Vitaly Paley

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants Paley’s Place Bistro & Bar, Imperial, Portland Penny Diner (Portland, Oregon)

Experience World Yacht Cruises, Union Square Café, Remi (New York City); Moulin de la Gorce (France)

Education Juilliard, grand diploma from the French Culinary Institute (New York City)

What dish are you most famous for?
One is the Wagyu beef steak tartare. We take a culotte steak from Snake River Farms and chop it by hand. Then we mix it with chiles, olive oil, mustard, a little bit of Tabasco and Worcestershire—as traditional as can be. We put it on a plate next to some chopped parsley, chopped sweet onion and capers, and top it with a duck egg yolk. We serve it with grilled black rye bread made by the local Ken’s Artisan Bakery.

Do you have a favorite cookbook of all time?
Larousse Gastronomique. My wife, Kimberly, gave it to me in 1990 when I graduated from the French Culinary Institute. It’s holding on by its threads now. When you want to find out exactly what sauce Choron is, or how to make a real hollandaise, it has answers.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned?
My mom keeps telling me that my grandmother subliminally passed on her knowledge. When I grew up in Russia, we lived in a one-room house where my grandmother did much of the cooking. Everything that came to the table was fresh, whether brought to us by a farmer or milk lady, or bought at a bazaar. My grandmother made cheese and buttermilk. She baked her own bread in a little brick oven.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I remember my father showing me how to make a flat, frittata-style omelet with onions, tomatoes and bacon—it’s cooked slowly and gently until it kind of puffs up.

Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I like to use something that I brought back from France called a persillade: parsley and garlic chopped together. We usually begin our day by chopping parsley and garlic, and finish our day by using it in our dishes: sautéed mushrooms, finished with persillade; potatoes tossed with persillade; grilled steak rubbed with persillade and brown sugar. Anyone who has worked for me in the past 18 years will remember making persillade.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
I’m a big fan of lamb necks. We’re doing them at Imperial at the moment. We braise them, then pick the meat off the bone, then serve them in a wrap-style sandwich with some harissa, raita, shredded lettuce and fire-roasted tomatoes, and a little preserved lemon.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I don’t necessarily look for bargains. I just look for good food.

What is the most underrated ingredient?
Salt. Not long ago we worked with a local gentleman who calls himself a selmelier, Mark Bitterman to change the salts we use at our restaurants. It was a revelation. We spend our lifetimes looking for the best possible ingredients, and then we take the most industrialized product to season it. Kosher salt, as versatile as it is, is an industrialized product, a byproduct of what we use to deice the roads. It’s devoid of all nutrients. We use his house fleur de sel to season just about everything. We use a finer grind of Himalayan sea salt on our french fries. And we use a finishing salt from a local salt maker, Ben Jacobsen of Jacobsen Salts, who I believe is the first in Oregon to make salt.

The new salts feel different in your hand, and a little goes a long way. It doesn’t have that medicinal, caper-like flavor that industrial salt can leave in your mouth. Right after Mark worked with us, regular customers would try a favorite dish and say, “We don’t know what you did, but it tastes so much better.”