What's NOT on My Resume: Vitaly Paley

By Kathleen Squires  |  September 19, 2013

No one starts out on top. Especially in the food business. In this weekly column, chefs and restaurateurs across the country share the stories of their humble beginnings.

Arriving in Portland in 1994, chef Vitaly Paley was one of the early pioneers of the city’s exploding food scene. The James Beard Award-winning chef, however, didn’t originally intend to cook as a career. He came to the U.S. from Russia as a teen to study music at Julliard with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. A couple of years into his studies, however, Paley decided to change his path. While he figured out what he wanted to do, he took on the first job he found in the classifieds. 

“I was a waiter at Lindy’s, on Seventh Avenue right off 51st Street,” the chef remembers. This was in the early 1980s, when Times Square was rife with peep shows, porn theaters and other seedy elements. “I worked the graveyard shift, which was…interesting… because I would start at 11 PM or midnight. First I would deal with one group of people who were just hungry and just wanted to eat. But then at 4 AM I was dealing with the club-goers, and other late-night people.” Paley says the area was “amazingly strange” during that time and his job was “difficult to do” in those wee hours. “To last through that and end up in the restaurant world for me was unexpected,” he says. “No one lasted - the employees turned so much, I had a different manager every week.”

It was Paley’s first job in the restaurant industry, but he claims that it didn’t inform the work he does today in the least.

“I think my experience as a musician yielded a lot more useful experience. Discipline is something I learned as a musician,” the chef says. “The Lindy’s experience didn’t solidify a desire to be in the restaurant industry at all. It was more like, “What the f*** am I doing here?”

A year later, however, Paley landed in a kitchen job that set him on a lifelong path—aboard World Yacht Cruises.

“I spent six years with World Yacht. It is where I met my wife, and where I met a chef who sent me to France.” He didn’t completely get away from the music world at that time, however. “World Yacht had a piano on every boat,” he recalls. “The owners knew a little bit about my background and when they would come in, they would pull me off my station in the kitchen and make me play. I played Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, you name it. I guess I was the entertainer on the boat, too.”

Paley went from World Yacht to work in Manhattan classics such as Union Square Cafe and Chanterelle, before moving to the West Coast and mentoring some of the best chefs of the Pacific Northwest at his restaurants Paley’s Place, Imperial and Portland Penny Diner.

“Working at Lindy’s was one of the worst things I have ever done, but it was also one of those eye-opening things,” he reflects. “I was merged right in the middle of New York City grit at night - something that I had never known before. But it was part of a life experience that I needed and I wanted.”