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Naomi Pomeroy Talks About Life Outside of Beast
on June 8, 2011
The aroma hit me just on the other side of Yakuza Lounge as I walked up 30th just south of Killingsworth. The scene, when I entered Beast on a Saturday afternoon to meet with Naomi Pomeroy, was quite different from the one I experienced a month prior—when a dinner highlighted by more than just the incredibly tender duck breast, left an indelible and delicious mark on my food psyche. What I smelled outside—and now, even more so inside—was the lunch Naomi was preparing for her staff and her daughter as they prepped for that evening’s two seatings.
“You want some lunch?” Naomi asked me, over the fairly loud thump of KanYe West’s Monster (credit goes out to my Shazam app for that). Having just come from the Farmers Market at PSU, I politely declined. (“You just turned down Naomi Pomeroy asking you if she could make you lunch with the greens you saw her buying this morning at the market!” I thought to myself.)
“OK, it’s nothing major anyway,” as she proceeded to mix beautiful greens in a silver bowl, tossing some seasonings into the dressed mixture. Then she picked up a pan in which there appeared to be chicken, carefully placing pieces atop the five or six salads on her signature wood plating stage. At my home, that would be considered something quite special for lunch, no matter who made it. She handed her daughter a plate, left some for her staff, and brought her lunch over to me and excused herself for eating while we talked.
My first-hand knowledge of Naomi was limited to two visits to Beast. At dinner, I was surprised Naomi didn’t interact with her 26 patrons, other than to perhaps say, “Thank you for coming.” My palate had been sated completely, but I felt compelled to make eye contact with Naomi, so I introduced myself afterward and offered praise. She was quite gracious, and left me with a tiny dose of connection with the chef who had just presented one of the more interesting culinary experiences I’ve enjoyed in Portland—or anywhere. She is so focused that until she looks you in the eye, she might come off as a bit cold. But her smile and greenish-blue eyes melt though that.
I’d read about the former Naomi Hebberoy in food blogs and in the papers a few years back, not long after I had moved to Portland. Of course, there’s no dearth of information on Naomi now that her chef celebrity status has busted out beyond the confines of Portland and the Northwest. She’s appeared on both Iron Chef and Top Chef Masters in the past year. The most helpful and comprehensive background on Naomi’s career as a chef I could find came from Nancy Rommelmann’s engaging article, “Last Supper,” in Portland Monthly (2007). While you’re Googling Naomi Pomeroy, make sure to read that one.
The first question I posed to Naomi was about her spare time. She drew a blank. As she munched the crisp greens, she called over her daughter and asked her what they do in their spare time. August is 10, with blonde hair and an innocent but aware smile. “Cuddle,” she said, as she looked at her Mom with wide-open eyes. Naomi seemed pleased with the help and the answer. When I asked whether she wanted August to go into the business, she again deferred. August answered that she likes the business but she knows when (not if) she has kids she’d like to have a job where she could spend more time with her family. Naomi smiled.
So where did that come from?
I’m not very Portland. Most people think I’m from New York. Anywhere I go, most everyone would never guess that I was born and raised in Oregon. I love Portland and Oregon so much. But since I was a small child I would think, “What is everybody doing, like, hanging out, drinking beer on their porch—I mean, what’s going on here and why?” It’s nice that there’s that vibe here too, because it creates this quality of life were people aren’t totally insane. But what’s nice about it also is that for people who DO want to do something, and be powerful and make a mark, it makes it easier. The environment isn’t just competitive here in that way. So, I think when you do really stretch yourself and push yourself, it’s easier to shine here than it would be in a bigger city.
Were you driven as a kid?
Always. I had projects going on all the time, like play cooking projects, and I liked to work. My mom would put me to work in the kitchen, and that’s probably how I ended up here. But, I enjoyed working, and I always felt like I was wasting time when I was hanging out.
So then that carried you through to the start of your business career?
I started my first business when I was 22, just out of college. Started an underground catering company with my now ex-husband. I’ve noticed that even if I am not busy career-wise, I will pack my schedule full of different classes and outside things. I like to turn my own screws tight. It makes me do more. When I don’t have that, I feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.
But then, having a child filled a lot of that…
A lot of that got filled out with a child, for sure, for sure. But, to be honest, I happened to get the perfect child for me—in that she’s pretty independent and never really required too much watering, you know? She likes a lot of hugs, and I’m good for a lot of hugs. Other than that, she’s a really good kid, and we do our discipline quickly and efficiently. She’s not a teenager yet, but we’re doing well so far in terms of the balance of life. So, I don’t feel like I got as slowed down as a lot of people might having a kid.
When she was six weeks old, I went back to work and did my first catering event without my husband, who was doing something else at the time. I strapped her into a little front pack, and catered an event for 30 people for a Jim Beam photo shoot that happened during the day at Dante’s! So, I don’t like to pause too often, although, a little bit is really good.
Divorce is a little bit humbling. It changes your whole outlook forever. You have this successful restaurant now, but are you able to ever feel really comfortable with it because you know that things can change like that?
Yeah, but I find my comfort knowing that everything always changes, and as soon as you realize that’s the case, you can become kind of Buddhist in your philosophy. You have to practice kind of a lot of non-attachment to things.
And when you were in the middle of your divorce, did you feel that way?
Yeah. I was able to maintain that sense that I had my security blankets and dealt with things the way that I needed to deal with things. But even in it, I felt like this was going to be good. Even when I was sitting down at tables where I would be the only person under the age of 50, the only woman—you know, this is during the legal battle, where it would be like four attorneys and accountants. It was like going to school. And I realized quickly that even though it was really expensive and horrible and stressful, I also realized I was getting sort of a world-class education—really quickly. You know, school of hard knocks and whatnot. A lot of practical knowledge about money and investments, and you know, making a business work and all that stuff. So even in the middle of it, I was sort of like, wow this sucks, but it’s also really cool.
So, while Beast has elements, this is all quite different from Ripe and your Family Suppers…
Yeah, I deal with everything here. I do things really differently. I don’t have an investor, I’ve bought out my partner, and you know, there’s a small loan to pay back to one investor. Otherwise, I’m done with it. Eight employees.
All right, so you realize things have changed, and you have a little bit of a Buddhist philosophy, but do you have your sights set on something in five years?
No. I don’t do that. I don’t do that at all. It’s weird. I envy people who have goals and have this idea and this gestation period. And they figure out how to make it happen and then they do it. That’s not me.
Somebody calls, and has something interesting, and then… I’m just kind of like a super-focused and hard-working wanderer. I’m doing Beast right now, super happy here, and I want this restaurant to be open in 20 years. Otherwise, new projects—I’m open. I don’t want to figure anything out because I don’t have the answers about what needs to happen next. I figure that what needs to happen next is probably going to come to me rather than I’m going to it.
So you do really well here and you probably get mostly positive feedback. But then you go national, outside of your element. It’s not your kitchen. It’s not your menu [she fried night crawlers on TCM]. So in that context, to get criticism on national TV… how does that feel?
Yeah… It’s really, really scary. I don’t necessarily feel like it’s the first time I’ve had criticism. I mean… if you’re suggesting that I don’t take the blogosphere seriously—I go through brief periods of time where I’ll read stuff, and then I pull back and I realize that it’s really toxic. National critique… it’s very scary to be judged on something that you had to make in 20 minutes. I would prefer to be critiqued nationally for food that I actually spent time making, you know? They’re saying, “Ooh, this soufflé tastes a little funny!” or whatever. I made it in 5 minutes! It’s hard, but it’s not hard because they’re not really talking about you. It’s a television show, so it’s not that difficult to see that. You’re there, next to 12 other people who also had to do their dish in 20 minutes. So, it’s not as big of a deal as you would think. Ruth Reichl [of the NY Times] has eaten here, and she enjoyed her meal. I care much more about that than I care about what she thought of my soufflé, or whatever.
What are your favorite food cities?
Portland. I’m biased. Better than France, better than… I don’t know. It’s just really good. I think there’s some interesting things going on in Los Angeles—I’ve got to go back there. Yeah, they’re having a cool, sort of, resurgence of actual food. Chicago—it’s got cool stuff happening. My complaint about New York—and I’m more than happy to come to blows with them over this—you can’t get the produce that you can get here. We have such immediate delivery of super-fresh produce that we’re able to eat a little bit cleaner in that west coast way.
Your top five food experiences that you can recall in Portland?
Let me start by saying… I’m sure I’ll leave some things out because I am literally—have probably one of the worst memories of anyone you’ve ever met. I guess, for me, eating out is an experience overall. It’s not just about the food. That’s a lot to do with it, but it’s environmental. And, it’s about company. It’s usually just singular things, like there was a cauliflower soup at Pigeon that we had three years ago for my birthday. It’s just simple stuff for me, you know? The first time I had the Nostrana radicchio salad, that was pretty awesome.
There was a restaurant here a long time ago that is not here anymore, over by the MAC Club—that this guy named Tony had—and I forget the name of it. It was a little place, and he was French, and I had a really cool meal there. I was young. And it was the first time I’d ever had a fixed menu—a big, long meal.
Early meals at Genoa too, a long time ago. It was kind of interesting to me that there were no choices. And yeah, I like experiential stuff, stylistic choices—like the way that Navarre works for ordering, or the simplicity of certain items at Biwa. Recently, I had a very nice meal at Aviary. I like that place a lot. Little Bird is nice. The pork chop is delicious.
So if you had friends coming to Portland, where would you tell them to go?
First one, right off the top?
Oh yeah. Always. I love it. Gabriel [Rucker] is an experience. Sitting at the counter. He’s just an interesting person and I think he’s very playful. So, I think it’s a nice sort of segue into Portland and eating. Not everybody is serious about everything, you know? I like how un-serious and playful he is.
I really don’t go out that much, you know? I like Nostrana because I like Cathy [Whims]. That’s my thing. I like to send people to places where I like the owners and have special relationships.
Well, this relates to some fame that you’ve realized. So last night, I did a search on Twitter: hashtag “Top Chef Masters.” The first thing that came up was someone suggesting a particular porn star that should play you in Top Chef Mistress. Would you be curious enough to go Google that and see what she looks like?
(laughing) Oh yeah? Yeah, sure, why not? That’s hilarious. I mean, the whole thing with the fame game—I hate that part.
But you know that that’s part of it, and you’re doing it…
Yep. But I’m not doing it for that. Actually, that’s the part that makes me hesitate every time I get a call. You know? I’m into privacy.
So what don’t you like about the fame?
People that think they know you. It’s just hard to navigate things. For me, because I know who I am and I have a lot of pride about that, it’s just weird to feel in the public eye and have people come up to you. When kids do it, it’s really sweet. I was eating at Nostrana the other night, and a little boy came up. “Hey, my name is Evan. I’m just a huge fan.” That’s where it’s adorable, but when adults do it, it’s more difficult for me to deal with. It happens a lot now. It depends on the mood that you’re in, and you kind of have to always be in the mood to talk about it. I’m not going to ever be rude to somebody that says they’re excited to see me on TV. That’s very nice, but it makes privacy difficult. And so I end up wanting to choose restaurants that are, like, on 82nd to go eat so that I don’t have to talk to people all the time. I’m not that social. I’m just kind of into whatever I’m into and I have a small group of friends. So when someone comes up to me and says, “Well, I saw you in the Wall Street Journal,” there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s just like, what do I say? “Cool! Yeah, glad you liked it!”
And do you want to stop and have a conversation about it?
No, never! Never do I want to have a conversation about anything! (laughing) It’s just that it’s hard to know what to say. Really, I like people. You know, I do. I think people are genuine here in Portland too. And people have been following my career, and they’re really supportive and it’s nice that they feel comfortable saying, “I had a meal at Beast,” or whatever. I’m always happy to hear that stuff. But sometimes, I do just want to eat my chicken wings, or whatever.