Chef Ben Bettinger on the Portland Food Community and the Opening of Paley’s Imperial

Most will know Ben Bettinger as the man who put Portland’s gem of a restaurant, Beaker & Flask, on the ‘must dine’ map. When the eatery opened, I was of the understanding that the restaurant, well-lauded from the beginning, was further into the heart of the city. I hadn’t considered that the nondescript building along a main artery in Southeast Portland was anything more than a former office equipment store, until a friend suggested we stop there for dinner. With a creative, ever-changing menu, I was impressed to find that Beaker & Flask lived up to the hype – the kitchen putting out dishes worthy of recognition, and Bettinger just as talented as the reviews asserted.

Since departing Beaker & Flask earlier this year, the Vermont native has been busy overseeing the building of another potential hot spot, chef Vitaly Paley’s Imperial. A former exec under Paley’s tutelage, the pair have developed a new menu and concept within the former Typhoon space adjacent to Hotel Lucia. Situated in a downtown corridor of food and drink favorites, like Clyde Common, Little Bird, Ping, and Grüner, Imperial looks to be a strong contender in a city with lofty culinary expectations.

One hundred and fifteen seats will welcome hungry diners for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including a community table and banquettes situated in the dark paneled dining room – a handful of Portland-centric, banana yellow ‘tattoo’ panels bringing a bit of color – with the enclosed Pendleton Room available for small parties. A twelve-top bar along the south wall anchors the open space, sure to be a destination for many with a cocktail program managed by Brandon Wise, an accomplished bartender and Bettinger’s beverage cohort from Beaker & Flask. For an additional challenge, Bettinger and Paley will usher in the opening of another Paley offshoot just a month or so later across the hotel’s lobby, with Portland Penny Diner offering to-go items for folks who can’t stay to enjoy Imperial’s offerings.

Slated to open September 12, Imperial is one of the most anticipated restaurant openings of this season. And Bettinger may just have another gem on his hands.

Q: How did you end up in cooking?
A: I started with catering and line cooking when I was a young kid, before I was out of high school. Bar and grill type thing. When I was about twenty, I realized that I could really make it a career. I loved the fast pace, the excitement, the energy of the kitchen. So I started cooking a little more seriously and decided to move out here to attend culinary school. I went to Western Culinary School in 2001, graduated in 2002 and started my internship at Paley’s. Started at the bottom, worked my way to the top.

Most of my time in here in Portland has been with Vitaly at Paley’s Place. I worked with him from 2002 until 2008. I spent 6 years there, starting as an intern, and then within two years I became sous chef and then the following year, chef de cuisine. Really running his restaurant the last few years I was there, and that’s where we developed a really strong relationship. It’s really where my standards for cooking were born.

When I left Paley’s, I felt that I had learned as much as I could there, and Kevin approached me about opening a new project. He said it was really going to be a bar, but that if I was on board, we could make it more of a restaurant. And that’s exactly what happened. Beaker & Flask was quite the ride. I loved being there. At the beginning, Kevin and I really didn’t know what was going to happen there, but then we got Restaurant of the Year in 2009 within four months of opening, and were ranked on all the lists from there. It was a huge honor for me.

When this opportunity with Vito (Vitaly) arose, I just couldn’t pass it up. It’s an opportunity for me to grow still as a chef. I feel confident with what I do with food. I know I can make good food and I can put good food out in a restaurant. I’ve never managed a staff of thirty in the kitchen. I’ve never managed two properties at once – ‘So once we get Imperial open, sixty days later we’re going to open a diner on the other side of the lobby.’ So, we’ve got a second property opening up in October. It’ll be more of a grab-and-go, super casual. Pastries, quick sandwiches, salads, 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. But that project is a whole other exciting thing.

Q: Why Portland?
A: For me, Portland was just a random discovery. My family moved to Seattle when I was younger. I spent time there and I really wasn’t excited about it. My sister moved down here to Portland and I stopped on my way out from Vermont on my way to visit, and within two weeks, I was enrolled in culinary school. I’ve never looked back, and that was 13 years ago. I don’t see myself moving anywhere else. The food community here has been so supportive and amazing from the get-go. Going from culinary school to Paley’s Place, that’s when I was introduced to the culinary network here in town, and it just blew my mind. Still to this day. If I’ve got a buddy coming into town, I send him over to Gabe at Le Pigeon or Jason at the Woodsman. They’ll send their friends to Paley’s. We always look out for each other. We’ve all worked together at some point, we’ve all passed through Paley’s or Park Kitchen or Clyde Common. We all know each other, and it makes for a really great community.

Q: What’s going to set Imperial apart from other restaurants in Portland?
A: Well, I think mainly it’s the collaboration between Vitaly and myself. He’s the chef/owner, I’m the executive chef – I think together, we’ve really created something that sets us apart. We don’t want to be a flash in the pan. We’re looking for longevity. Paley’s Place has been open for seventeen years, and it’s still considered one of the best restaurants in Portland. And we want Imperial to be the same sort of thing.

As far a food goes, we have, if anything, a little more Americana influence. Not quite as high-end as Paley’s Place. We want our food to be very solid, but approachable. Not only in price point, but also in understanding the food and what we’re putting on the plate.

Q: And you’re bringing Brandon Wise in as well?
A: Yeah, Brandon is going to manage our bar program. Very exciting. He’s such a young, sharp guy with an endless number of ideas. He was the last component to our puzzle, and we’re so excited about it.

Q: What were some of the differences between opening Beaker and Flask and opening Imperial?
A: Beaker was my first restaurant opening. It was the first menu that was really mine. I had my hands on everything there. I cleaned every piece of equipment in that kitchen. I had a real sense of ownership.

Here, it’s completely different because there are a number of hands on board. I’m really involved in a lot of the day-to-day decision making. They brought me on early enough in the process that I’ve been at every meeting. It’s been such a learning experience to work with all the designers and contractors every step of the way. Such an awesome experience. Everything from smallwares to paint colors to chairs. Every day there are decisions being made.

And the hiring process! I’ve already hired twenty four people for the kitchen, I’ve got another six to go. It’s just awesome.

Q: You said you guys will be open for breakfast as well. Is it a challenge to try to come up with a breakfast menu for the first time?
A: It is, it is. I’ve never been a breakfast person. I’ve always said I’d never cook breakfast. I’m not a morning person. I’ve had one breakfast cook job in my life, and it was right out of culinary school, and I was working three jobs. It killed me. I’d work ‘til 12:30, 1:00 a.m. on a Friday night, and then Saturday morning, I’d have to be in the kitchen at 7:30 a.m. From that point on, I said I’d never cook breakfast again.

But we created a couple of fun breakfast menus, brunch menus. Things I like to eat. You’ll see some of the usual suspects on there, but we’ve created a few new things I think people will enjoy.

Not only can you catch Bettinger in the kitchen at Imperial, he’ll also be a participant in the Sandwich Invitational at the inaugural Feast Portland weekend happening September 20-23. His right hand cocktail man, Brandon Wise, a former Daily Blender contributor, is also an integral part of next month’s Portland Cocktail Week, celebrating its third year.


~Jennifer Heigl

*Photo credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender


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