us.
Vitaly: And I want to take this opportunity to dispense with the notion that Paley's is only an expensive, special occasion restaurant. With the half portions, we provide a great value. Beyond that, even though our sales were down last year, it was still one of our most profitable ever because we had tightened things up by managing our internal numbers.
Q: Where do you see yourself 15 years from now?
Vitaly: As I said, I'm just hitting my stride now, but I don't know what I'll be doing that far in the future or where I'll be doing it. Maybe or maybe not in Portland.
Q: Are there any mistakes you have made over the years? Any regrets?
Kim: I regret we didn't bring in the computer system sooner. It's probably added 10 percent in revenues that were lost from not getting things written down.
Q: What are your favorite ingredients?
Vitaly: Fennel pollen, piment d'Espellette and persillade (parsley and garlic chopped together)
Q: Who is your favorite food service personality and why?
Kim: I know it sounds really old school, but Sirio Maccione of Le Cirque. He has this way, this honesty -- you would see him sitting down at the end of the night eating his grilled cheese sandwich. I didn't work for him, but I served him a lot when I was working in New York City. He'd come in with his wife all dressed up. His manner, his style, his elegance ... if I could aspire to emulate anyone, it would be him. For me to be able to observe him and watch how he works a room. ... There is just no other like him.
Vitaly: I was always amazed at his ability to make you feel welcome even if you were sitting at the worst table in the house.
Q: How do you compare the Portland dining scene with other cities?
Vitaly: Portland has a ways to go. We are not as international and I'm not sure we will ever be as international as Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago. You eat in high-end and even not so high-end restaurants in any of those cities and you will hear all sorts of languages being spoken. Partly we are driven by locale, but mostly we are driven by local consumer demand, and the demand for international-level dining -- the very top end, the glamour -- is not here. Instead we have the grunge, cement-floor industrial thing.
Up in Vancouver, B.C., big names like Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten are opening restaurants. I would like to see Portland being viewed by the serious professionals the same way we see ourselves. Once we see that, the professionals are taking notice, then we've stepped into the real world and we can play with the players.
Q: What do you like to do when you aren't working?
Kim: Sleep, get massages, go on long bike rides.
Vitaly: That's about it. I like to catch up on my sleep when I'm not working. And I've been doing the bike commute to work every day for as long as I can remember. It's about a 35-minute ride and it helps me wind down after work.
-- Michael C. Zusman
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