A conversation with an interesting Portlander
Vitaly Paley is wearing a T-shirt with a radish on it this week. He earned it. Paley, owner and chef of Paley's Place on Northwest 21st Avenue, received a ceremonial fork to the city two weeks ago after returning to Portland victorious in the latest Iron Chef competition. The secret ingredient in his nationally televised cook-off was radishes.
Portland Tribune: Cooking is usually considered a creative art. Did you have any qualms entering a cooking competition?
Vitaly Paley: There's always butterflies in your stomach when you go to a competition. Competition is nothing new to me. I grew up as a young musician. Competition was encouraged. That's how you got better.
When I was 14, I won a Bach competition. I was just fresh from Russia. That gave me my little taste of what it's like to win.
Even at Julliard, I'm on the fourth floor where all the pianos are and musicians practice before their lessons. The walls are not very thick and sometimes you hear somebody practicing what you're practicing and you're sitting there trying to play it faster or better or louder. I want to drown this guy out. I have this competitive streak in me. And I'm a sore loser.
Tribune: So now that you've won your Iron Chef competition, can you recall a most heated moment?
Paley: There were a couple things that didn't make the cuts in the edits. A mic came out of my pocket and ended up on the floor while I was running. I didn't even think, 'It's up to me to place this mic back.'
Tribune: Besides, we never pick things off the floor when we're cooking, right?
Paley: My hands were full of radishes and things. So I had to stop what I was doing and say a few words and pick the mic up and put it in my back pocket and continue what I was doing.
Tribune: Why didn't someone from the show help?
Paley: It's a competition. You're on your own.
There was another one. An hour is not enough to be in a place you're not familiar with. When I'm in my kitchen things are mechanical, you know where things are. There, you have to take that extra five seconds for someone to tell you where the pepper grinder is.
At about seven minutes left on the clock I realized I didn't have the sorbet ready. That's when I needed to say to myself, 'Do I skip the sorbet or do I just go for it?' I went for it. I made the sorbet, I put it in the ice cream machine and crossed my fingers in the hope it would be done in five minutes.
It got done with about 45 seconds on the clock left. As I'm screaming, 'Sorbet is done,' the boys are plating food. The next thing I know one of the floor announcers runs up to me and wants to taste the sorbet with 45 seconds on the clock.
Tribune: They weren't around to help you when you dropped the mic but when you're furiously finishing the competition they want to talk? What did you do?
Paley: I let him taste it, but all I could think of was, 'Damn it, get out of my way, I have to put it on a plate.' It's TV. They want drama. That's the whole point. They want you to sweat it out. I gave them drama.
Tribune: Going into the competition, any major concerns?
Paley: The concern was the secret ingredient could be totally off the wall. It could be sugar or milk or marshmallows.
Tribune: Well, you got radishes.
Paley: At least I knew the territory I was in. Radishes are at least a recognizable vegetable. The very first Iron Chef I did, here at the Crystal Ballroom, the ingredient they threw at us was wild harvested gooseneck barnacles.
Paley: It's a barnacle that grows on pilings next to mussels and they look like tiny geoducks and nobody eats them here. They're garbage. But in Europe they're popular.
They were sitting in front of me. I had three kinds of wild seaweed and wild mustard blossoms. That was strange. I had morels and what I did was stuff morels with a vegetable stuffing and I took the barnacles, blanched them, peeled them and treated them like you would a clam. We sautéed some bacon with stuffed morels and the gooseneck barnacles, finished with a little cream and garnished with the mustard blossoms and it was tasty.
Tribune: Cheating. Anything can taste good with bacon. Had you ever had gooseneck barnacles before?
Paley: I had a premonition they'd throw something at us we'd never seen. The night before I went upstairs and started digging through cookbook collections and I was looking at a recipe for gooseneck barnacles.
Tribune: You just did that? Nobody had said something about weird local ingredients?
Paley: No, but (the day before the competition) I walked into the kitchen stadium they were building and through the corner of my eye I saw a guy who was famous for bringing around wild things to Portland restaurants.
I looked at him and I said, 'I wonder if he's the one supplying ingredients?' At one point in the past he had mentioned to me, 'Would you like some gooseneck barnacles?' I said, 'What the hell is that?'
So I walk onto the stage and there it is, gooseneck barnacles. That's when I said, 'I'm winning today.'