One of the brightest stars in Portland’s culinary pantheon, chef Sarah Pliner, was tragically struck and killed by a truck on October 4 at the age of 50. Pliner’s career began in the ’90s, cooking under pioneering Portland chef Philippe Boulot at the Heathman Restaurant and Bar. Pliner, a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist, gained local and national acclaim at the French-Asian bistro Aviary, which she co-founded with Jasper Shen and Kat Whitehead; she eventually assumed sole ownership of the restaurant. In August 2020, Pliner closed Aviary partially due to the pandemic; she had most recently been lending her talents to Rick Gencarelli’s Greek restaurant Bluto’s, as well as offering multi-course dinners at Fullerton Wines. According to the Oregonian, she had been working toward opening another restaurant, which she planned to call Carte Postale.
Beyond her culinary prowess, Pliner’s colleagues and Portland food and beverage workers remember her humility, passion, and creativity, which many shared in social media posts and public statements. We’ve compiled their memories of, and reflections on, the chef and her legacy below.
“Sarah was an unparalleled talent in the food industry. She was one of the many of us cooks most comfortable in the kitchen and behind a stove. We had a lot of hard times at Aviary but knowing her has made me a better chef and owner. I don’t believe I would be where I am in the industry without her. I know she wouldn’t have wanted to hear it, but I wish I had a chance to say ‘thanks.’” —Jasper Shen, XLB
“After Sarah worked at the Heathman, she was cooking at Aquavit in NYC. I had a James Beard dinner in NYC, and went to visit Sarah at Aquavit afterwards. It was the last day of operation at Aquavit, we were the only ones in the restaurant and she convinced the kitchen team to cook a 12-course menu for the six of us that was the best in my life.” —Philippe Boulot, Multnomah Athletic Club
“She had more signature dishes than any chef I can think of. She was always striving for perfection. She was in the kitchen cooking every night and would usually bring one of the dishes to the table herself. She had boundless energy in creating so many multi-layered dishes, pouring her heart and soul into every dish. It was an honor to work with Sarah and promote her incredible talents locally and nationally. She was destined to receive even more recognition than she received in the brief time she was with us.” —Melissa Broussard, Broussard Communications
“Aviary was a bright light of Portland’s food scene when it opened in 2011. She was always in the kitchen, a beacon of creativity and commitment.” —Karen Brooks, Portland Monthly
“[When] Sarah became the sole owner of Aviary…[she] renewed her commitment not only to bright, clean flavors but a sense of whimsy and a desire to make sure her dishes brought joy to diners. She was fascinated by the connection of palate to emotion. I last saw her tending the fire at Bluto’s where she joyfully shared news of her plans for her next project while we had a good laugh remembering her incredible ability to zap yellowjackets with a butane torch mid-flight while she was cooking on the farm for Plate & Pitchfork.” —Erika Polmar, Independent Restaurant Coalition executive director
“Chef Sarah Pliner had an incredible ability to bring your senses to a level that most chefs aspire to, by creating dishes with layers of different textures, surprising taste combinations and visually enticing presentations in such a perfect and elegant way. Always. We are humbled to have known her. We will miss her corky and beautiful smile. She left too soon, but she will always remain in our hearts.” —The Fullerton Family, Fullerton Wines
“That petite frame packed an immense amount of power on the line. She dominated the Portland culinary scene, but she didn’t give a shit about accolades. Unapologetic. Funny as all get out. I, like many others, am left heartbroken.” —Jolene Rutherford, Corfini Gourmet
“She was one-of-a-kind. I ate [at Aviary] 2-3 times a week for 2 years. She was a great supporter of Les Caves and we always looked out for each other’s businesses. RIP chef. Your beef fat poached halibut is one of the greatest dishes I’ve ever had.” —Jeff Vejr, Les Caves
“Chef Sarah Pliner was vastly talented. I have always been in awe of her skill, her knowledge, her work ethic, and her creativity.” —Althea Grey Potter, The Flavor Society
“She was an introvert and never craved the limelight as is the fashion in the industry these days. Make no mistake, however, her food at Aviary was peerless in its creativity and execution. Recently, she had been cooking at Bluto’s and the food there was predictably excellent. She was detail-oriented and it showed in every plate.” —Michael C. Zusman, Willamette Week restaurant critic