Oregon chef Naomi Pomeroy speaks with Chloe Scott-Moncrieff about the highs and lows of her career in the kitchen
Today, Naomi Pomeroy is reflecting how kitchen life has changed since she started out two decades ago. Pomeroy, a James Beard Award-winning chef, TV personality and proprietor of Beast, the 26-seater restaurant in Portland, is famous for her ballsy attitude. But as we sip tea in London’s Rosewood Hotel, she’s saying it’s time for a softer approach to running restaurants.
“I’ve realized the posturing, snide comments, once a part of kitchen culture, come from people’s insecurity, they’re unnecessary. Anthony Bourdain talked a lot about #metoo in the kitchen, he felt we all need to be accountable,” she says. “I’ve changed my tone, when I ask someone to do something, they don’t always have the power to say no. It’s about making people feel comfortable in these power dynamics. People spend a lot of time at work, they deserve to feel good.”
Pomeroy, an icon in the US restaurant scene, is an engaging, voluble character. In our scattergun conversation, there’s no straying from hot topics. Vegetarianism is discussed first: “Plant matter is absolutely the future of food.” Then Instagram: “I’m wondering about our culture, why people visit restaurants, it’s now so trendy snapping that Instagram photo,” and of her career and job prospects in the US: “I wanted to be a doctor, then I thought I’d do political science but history fascinates me. I graduated in history but in the US, even back in the 1990s, an undergraduate degree isn’t enough to get you a good job.”
A tenacious bootstrap story
Before she tells me how she became one of Portland’s most notable chefs, she warns: “It’s a little dramatic.” Choosing her words carefully, she continues: “This is not an, ‘I went to New York, then I worked at Mugaritz etc’. It’s more a tenacious bootstrap story,” she explains.
Pomeroy is well known in her circles for originality – for its entire 11 years, Beast has stubbornly offered a six-course menu and set seating times, irrespective of fashion – so it doesn’t sound surprising when she drops in that in 1999 her career started when she “organically” built a restaurant empire, unearthing some of Portland’s greatest chefs in the process. She ran three restaurants, totalling 95 employees.
What does surprise is when she candidly relates a fall from grace – a sudden bankruptcy – that has influenced her business model since. “I’d graduated, tried teaching and realized it wasn’t for me so returned to the catering firm I’d worked at while at university. There, Michael (Hebb), who later became my husband, said: ‘let’s start our own catering company.’ We were both pretty ambitious so I agreed.”
In contrast to Beast, where her team is diminutive and her finances carefully managed, Pomeroy and Hebb’s business was high-risk and accelerated at supersonic speed.
They initially got by with no funds, just brilliantly creative slick menus and meeting clients in coffee shops. But soon they, “were catering for 700 people.” Then came the restaurant openings. Their Clarklewis restaurant, with its chipped paint and arty vibe, had a menu to die for with chef Morgan Brownlow butchering pig carcasses in the open kitchen in front of diners. It was fresh, bold and just what Portland needed at the time.
Equally, their Gotham Coffee shop with Family Supper upstairs was non-conformist. Family Supper, in particular, caused a national media frenzy. A pop-up before pop-ups were heard of, the venue had no waiters, instead featuring long tables and quixotic food.
In 2002 Hebb and Pomeroy married, their baby girl having been born a couple of years earlier. By 2003, no Portland restaurants were getting the national media attention theirs were. But in 2006, in a blink, they went bankrupt. “I had a small child. My husband ran off, but I knew I had to stay. I had to talk to my staff, tell them there was no work any more.”
She continues, “Once I looked around the room at the lawyers and bankruptcy attorneys and thought this is like a $6,000 an hour meeting. But they knew I couldn’t pay the bill, I was as scared as a child.”
So what went wrong? “I’m so careful now, but then my husband was in charge of finances, we were naive. I’d assumed we were fine, I was so busy running the restaurants and they were full,” she says.
There are two positives to come from insolvency, she reflects. One, obviously, she keeps a hawk’s eye on the accounts. “The second, and greatest thing, is the people who went on to flourish in Portland that came out of those restaurants.” Eminent names like Tommy Habetz, Le Pigeon founder Gabriel Rucker, and Troy MacLarty are all alumni.
Also what’s interesting is how Beast was spawned after this ordeal. Most people would have quit the business. “Oh I did consider it,” she says. “I thought, I have my daughter now, I have to batten down the hatches. I have to re-examine my life, everything had gone so fast.”
For a while she worked at a plant, importing olive oil and pasta. “I was a single mom, I knew if I took the desk job I could be home with my daughter every night. But it felt better to me to prove to her you can have a job that makes you satisfied, rather than saying: ‘I’m going to sacrifice my whole life to be with you’.”
So, within a year, her career shot off again when a friend approached her with a grain of an opportunity. “She had a building with a small space and they were considering opening a restaurant, would I like to be the chef.”
A prudent venture, Beast was built with $60,000. “I put Beast together on a shoestring, I’ve never had to borrow $1m again.”
If Pomeroy’s early progress was tornado-like, Beast is proof she’s now a refined, mellower force. Every step she’s taken to create this intimate restaurant has been strategic.
“It’s a former 800 sq ft hair salon so its design is dictated by its size,” she says. “We put in an open kitchen and communal tables.” The prix fixe menu is loosely French inspired, fine dining and devoted to local ingredients. Complex dishes like Mishima ranch wagyu beef carpaccio, buttered pretzel crisps and horseradish cream, shaved scarlet turnips, and fresh yuzu gremolata are current creations.
Eleven years on and still au courant, Beast’s contributions to American culinary life have been recognized in Marie Claire, where Pomeroy has been titled one of the 18 Most Powerful Women in Business, and O, The Oprah Magazineput her in their Top 10 Women on the Rise.
So where does one go from here? “I’m building things slowly with people I trust,” she says. Her debut cocktail bar Expatriate, run by her second husband Kyle Webster, is open. Quietly, she’s just unveiled Colibri, a curated flower shop nearby, a space flecked with pretty Persian rugs, Italian glass and exposed beams. With trademark Pomeroy astuteness, it’s been launched with zilch fanfare, leaving publicity to word of mouth.
Meanwhile, back at Beast the next step is trying a ‘casual’ menu, a momentous move for Pomeroy. “During the week, people have less time and Portland is such a competitive market so on Tuesdays, we’re trying serving four instead of six courses, which will be quicker to eat, things like a roasted chicken with a salsa verde for two, or a frisée salad with persimmons. Chez Panisse does something similar on Mondays.”
She’s restrained when discussing running a restaurant in the US but says, “Right now, it feels like people have to run multiple locations or a fast-casual concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I hope things don’t get too big and impersonal.”
In contrast, Pomeroy’s committed to longevity, which to her is synonymous with intimacy, bespoke environments, and quality. She pauses, ever defiant: “I still want to create jewel box experiences.”
Photo: Chris Court