Naomi Pomeroy and I met up while she was in LA for Ludo Lefebre’s All Star Chef Classic event and she shared her thoughts on what is around the corner for all of us in this very challenging industry. It takes strength of character, persistence, and bravado to be successful in this business, and it’s a pleasure to know this very positive and determined woman who has made a mark in this male-dominated industry.
These impromptu and organic conversations with chefs and restaurateurs offer a unique insight into the industry and are the reason why I shadow and write about these individuals. I don’t review food (though I am guilty of posting pictures of culinary creations at times); it’s these meetings that enable me to share the inside stories with other curious food adventurers.
An edited version of this conversation was featured on The Daily Meal.
Naomi Pomeroy: A Portland Chefs Perspective
by Geeta Bansal
Vivacious, exuberant, articulate: it’s easy to fall under the spell of this talented chef owner of Beast restaurant and Expatriate bar in Portland, Oregon. Sans any tattoos or chef jacket, as she cheerfully informed me she wouldn’t be caught wearing one (though a visual of her in a white or black jacket did pop up, I brushed it aside). It’s difficult to imagine the attractive, blue-eyed woman behind a hot stove butchering a pig (yes, she is known to do that) or as a chef, especially one awarded the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Northwest in 2014. Her appearances on Top Chef Masters as a contestant, Knife Fight as a judge or ABC’s The Taste have made her a familiar face around the country, and added to her fan base.
The self-taught Pomeroy says she fell into the industry by accident, a job in a catering company that led to her to starting her own catering business and then going on to open underground supper clubs with her then husband and partner. The business morphed into three brick and mortar operations which eventually closed in 2006. The newly single mother after her divorce in 2006 unerringly followed her passion and opened Beast in 2007 with just twenty four seats around communal tables and a prix-fixe menu. The very successful restaurant has since (in its nine years of existence) made Pomeroy a celebrity in Oregon and beyond and this second phase has also brought husband Kyle Webster and a cocktail bar operation into her life. The success of their two operations have motivated the couple to consider a Japanese-inspired third operation this year.
Recognition first came for Pomeroy when Food & Wine Magazine named her as one of the top ten chefs in the country in 2010, and her subsequent nomination for the JBF Best Chef Northwest award four years in a row was no surprise. Around that time there was conversation about the relevance of her restaurant in context of its having opened so long ago (all of seven years!) that can only happen in the present food culture that is about the “moment” and what’s new. Her win led to international travels and adventures to Hong Kong with the American Culinary diplomacy program, Japan, cooking at the JBF restaurant at the Milan Expo in 2015 with a few visits to the White House in between. Pomeroy is now ready to launch her new cook book, “Taste & Techniques” a labor of love for the past year which took her out of the kitchen to spend time writing instead of cooking.
The free-spirited, French-inspired chef has always been her own boss as she has never worked in someone else’s kitchen. Our conversation was all about the profession and what chef owners like her are concerned about in the industry right now and what she is up to next.
Do you enjoy participating in chef events?
It depends on the event, and if it is well-organized and that makes it easy on the chefs. Some ask for more than others; the All Star Chefs Classic is one that I am always happy to come to. LA is always a fun place since there are always exciting restaurants opening and I have family and friends here. I recently did another fun event in Hawaii put on by Seamus Mullen with four chefs Hugh Acheson, Jonathan Waxman, Seamus Mullen.
Since the win at the Bocuse d’Or with the U.S. team at the podium for the silver has the image of American cuisine been enhanced internationally and even in our own country?
It’s interesting especially since I am good friends with Gavin Kaysen who helps to lead that team and was recently on the cover of the food section of New York Times with his grandmothers pot roast. So I do think American food is changing and becoming very diverse. Compared to other cuisines around the world it’s fairly new.
There are other cuisine like Peruvian cuisine or Nordic cuisine which as recently as fifteen years ago had never been heard of, so why is American cuisine still not taken seriously?
It’s probably because it’s been known more for meat and potatoes, hamburgers, and quick fast food. That is all changing dramatically and an interesting phenomenon I am seeing is this shift towards fast, casual healthier food. I am referring to chefs and not big brands doing these fast, casual concepts utilizing excellent ingredients and products and getting food out faster to the tables. There are so many different things happening and definitely the perception of American food is changing pretty rapidly. There is a whole resurgence happening in many downtown areas and things are changing fast. The development of these areas are encouraging chefs to be in these spots since rents are lower.
Is that why younger chefs are going into these fringe areas to open mid-range restaurants?
I think it’s happening everywhere and for me Portland comes to mind, especially in context of the economics of the city. There is a reason why it is a haven for chefs, other than the fact that food grown in responsible way is available and we are surrounded by farmers and producers to supply our kitchens. Portland is accessible to young chefs since property is not so expensive and it enables chefs to open a small restaurant and turn a profit relatively quickly. These factors also create a lot of chef owners whereas in a large city like New York or San Francisco it is difficult because of the economy of scale. The rents are high , costs of liquor licenses are prohibitive and there is no choice but to go in with affluent backers and investors which in turn regulates what you do. So you end up with large menus and have to cater to people’s expectations and notions. Then there are destination restaurants in more obscure and out of the city locations which most chef-owners are now choosing to do.
How will the wage hikes, changes in tipping, and other changes in the industry affect the chef and restaurateurs bottom line and the growth of this industry?
We are going to have to address these collectively and one chef who is always ahead of the pack is Danny Myers who has addressed these service issues along with many other chefs. I am opening a new place and we are talking about all these issues and if like at Beast we can include gratuity in our charges. I have had conversations with chef friends like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo about such issues. The minimum wage has been approved at $15/hr which will affect us all, though I am a huge advocate for people making enough money at their jobs. We are going to have to figure out a solution for the front of the house in the form of restaurateurs becoming advocates and getting together to discuss these issues. The solutions have to work for all of us and we have to make a platform at the state or national level to address these issues. The set of rules that work for all of us need to be established within these parameters. Most people don’t understand how things work especially in high end restaurants and while laws are designed for the majority we need to figure out how to make some exceptions. It will not be feasible for most of us to be functional.
Do you agree with the perception that American cuisine is very trend driven?
For sure; you see that in one year it’s about fermented black garlic, then it could be artichoke the next year. I think however that the scope is really widening now and for instance can you call Asian influenced bar food a trend? You can put whatever words you want to it but we chefs want to please people at the core level. Maybe some of these trends are profit driven but I think maybe it’s coming because we chefs are almost dysfunctional in our desire to please people.
Is that why you chose to be in this business, to please?
Definitely, 100%! I am a caretaker and at a basic level I do this job to please myself since I am happiest making other people happy. It’s something I learnt very early in life that giving a gift is more fun than receiving one. My work is a constant reinvention of that sentiment.
At my restaurant Beast we have an open kitchen and one of things I enjoy most about it is dispelling the myth that chefs are not normal people and I tell my chefs to go and taste food in front of guests. In earlier or more formal kitchens you would duck under the table or taste while pretending not to be eating. I want to show people that tasting while cooking, which the one thing home cooks don’t do enough, is important to cook good food. It’s funny but you should not be hungry by the end of service. I like to bring out this humanity behind our work and if some urgent situation like my towel catching fire occurs I don’t want to pretend that it didn’t happen and if I burn myself I am going to say “Oh shit!” and that is ok and people enjoy that.
Do you take criticism well, especially since with an open kitchen you can observe people’s reactions?
Thank god it’s only happened twice in nine years that we have been open when someone wanted their lamb chop well done or something was too salty. Dealing with critique as a chef is hard since your primary goal is to be a people-pleaser. It’s all a matter of opinion really, and personality and experience. I loved turning forty and feeling free and can’t wait to turn 50 to deliver myself from the evil of concern about what other people think. Every year I notice that it gets better and I don’t pay much attention to reviews, I stopped maybe five six years ago. You stop worrying so much and realize that people are still coming in and while some may call it the greatest meal of their lives others might not. I tell my team that your perfectionism is for you to be able to go home and sleep without regret. It’s important to continue to improve every day, never resting on your laurels.
There is talk about women not getting their due in the industry but do women help other women?
I think so and Dominique Crenn recently responded to a British male chef who made some misogynistic remarks about women in the industry. I totally agreed with her on how tired we all are of this subject of the gender issue and we want to be referred to as chefs, period.
Are you in favor of awards like the Best Female Chef of the year by World 50 Best?
No I am not totally because at some level these awards are divisive. For me the reason it’s still important to talk about this issue is because there are still aspects we need to focus on. What I like about them is that it’s very inspiring for girls growing up to see women in positions of power and leadership. This is true for any industry to give attention to women. I think women have some skills that men don’t have, it’s scientifically proven that women are superior at multitasking. I spoke recently about how women have higher threshold for pain than men. This is a hard job regardless of gender and though there is a lot of hazing, etc. the situation is changing.
How much autonomy do you give chefs working under you and who has the last word?
I see even in my own business that top down mentality is changing and we are starting to work as a community and chefs are leaning on chefs de cuisine and sous chef for their creativity and ideas whether man or woman. It’s all about team work and more we dispel the myth about the man behind the curtain the better it is.
I hire people based on merit and a few years ago I had all female cooks because that was who was coming for jobs. Now I have a male chef de cuisine who tends to attract more men in the kitchen. I don’t care about their gender as long as they are talented, hard working, generous and driven people.
Recently I have been working at developing relationships with people who work with me and put my mark on their ideas so they are still authentic to my food. It has brought in a freshness and newness from the younger team members. I feel that I have my style and I have done it but to keep people coming back for our set menu of six courses we need to constantly evolve. I have turned some of the nuts and bolts over to other people.
Has this delegation been easy?
Oh my God no! I am learning it gradually since for seven years I was in the restaurant every night and now even though the creative juices are still going I can now do so many other things such as writing and traveling. I have started trusting people more and it was scary in the beginning. Now they know that I will do the best for them and they know I will stand by them. I consider myself as an editor and there is no power struggle. It’s about making the best food and taking care of our customers. If a server or cook has a good idea I am always ready to consider it and they feel connected and have a reason to stay.
Has your cuisine changed over the years, and which direction are you heading in now?
I am not professionally trained and I started cooking because once you have the bug and the passion you can’t shake it. It’s going to come out somewhere, either your family is going to eat very well or you will figure out how to turn it into a business. I originally developed a passion for cooking when I traveled, even as a little girl with my mother and grandmother. I was in India for a year for a college project on cooking and then I traveled to Southeast Asia after graduating from college. So yes, my food has evolved from the days when I had my catering company after my travels and at that time I had a lot of flavors from those places.
Then I started to develop and learn more French techniques that my mom with her years in France used when I was growing up. I was reading and learning from Jacque Pepin and Julia Child’s classics and used them as a guide to help create the food at Beast. I can’t say I am really cooking the way French masters would but it’s my own theory of classic cooking. We make all of our sauces and condiments by hand including mayonnaise. My cooking changed more recently when I opened my cocktail bar across the street from Beast. I have a lot of food there that harkens back to the flavors from India and Southeast Asia, even in our cocktails.
I have recently been traveling to Japan a lot and my next project will be based on that cuisine. It will focus more of the Japanese foods that you don’t see much here. We see more sushi and ramen everywhere but I will be concentrating on Japanese curry and cold soba. So I am playing more now after a nine year run at Beast. My chef de cuisine is doing a great job of running the restaurant and he is younger, with a great eye for things like plating.
Hasn’t the plating gotten too fancy in the last few years?
Yes; it used to be basic and its lesson that I learnt from watching my dad, who is a jeweler and how at a certain point few years ago his work got dated . He is very talented and his technique is very refined but at a point his designs got stuck in a certain period. We chefs tend to do this too as we get older and keep doing what we know. It’s important to break out of the box.
Are you excited about being at the Beard awards in Chicago this year?
I won the last year the awards were in New York and I have not been to the event in Chicago and so I am really looking forward to going. I am going to cook that night and the theme this year is food in television and we had to pick a TV character and food related to them. I picked Sam the butcher from the Brady Bunch, and my Chef de Cuisine was like, “What?, Who?”, he is probably too young to know that show. We are doing a pork meatloaf from that famous episode on the show when they went to Hawaii. It’s going to have a delicious pineapple salsa/chutney on it.
Have you considering doing your own show on television?
There is talk of my hosting a show since I really enjoy working on television. I have been doing it for so many years and I don’t care so much about the bad rap about chefs doing TV shows, especially since I turned forty. I don’t watch much television myself but I enjoy the process and the opportunity to meet and get to know people you are on the show with. When I did the Taste I got to hang out with Anthony Bourdain and Nigella Lawson and it was great and besides it doesn’t hurt to promote the restaurant. So there is built in free advertising and I love public speaking and being in front of cameras.
Anything about restaurant menus that you find annoying?
One thing that annoys me is seeing something used twice during a meal. If I have an appetizer with say a certain dough and then it appears in another course, the repetition bothers me. I like all the courses to have different flavors and ingredients. Sometimes chefs get too obsessed with certain things and that borrowing from another dish or using the same product.
Social media in our industry?
I was just lamenting over the fact that my teenage daughter is growing up in an era with so much social media and everything looks so glamorous. Nobody posts real stuff and it’s sad this perception gets passed on to young people who don’t see the reality of chefdom. Any chef who reaches that celebrity chef position has come from the deepest and hardest work and the vulnerability that comes from presenting people your heart and soul and then having them judge you. Getting through that and being able to sleep at night was a process for me from the beginning.
Maya Angelou famously spoke about the imposter syndrome and realizing everyone goes through it made it easier for me to get through it. I still have that since there is tons of stuff I don’t know.
What kind of stuff are you referring to?
Sous vide, cryo-vacking, etc. I never knew till I learnt from going to all these cooking events. As a single mom for a long time and then owning my own restaurant I was just focused on work and bringing in a dollar. So I don’t have much experience with these things living in my insular world. Going to events and learning from people has inspired me to do new stuff. The strongest part of any leadership role is deciding which part is not your forte and letting someone else take it over. I have never worked on huge lines or done 300 covers a night, but even then, man I am a fucking good cook!
It’s my genuine self expression through taste and flavor. That’s all.
Once you reach a certain level of success or celebrity is there a fear of losing that place or recognition?
There is that question about how to stay relevant but I wouldn’t describe it as a fear; at least for me it’s a motivating factor. It doesn’t feel daunting but more of a place that I want to rise up to. The cool thing is every time I start to feel that way something really cool happens to me like for instance getting invited to go to Hong Kong with the State Department or I get invited to the White House.
Why do American restaurants stay relevant for a shorter period of time compared to other food cultures?
One of the more obvious reasons for that is our society. Culturally Americans like to move on from one thing to the next and it’s getting worse. We don’t have a very patient attitude and people don’t bother to make very deep connections on a soulful level. The is a mentality to try everything just once and they miss making a real connection to a chef or restaurant. In Japan for example, there is a gratitude exchange between the chef and the customers that is very satisfying for both parties.
How was your experience cooking at the JBF restaurant at the Milan Expo last year?
That was so cool especially being able to go on a trip to Italy. It was a short trip but I took time to visit some Balsamic producers I really like in San Giacomo. I enjoy cultural exchange on any level and it’s also a chance to educate myself.
What is an optimal size for a restaurant, as Beast has just 24 seats?
For us it’s a good size for what we do at Beast and I don’t have experience at larger places. A chef like Andrew Carmellini who has more experience can answer that. My next project will be more approachable and more fast casual like David Chang has done. He has also spoken about how chefs need to diversify their portfolios. I have a high end, a cocktail bar and my next one will have a wider feel. People’s expectations for what they can get at a certain price point are super out of control. People can complain for coming to Per Se for $300 and it’s outrageous because the level of service they expect and the food that is served at a place like that takes a lot of work. David Chang has said if he charged as much as he should for his ramen bowl it would be $27 a bowl.
This whole conversation is shifting on a massive scale, and though change hasn’t happened yet it’s coming and restaurant owners know it. Everyone needs to make a living in this business and Americans are going to have to pay more for it. We seem to have unrealistically low expectation of how much we should pay for food.