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Sarah Pliner ’94

John Valls

October 4, 2022, in Portland, in a bicycle collision.

Sarah moved from New York City to attend Reed, but dropped out and began working in restaurants.She landed a job in the kitchen of the Heathman Hotel—her first big opportunity in the world of fine dining—and then moved on to Giorgio’s. Returning to New York, she began making a name for herself at Michelin-starred restaurants like Aquavit and Aldea. One person Sarah had worked with was Jasper Shen. They reconnected after a period of time and discovered that they were both ready to leave New York. Forming a triumvirate with Shen’s wife, pastry chef Kat Whitehead, they moved to Portland and opened Aviary in 2011. Sarah described the new restaurant’s cuisine as modern French technique with global flavors. The restaurant was housed in a building that burned down five months after Aviary opened, having been set afire by stray Fourth of July fireworks. It reopened 10 months later on Northeast Alberta Street and was named Restaurant of the Year by Willamette Week, putting Sarah on the map. People swooned over such dishes as foie gras bao, crispy pig ears, and cardamom pudding. A review in Conde Nast Traveler deemed Aviary’s food “inventive,” and said, “You’ll enjoy cocktails on the patio and a meal that’ll quietly knock your socks off.”

A server at Aviary, Lauren Hill, wasgobsmacked at the innovative and beautiful creations Sarah turned out in the kitchen, with ingredients like monkfish, duck tongue,and chicken skins. “I never worked somewhere where I’d seen so many people cry, you know—tear up because the dish tasted so good.”

Suzy Hoke, a family friend, had avoided eating fungi her entire life. But Sarah insisted she sample them in a dish she created with hen of the woods mushrooms. “I tried to back out of trying them but she was persistent to the point that I took the tiniest bite and prepared to wash it down with a large glass of water. It was oneof the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted.”

Aviary closed in 2020 during the pandemic. Sarah became the chef at Fullerton Wines, creating seasonal, bimonthly pairing dinners at their wine bar in northwest Portland, cooking at the Greek-inspired Bluto’s on Southeast Belmont Street, and planning to open her own new restaurant. She was bicycling to work at Bluto’s when she was hit by a truck near the intersection of Southeast 26th Avenue and Powell Boulevard. Sarah is survived by her mother, Susan; father, Elliot; stepmother, Judy; and older sister, Jessica.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2023

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