Vivacious , exuberant, and articulate: it's easy to fall under the spell of talented chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy of Beast restaurantand Expatriate bar in Portland, Oregon. Sans any tattoos or chef jacket, she cheerfully informed me she wouldn't be caught wearing one. 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, Knife Fight, and ABC's The Taste have made her a familiar face around the country, and has added to her fan base.
There is talk about women not getting their due in the industry but do women help other women?
I think so. Dominique Crenn recently responded to a British male chef who made misogynistic remarks about women in the industry. I totally agreed with her on how tired we all are of the gender issue. 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 these awards, 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. 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?
In my own business, that top down mentality is changing and we are starting to work as a community. 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 the 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 women were the ones 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 on 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, 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. For seven years I was in the restaurant every night and now, even though the creative juices are still flowing, I can 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. 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. 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. 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 since the days when I had my catering company.
Then I started to develop and learn more French techniques from my mom. 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. 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 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. He is younger, with a great eye for things like plating.
Are you excited about being at the Beard awards in Chicago this year?
I won last year's award in New York City 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. It was great and besides, it doesn't hurt to promote the restaurant. So there is built in free advertising. I love public speaking and being in front of cameras.
Once you reach a certain level of success or celebrity is there a fear of losing that place or recognition?
There is that fear or 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 in comparison to those in 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. This 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.
For more Portland dining and travel news, click here.