Chef Naomi Pomeroy does not stop working when she burns her hand or when people mistake her for a pastry chef just because she is a woman. “Man, chicks can be real bad-asses,” she says. “Sometimes that’s because they have to be, but maybe, honestly, that’s because everybody in this industry has to be.”
Oregon-native Pomeroy is the chef-owner of Portland’s Beast, a 24-seat, fixed-menu restaurant, and Expatriate, a drinking and snacking bar across the street. In 2014 she won the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Northwest. She is currently considering opening a third restaurant, which would also be in Portland. Pomeroy’s first cookbook, tentatively titled Oui, comes out in the fall.
Playboy talked to Pomeroy about her ideas for her new restaurant, what’s keeping her in Portland and why winning national awards actually puts chefs on edge.
What’s this new restaurant that you’re working on?
I’m not at a point yet where I can totally talk about it…but my husband and I are definitely thinking about doing another project together. I’m looking at some places in Portland. I don’t have a space yet, so I can’t complete an idea until I’ve seen a space. I’m not really one of those people who solidifies a concept and tries to push it into a space. I’m more the kind of person who gets a loose idea and then sees what’s available and what makes sense in the space and in the neighborhood. Right now it’s going to depend on what we find.
But it’s probably going to have something to do with Japan because my husband and I are really obsessed with Japanese culture.
What got you so interested in Japan?
Last year I got invited to go to Japan and cook at an event. It was really fun and my husband and I took this big tour of all these organic farms, and it was at that point we just really fell in love with it. Also Japan and Portland have a really strong love affair with each other. From the coffee to the whiskey to the music vinyl culture…it starts to become a chicken-and-the-egg type thing. Japan is also starting to get these little food cart pods and farmers markets are exploding there. It’s just so fucking Portland.
So that’s just sort of how the whole conversation started. We’ve been talking to our business partner about starting a new project because both of our places are doing really well. It’s funny because it took me forever to not work every single night at Beast. I worked every night there for like the first seven years. Last year I had to take some time away from cooking because I wrote a cookbook. And when I stepped away, the team really rose to the challenge. Then it’s kind of like, well, what am I going to do next? Because Beast and Expatriate are really running themselves. So it looked like it was time for us to examine another idea and concept.
Ultimately we want reasons to go back and learn more about the culture that we love so much. We’d both like to learn Japanese and all that. But that being said, I’m definitely not starting any kind of traditional Japanese restaurant. It will have that strong bar element and it will probably have some Japanese leanings, but I would never try to do something truly authentic.
Look, I think it’s really hard. A few people do it really well, but I can only think of a handful of ramen places in the United States, for example, that can even touch ramen in Japan. Or for that matter, I realized after coming back from Japan that we’ve never actually eaten tempura here. At the good tempura restaurants in Japan, they use a high-grade oil for frying and change the oil after every three customers. That’s why it costs like $100 to eat at a tempura restaurant there. So that’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to replicate here.
I’m not Japanese and I don’t speak the language and I can’t read Japanese cookbooks. There’s only so much I can learn. But I feel like I can capture some of the spirit.
Do you think the fact that you aren’t Japanese restricts what you are able to cook?
No, it’s not that at all. I’m just trying to keep it really fun and I don’t want it to be seen as being super serious. Take Danny Bowien for example. He is so fucking cool. He started Mission Chinese and he’s not Chinese. He grew up in like Oklahoma. And I don’t want to speak for him, but what he’s always been trying to do is to create this really fun, playful experience. The food has a lot of nods to that cuisine, because there are parts of that cuisine that are really inspiring to him. But it’s more off-the-cuff. That’s how I feel about it, too. I wasn’t expecting to only talk about my new project!
We can move on!
Like what happens if I find a place and I’m like, wait a minute, this would be the perfect vegetarian restaurant. I have lots of ideas right now. Taking almost all of the year off, in terms of not working the line every night, has given me a lot of time to reflect. The book was a really intense process that I’m not even totally finished with.
When you were reflecting on your career, what did you learn? How have you evolved as a chef and who do you hope to become?
I didn’t really start calling myself a chef until other people started calling me a chef. I’m a completely self-taught cook. I started a catering company and out of my basement. I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I just read voraciously and practiced. But I never worked for another chef. So I have all of the fear that come along with that. I am always cooking with these people like Jonathan Waxman who are great and it freaks me out. I really feel like I have so much to learn.
But as I’ve gotten older, one thing that’s changed the most is that I no longer feel as much like I have to know the things that I do not know. Or that there’s something wrong with the fact that I was never a line cook. I used to be so hard on myself about that. And then I started to realize that hey, my food is really good. There’s a lot of paths to get to a place. It’s been a really meaningful part of my career, to realize you can be self-taught and there can be big holes in your knowledge.
In writing my book, what I realized, and the reason why I’m so excited about my cookbook coming out, is that I feel like I have a special way of teaching about food because I had to learn everything through a lot of trial and error and through reading. So when I talk about whisking egg whites, for example, I talk about how long it takes, and what it should look like, and when to stop whisking, and how you know if you’ve over-whisked and all of that stuff. I feel like a lot of books these days are pretty presumptuous. There are so many people who don’t know what these terms mean.
My cooking has changed a lot over the years. As a really young cook I felt like I wanted to get all of the flavors into a dish. That’s the sign of young cooking. It’s not necessarily wrong. That’s actually why chefs love Asian food: so much of it has hot, sour, salty and sweet all in the same dish. But at this point, having Beast for eight years now, has really taught me a lot about balancing within a menu rather than trying to balance within a dish. So really looking at how the courses start, then peaking around the entree and finishing around dessert. And making sure things feel connected. I’m looking at things from a bigger picture I guess. Of an entire experience rather than just a singular note inside one dish.
Beast was open for seven years before you won your James Beard award. How were you able to stay relevant for that long?
Oh god, I don’t know. Not being relevant is probably my darkest fear. Some people have critiqued Beast as being the same experience every time you go. I think that’s an interesting and kind of charming critique, but it’s severely ignorant. We never make the same thing twice. Eating a multi-course meal in the same space could feel like a similar experience, but we’re always pushing ourselves to do new things. Every fucking year I’m like is this going to be the year that no one comes anymore? I’m being really honest.
I use recognition not as a way to suddenly relax, and be like, oh cool, I got the best new chef award or a James Beard award. It’s more like, oh shit, I got best new chef award and now we have this expectation to deal with. Before these awards came, we were kind of just surprising people. They’re coming to this deep corner of northeast Portland and into this little room where two cooks are making their whole dinner. And they were like wow, this is better than I thought it was going to be. But then when you get a big national award, then it’s time to really up the game and make sure that everyone coming in is having the kind of experience that they’re expecting to have. There’s so much pressure. We just do our best to keep it real and interesting.
What is keeping you in Portland? Why not expand to other cities?
I think about it sometimes, but I don’t know. It seems like something that might be easier when my daughter grows up and moves to New York or wherever it is she decides to go. But I already miss enough of her life. It would be difficult for me to feel so pulled in another direction. If you have something somewhere else, you need to be very mobile. So that’s definitely part of it.
I’m also afraid. I don’t want to seem like a pussy, but I’m like, god, there’s so many great restaurants all over. Does my style only work in Portland? Or is it something that I could use somewhere else? Would people in Los Angeles, for example, be willing to come to a place where they don’t have any choices about the menu? I have no idea. I think that could be something for me later if I continue to live up to peoples’ expectations and I can keep growing. But for right now it feels like this market is on fire and I still want to keep exploring how to make it better.
Something I’ve been really attentive to in the last year has been about creating team and allowing my cooks to have a certain sense of autonomy. When you have a crew of people who are talented and really want to be more creatively involved, I feel like if you aren’t willing to let them shine, that’s when they start talk about moving on.
People assume chefs who open up lots of restaurants have big egos. But alternately, those chefs have to be willing to give up control of their individual restaurants, right?
Yeah, it’s funny actually. There’s a part of it that’s ego, but for me, honestly, the biggest part of it is guilt. Every chef is a bit of a workaholic. I have just never really been comfortable taking time off or not being busy. I opened Beast in 2007 and at that time my daughter was about seven years old. I was a single mom and I was opening up a restaurant. Literally it was just me and my sous chefs. When we opened we didn’t have a prep cook or a dishwasher or anyone. We worked from 8 in the morning until 1 A.M. or 2 A.M. every day. It was just crazy.
We did that for so long that I just got in the routine. Then taking any time off to write the book was something that I had to really get over. I had to transition from feeling like I had to lead by self-flagellation in a way, you know? That if I wasn’t the one scrubbing the floor, then nobody else would. And I still think it’s really important to have that spirit, but I don’t think you have to be there every day for 16 hours a day in order to inspire your team. But that was something that took me a long time to figure out because I was used to doing it by myself. It was more of a control freakishness than an ego thing.
You have to find a core group of people you really trust and then actually allow them the space to do that and show you that they can. That’s something that a lot of chefs struggle with. When you see chefs who are in their restaurants every single night from the beginning to the end, that’s great and that requires a lot of dedication, but at a certain point it actually isn’t allowing your team to grow and learn about managing and leading others because you’re always right there.
You brought up your daughter. Many women chefs tend to bring up their families or are asked about gender in interviews…
I know you didn’t ask me a question yet, but I just wanted to say something about that. People always ask female chefs the same question, which is like, what are the challenges of being a woman chef in a male-dominated field? Or how do you balance motherhood and being a chef? I don’t want to open myself up to an insane critique, but why don’t male chefs get asked that question? Well, how do you balance fatherhood and being a chef?
It’s frustrating to be asked those questions, but it also makes sense. It takes longer for female chefs to be recognized or taken seriously. The funniest thing that happens, and every single chef will tell you this, is that people think you must have a man who tells you what to do. Sometimes you go to an event and people assume you’re the pastry chef because you’re a woman. I’ve had that happen many times. Or people are shocked that you’re not just the chef, but you’re also the owner of your establishment.
The industry is challenging to any human. The challenges of being in a kitchen, for example, where it’s hot and dangerous, and there’s heavy lifting and harassment, apply to just about anybody. I don’t think that all men are well suited to that environment either. It’s more of a personality thing. If I get burned, I just keep working. The funny thing is, a lot of female chefs will tell you that to be honest, men can often be a little bit wimpier than women are, in terms of their pain tolerance. Man, chicks can be real bad-asses. Sometimes that’s because they have to be, but maybe, honestly, that’s because everybody in this industry has to be. And if you want to play the game, you have to play it that way.
Sometimes I think about the band The Runaways when I’m working. They’re really great musicians and a lot of them have stayed in the industry and are still kicking ass and playing rock ‘n’ roll. I think those kinds of women, the ones who have been strong female leaders in quote unquote male-dominated fields—I don’t know what field isn’t dominated by men—are really inspiring to young girls. I kind of hope and pray I can be an example to girls for whatever career they want to do. Yes, you can be a mom, yes, you can be a single mom, yes, you can be a career person. And it doesn’t take a whole bunch of luck. It takes a whole bunch of hard work.
Alyson Sheppard writes about restaurants and bars for Playboy.com. She left out the part of the interview where she and Naomi said nice things about another Portland chef, Andy Ricker. Find her on Twitter: @amshep