The culinary scene of Portland, Oregon, took a giant leap forward recently with the appearance of two Portland chefs among the final three on Bravo TV’s acclaimed Top Chef. One of Portland’s own who made the finals, Doug Adams is chef de cuisine of Imperial and Portland Penny Diner, which are James Beard Award-winning chef Vitaly Paley’s renowned restaurants in Portland. These are also notable for their Americana desserts, crafted by pastry chef Michelle Vernier.
Vernier is pastry chef for Paley’s three restaurants, Portland Penny Diner, Imperial and the landmark Paley’s Place. She joined in March 2012 with the knowledge that she would be able to create pastries and desserts for three distinct Portland establishments.
“Our pie of the day is our best-selling dessert since day one,” says Vernier, who grew up in Michigan among a family of cooks and studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. “Everything about pastry makes me really happy. I love being the first person in the kitchen who gets to pick through the fresh produce.”
Vernier's affection for food started very early as she recalls being interested in cuisine as soon as she learned to walk. She grew up with an Italian mother who made ravioli and gnocchi; she also distinctly remembers gathering morel mushrooms and raspberries with her grandmother in her home state of Michigan.
Vernier spent a summer traveling through Europe and came back from Paris yearning to know more about bread and pastries. She worked with baker Michael Rhodes at Sel de la Terre in Boston, and soon started to refine her own baking style, which eventually took her to Paley's.
She points out the wonderful flavors of traditional classics are often lost in this new generation of food experimentation. “It’s hard to find simple things that are done very well. I think people forget how good something like apple pie can really be.”
Trademark techniques range from aggressively browning the butter in order to balance the sweetness of her pecan pie to incorporating house-made black cherry and apple fillings into her Danish, which are baked from scratch every morning for Portland Penny Diner.
Of Imperial, she adds, “This restaurant was always about exploring Americana. Chef Vitaly really wanted us to look at our past, the food people were eating 100 years ago. I always try to use that as a starting point.”
Still, there is room to play. Vernier recognizes there are guests who crave something out of the ordinary (like her raspberry and blood orange pop tarts) or need a dessert that is gluten-free. So she crafted a lemon meringue dessert pie (minus the crust) that she feels is “very reminiscent of lemon cream pie. It’s been very well received by both gluten-free and non gluten-free customers.”
At Imperial, Vernier whips up desserts in the classic Americana tradition, including German Chocolate Pie and Buttermilk Pie (made with buttermilk, cream and egg yolks and served slightly chilled with seasonal fresh berries during the summer months), as well as various cobblers. She knows the importance of every slice of pie looking “perfect” on the plate, so they prebake all the bottom crusts for pecan pies and other classic flavors. “These things are classic for a reason because they’re terrific.”
And with chef de cuisine Doug Adams being from Texas, Veriner creates several desserts with an ode to the Lone Star State such as Texas sheet cake and brown butter beignets.
At Portland Penny Diner she showcases more playful items, while at Paley's Place, sweets imitate the intimate setting with chocolate confections and warm ginger cakes as well as homemade sorbets and ice creams filling the menu.
She thoroughly enjoys the bountiful supplies of fresh fruit available to her in the Pacific Northwest and strives to bring out the true flavor in every bite. Vernier knows the importance of showcasing quality ingredients and feels there should be a natural flow between savory courses and dessert: "I try to simplify and unify tastes in order to make the true flavor shine through."