Vali's 35 years old, passes torch to next generation

<I>Elane Dickenson/Chieftain</I><BR>The Vali family - Left to right, Dionne, Maggie and Michael, all standing, with Mike seated in the front.

When Mike and Maggie Vali hosted the 25th anniversary of the opening of the one-of-a-kind Vali's Alpine Restaurant and Delicatessen at Wallowa Lake 10 years ago they were celebrating the realization of a life-time dream.

When they host their 35th anniversary open house this Friday, May 15, they'll be also celebrating the future of their business, with son and daughter-in-law Michael and Dionne "Dee" Vali, at their side.

Vali's is a Hungarian restaurant which serves only one entrée a night during the six months of spring and summer, augmented by delectable desserts and a morning Continental breakfast on weekends. Entrée items range from stuffed cabbage to Hungarian goulash, with grilled steak on Saturday night for a change of pace. Dinner service is by reservation only, and is popular enough that customers are sometimes unable to get a seat.

"People like to tell me how their parents brought them as kids, and now they are coming with their own kids," said Michael Vali.

Michael and his wife, Dee, who have both worked as chefs in Disneyland and Las Vegas, are now staffing the kitchen for their fifth season this year.

Spending six months at Wallowa Lake and six months in Las Vegas, the couple feels they are able to enjoy the best of two worlds.

The elder Valis - both refugees from Communist Hungary in 1956 with harrowing tales to tell about their experience - migrated to the United States separately only about a month apart. They later met in Los Angeles, eventually married, and then discovered Wallowa County through a Red's Horse Ranch brochure at a sports show.

Mike Vali's first choice of a place to live after leaving Hungary was Switzerland, but he ended up in the United States instead, and it was just through a fluke of fate he and Maggie settled at Wallowa Lake, the "Little Switzerland of America."

The couple opened their namesake restaurant on Memorial Day weekend 1974. They divided the labor: Mike's domain was the kitchen, while Maggie was the personable hostess and waitress.

"It was Mike's dream, and I just went along for the ride," Maggie said in an interview 10 years ago. "But I've never regretted a minute of it."

"We're very lucky," said Maggie about the willingness of the next generation of Vali's to take over the unique Wallowa Lake eatery. "We couldn't be happier."

"I grew up in the kitchen here," said Michael about Vali's. Though he inherited his dad's talent with food, he had his eye on a career in the big city . A1995 alumnus of Joseph High School, Michael graduated as a pastry chef from a culinary school and met his future wife about 10 years ago when they were both working in an upscale restaurant in Disneyland.

Dee also graduated from a culinary school as a pastry chef. Her family, who moved from Belize when she was a toddler, still lives in Anaheim, Calif. "I grew up in Disneyland," she said.

The first season Michael and Dee spent at Wallowa Lake was a challenging one, Maggie was battling cancer that year and, as it turned out, Mike had suffered a series of mini-strokes that affected his health.

The biggest challenge was his dad had never written any of Vali's famous recipes down, so much of the season was trial and error, with Michael struggling to remember the recipes from his time in the kitchen when much younger. The couple now foresees keeping Vali's in the family for many, many years to come.

"Here we get to play in our own kitchen," Dee said.

The extended Vali family invites all of Wallowa County to join in Vali's 35th anniversary party from 3 to 7 p.m. Friday, May 15, for beverages, good things to eat and a chance to socialize.

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