Kyle Webster

Naomi Pomeroy: A Portland Chef's Perspective, Part 1

The chef/ owner of Beast restaurant and Expatriate bar in Portland discusses her life as a chef and the future of the industry

Vivacious , exuberant, and articulate: it's easy to fall under the spell of talented chef and owner Naomi Pomeroy of Beast restaurant and 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.

The self-taught Pomeroy says she got into the industry on accident, first working in a catering company before 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. After her divorce that same year, the newly single mother followed her passion; she opened Beast in 2007, with just twenty four seats, communal tables, and a prix-fixe menu. The very successful restaurant has since made Pomeroy a celebrity in Oregon, and beyond. This second phase of her career also brought her current 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 one of the top ten chefs in the country in 2010. Her subsequent nominations for the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef Northwest award four years in a row was no surprise. Around that time there was a conversation about the relevance of her restaurant and how it relates to the current food culture. Her win led to international travels and adventures to Hong Kong with the American Culinary diplomacy program; to Japan, cooking at the JBF restaurant at the Milan Expo in 2015; along 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, what other chef owners are concerned about in the industry, and what she is up to next.

The Daily Meal: Since the silver win at the Bocuse d'Or with the U.S. team, has the image of American cuisine been enhanced internationally and even in our own country?
Naomi Pomeroy: It's interesting especially since I am good friends with Gavin Kaysen who helped to lead that team, who was recently on the cover of the food section of New York Times with his grandmothers pot roast. I do think American food is changing and becoming very diverse. Compared to other cuisines around the world it's fairly new.

There are cuisines like Peruvian and Nordic that have, as recently as fifteen years ago, 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 that utilize excellent ingredients and products, 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. 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 that in turn regulate 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 issues collectively. One chef who is always ahead of the pack is Danny Myers whom has addressed these service issues along with many other chefs. I am opening a new place and we are talking about all these issues. I have also had conversations with chef friends like Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo about them. 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. 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 the trend is fermented black garlic, then it could be artichoke the next year. However, I think that the scope is really widening, for instance can you call Asian influenced bar food a trend? You can use whatever words you want to. At the same time chefs want to please people. Maybe some of these trends are profit driven, but I think maybe this is happening because we are almost dysfunctional in our desire to please our patrons.

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 ― I am happiest making other people happy. Something I have learned very early in life is that giving a gift is more fun than receiving one. My work is a constant reinvention of that sentiment. At Beast we have an open kitchen and one of things I enjoy most is dispelling the myth that chefs are not normal people. 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 and if some urgent situation like my towel catching fire occurs, I don't want to pretend that it didn't happen. If I burn myself I am going to say "Oh shit!" and that is ok; people enjoy that.

Do you take criticism well, especially since with an open kitchen you can observe people's reactions?
It's only happened twice in nine years that someone requested the lamb chop well done or contested that 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, as well as personality and experience. I loved turning forty and feeling free; 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.

For part 2 of this interview, click here.

For more Portland dining and travel news, click here.

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Naomi Pomeroy: Bringing the Best to Portland Diners