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One Year In: Headwaters on Snowstorms, Riots, and a Major Chef Shuffle

Chef Vitaly Paley reflects on a challenging but successful first year

Headwaters chef-owner Vitaly Paley and general manager Garrett Peck
Dina Avila/EPDX

Just over a year ago, one of the godfathers of Portland dining, Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place, Imperial), opened his fourth restaurant, the upscale, seafood-focused Headwaters. Taking over the venue inside of downtown Portland’s historic Heathman Hotel, he wan’t only exploring a new vision but filling the shoes of the recently departed Heathman Restaurant and Bar.

“I spent my very first holiday in Portland eating with my family in the Heathman dining room,” Paley tells Eater. “I knew I was going to be a chef here in Portland, but I had no idea I’d be a chef right here. I feel very loyal to this place.”

That loyalty helped propel Paley and his staff through a tumultuous first year. Besides opening right before the busy holiday season, which left the staff “bowled over, but in a good way,” Headwaters faced both snow and political demonstrations.

“Snowstorms in December and January and the riots that followed presented significant challenges,” says Paley. “We were front and center. We weathered through it all — pun intended.”

That also includes a major Chef Shuffle just six months after opening: Headwaters suddenly replaced its experienced head chef Ken Norris (NW Riffle), reportedly on amicable terms. The Heathman Restaurant’s former sous chef Tim Eckhard took over, and Paley says the restaurant was able to take the change in stride because “the vision comes first. We didn’t make the restaurant because the present chef had something indispensable. The vision is the vision.”

Today, the vision similar to day one: high-end bistro dining, with a focus on applying French cooking techniques to Pacific Northwest seafood. But Headwaters has settled in. The renovated cocktail bar brings in a younger crowd, likely to split plates and share bottles of wine. Playful pop-ups are a common occurrence, like the “island themed” Shipwreck, which saw Paley himself frying up the popcorn shrimp.

“We have a track record now,” says Paley. “We can look back at the last year and see what happened, and we can build from there. That’s what I look forward to: growing, getting stronger, and building a viable business for the community.”


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