Eat Beat has learned that seafood-loving chef Ken Norris was ousted from Headwaters on Saturday, April 8. By Monday, April 10, new chef Tim Eckard was already cooking up the whole fish in the downtown hotel kitchen. Creative pastry talent Jeff McCarthy? Gone too, as of a few months ago—with no notice, funeral, or fanfare.
In the restaurant business, the more things change, the more things … change. That’s the takeaway from a recent staff shake-up at Vitaly and Kimberly Paley’s big-dice gamble to rethink and modernize the Heathman Hotel’s historic downtown dining room and bar. The couple also helms Imperial, Hotel Lucia’s dining room down the street, and, since 1995, Northwest Portland’s iconic Paley’s Place. They call Norris’s and McCarthy’s departures “amicable decisions,” part of what happens in a crazy, hard-driving industry.
“We are constantly evolving in our world. [It was] time to move on and do something different,” says Vitaly Paley. “Ken has been an amazing force. I wish him well. We will remain friends.” Adds Kimberly Paley: “We’ve been at this for a long time. You open with a new team and you anticipate change. You hope you’ll keep your original team. But different visions can emerge. A lot is revealed three, six months into the process. When the dust settles you look at everything. Some things are just not the right fit.”
After a six-month renovation, Headwaters opened last fall with a full-on seafood menu—a surprising rarity in Portland. Beyond seafood chowder and Dungeness crab cakes, this is where you find steelhead belly tartare, sturgeon pastrami, and five types of whole roasted fish served daily in a room of big-city sweep and glamour. The menu’s promise has been strong, but results have been mixed. High points so far: the raw seafood bar and the lavish Saturday-only Russian tea service steps away from the dining room (soon to expand to Sundays).
Now, with a new crew, Paley plans to move Headwaters into its next phrase: expanding the menu with even more seafood options. Incoming chef Eckard was most recently chef de cuisine at wine country’s Allison Inn and Spa. With this move, he returns to his old stomping grounds at the Heathman, where he logged three years as executive sous chef. Andina pastry alum Megan Jeans will assume dessert duties next week. Going forward, Paley wants to double down on aquatic options, drawing from a live fish tank in the kitchen. He envisions crabs by the pound and lobsters on the rotisserie along with daily “cuts” from those whole fish served with simple condiments.
Headwaters's dining room is still fishing for its identity, but the Paleys insist: big fish is its future.