Naomi Pomeroy believes that she’s mellowed out since her restaurant Beast in Portland, Oregon first opened. Ten years of running the restaurant, which, so far, has stuck to a six-course menu and set seating times, has taught the Pomeroy to yell less, adapt more, and consistently prioritize fun in the kitchen. “The key to my success has always been empowering the people around me,” she says. Another likely contributor: fan-favorite appearances on two TV shows. After getting her start in food with her own catering company at 22, she’s done all this without ever having worked for “one of those old man chefs.”
Pomeroy stopped by the Eater Upsell to chat with Upsell hosts Helen and Greg about her rules for the kitchen, drawing menu inspiration from the sky, and being “robbed” of an Iron Chef win. Listen below, or read on for the full transcript.
As always, you can get the Eater Upsell on iTunes, listen on Soundcloud, subscribe via RSS, or search your favorite podcast app. You can also get the entire archive of episodes — plus transcripts, behind-the-scenes photos, and more — right here on Eater.
Read the transcript of the Eater Upsell Season 3, Episode 9: Naomi Pomeroy, slightly edited for clarity, right here.
Naomi Pomeroy: When we first started cooking it was like, “Listen, it’s my way or the highway.” We didn’t used to do changes or substitutions at Beast, partially because we didn’t have the staff to accommodate. It was just me and my sous chef, and I worked 120 hours a week, and we had no help with anything.
Greg Morabito: Wait. I’m sorry — 120 hours a week?
Helen Rosner: I know. I was just doing the math on that in my head.
Naomi: That could have been an exaggeration, but I know that it was often between 90 and 100 hours a week.
Helen: A lot of time.
Greg: Oh my god.
Naomi: That’s just kind of what you have to do in this business to get started. And part of that might cause a little bit of anger sometimes and extreme exhaustion. And I think in the beginning, all of our careers we were sort of — Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo and I, especially, were talking about how we used to say like, “Yeah we’re never gonna do anything special for anyone that comes in. If you don’t eat gluten, get the F out.”
Helen: You can say “fuck” on the show.
Naomi: Okay, good. Great. Yeah, it’s a podcast. Fuck.
Greg: It’s all we do.
Helen: We are regularly the only top food podcast in the iTunes store that has the explicit rating.
Helen: Next to it will be a list of 20 episodes, then ours is just like, “There are many swear words on this show.”
Naomi: Okay, well I’ll try to increase your count.
Naomi: So anyway, I think what I was trying to say related to what you were saying is that I think chefs have become nicer. One, because we sort of have to, and two, because it just gets really old and tiring to be upset all the time, you know? It’s too intense. The world is crazy enough. Let’s just all relax and try to have a good time.
Helen: I don’t know if it’s even specifically a food thing. I think that the kitchen environment is definitely physical and it’s verbal, and that certainly lends itself to a certain degree of yelling to express displeasure. But, I think in almost any profession, especially one where you might be in a position of having to be kind of a creative lead at a young age, you are going to feel really rigid and like, “No, this is my fucking art.”
Helen: Like, “This is my vision. I’m doing my thing.” And then time and experience help you develop less of a sense of rigidity.
Naomi: Totally. Yeah, that’s for sure. And also, there is a little chip on the shoulder that can happen when you’re young.
Helen: Yeah, youth is terrible. Don’t be young, guys. It sucks.
Greg: I love hearing anybody talk about how the culture is changing a little bit in the kitchen or, not a little bit — a lot. I’m just curious, I don’t know if you can put your finger on anything specifically, but over the years in your kitchens, do you think that you have developed any sort of rules or guidelines?
Naomi: Yeah, I have.
Greg: Is how you run your kitchen now is different from when you started?
Naomi: Well, yeah. One thing that I would say hasn’t changed about the way that I run my kitchen is that I’ve always said to everyone very, very explicitly, “We need to have fun while we’re working.” A big part of our day has to be communicating with each other, getting to know each other as a team, hanging out, talking, being together.
At Beast the way that it works is we’re not open during the day. The whole staff comes in around nine o’clock — in the morning. I guess that’s obvious. But, it’s kind of crazy, right? So we come in at nine o’clock and we just prep all day until we do line up at five, so we’ve worked a full work day already.
Helen: And then the work begins.
Naomi: And then we start doing dinner service. So a lot of the day is spent just talking about family, and relating to each other, and telling jokes, and talking about some show that we watched, or whatever. And I think that translates into the diner’s experience. I’ve always really thought that the way that the restaurant feels when you come into it. Mind you, it’s an open kitchen so it does have a vibe to it; you can tell if people in the back are pissed off at each other.
Greg: God, that’s so true. I’ve never thought about that, but I definitely feel like you can get that sense as a diner when you walk in. Maybe it’s some subconscious thing of like, Is this some place I would like to work if I was a chef?
Helen: Well, it’s also like going to someone’s home, if your friends invite you over and you walk in and you know they have just paused in the middle of a fight because the doorbell rang.
Naomi: Oh you can feel it, right.
Helen: It’s like, Oh my god, I am walking into them —
Greg: And there are a lot of restaurants where you feel just that feeling, too.
Naomi: I 100 percent agree with that, and that’s why I just sort of don’t allow that kind of bullshit, bad attitude, “I’m better than you are” posturing situation that can happen in kitchens. That’s a prevalent thing in kitchens, the hazing or things like that. And I’ve just never allowed that. I’ve always said, “We need to make sure that we’re creating an awesome environment because people can feel that.” So that hasn’t changed at all.
In some ways I would say that in the beginning I was a little reckless with my partying. Like we definitely would go in the back and drink tequila while we were working, and then come back out and I’d put on some dance music. Mika Paredes who was my sous chef and then chef de cuisine for six years, for the first six-and-a-half years of the restaurant, we lived together. I was single, she was single. We just were partying a lot.
That would be the biggest change. Over time, it’s like we just — neither of us do that anymore. She doesn’t work for me anymore, but the restaurant has gotten a little bit more serious. But not in a bad way, you know, in a really good way, in a way where we’re not telling people to fuck off with their dietary restrictions. We’re telling people, “Yeah we will accommodate you.” It’s just that growing up thing.
Helen: Yeah, and Beast is a very unique style of restaurant. I have not eaten there, though. I went to Portland once for 15 hours, and it was not enough time.
Naomi: No, that’s not enough time.
Helen: But it’s a small restaurant, right? Twenty-five or 26 seats?
Naomi: Yeah, we have 26 seats, and we just do two seatings a night. It’s at 6:00 and 8:45, and it’s all one menu, a set menu with six courses.
Helen: Greg and I have talked about this before on the show. That is my favorite style of restaurant. I love it.
Naomi: I think it should be, because, look, what do you want to do when you go out to any restaurant? Ask the chef what they would eat if they were eating here, because they know what’s happening.
Naomi: They know what’s best. They saw the tomatoes; they look amazing. They picked out beef cheek or whatever, and I think that’s how we do it. We do it partially for ourselves, because it’s like a selfish thing. We’re creative people, and we change the menu every two weeks, so we just have the things that we want to eat at that time. We want to touch that product, and make that food for you, and share it with you. So it’s partially selfish, but it’s partially about what is best in that moment.
Helen: I think doing these sort of strict seatings also solves the communal dining problem. You know, a lot of people hate communal dining. It’s the most polarizing issue.
Naomi: I hate communal dining. Girl, you don’t know. I’m telling you. People say, “Oh my god, how long has Beast been open?” I don’t know why, but it takes people a long time to catch up. People think that Beast has been open for like two or three years sometimes.
Helen: It’s been open for what, like 10?
Naomi: Almost 10.
Greg: Hey, it seems fresh, you know. It seems like it’s still got —
Helen: It’s like you don’t look a day over 21.
Greg: The bloom is still on the rose.
Naomi: Thank god this is radio because that sure as shit isn’t true.
Helen: You’re beautiful.
Naomi: Thanks. So anyway, Beast has been open for almost 10 years. In September, it will be 10. And when people say, “Oh my god, I haven’t made it in yet,” I just want to reach out and give them a little hug and say, “To be totally honest, I might not come to Beast either.”
Helen: Because of communal dining.
Naomi: Because I don’t want to sit with other people.
Helen: But I go back and forth on hating communal dining and hating the people who hate communal dining. I don’t know, it’s just like, which hate do I want to have today? But, I think that by saying, “Look, we do these two seatings and it’s a set menu” — Part of what is so frustrating about communal dining when it’s done poorly is a combination of the clatter of service that’s surrounding you on such an intimate level —
Naomi: Right. It’s busy.
Helen: — and also, so frequently, communal dining coincides with benches — like, fucking benches.
Naomi: Oh yeah. No, we have really great chairs. In the beginning our chairs were really uncomfortable, but I had this guy come in and totally design a brand new chair for us, and they’re all custom made, and they are very beautiful and comfortable.
Helen: Oh god, comfortable chairs.
Naomi: But, I think what I don’t like about communal dining is I think a lot of people think that I tried to make it that way on purpose, like, that I designed it because I wanted people to sit next to each other and snuggle and talk, which isn’t totally true. At its best, it can become that, and it’s incredible to see people sit at a table of eight people, and you have four couples that sit down, and at the end of it they’re all planning their next vacation together. I mean, it does happen.
Helen: Yeah, but that can only happen if the courses are happening at the same time
Naomi: That’s true.
Helen: Like you’re sharing the experience —
Helen: — instead of me having to do that weird gymnastics pommel horse move over the middle of a bench so that I can sit down, while the couple to my left is on their dessert course, and the solo dude to my right is like —
Greg: You’ve gotten so good at that move over the years, Helen.
Helen: If you’re wearing a fucking dress, and the host puts you in the middle of a bench, there is no solution that does not involve half the room seeing your crotch. It’s awful. It’s deeply awful.
Naomi: Maybe that’s why they do that, though. You never know.
Helen: Oh god.
Naomi: But anyway, I only made two big, long communal tables at Beast because that was the best way to get the highest number of seats into the restaurant.
Naomi: And that was really the only solution. And actually, everything that Beast is, including a six-course set menu, was born of necessity. We didn’t do that because we were like, “Hey we have to do this set menu thing.” We did it because that was how we could ensure that the business model worked.
Frankly, we did the math, and we were like, “If we have all of these two tops in here, and it’s Portland, and Portlanders are particularly notorious for being really cheap. Everyone is going to come in and sit here and have like one cheese plate and share a glass of wine and be here for three-and-a-half hours while they talk about whatever.” And we wouldn’t make any money.
Naomi: We had to set something where we were like, “Okay, well this is how much we would need to collect in a night to make this work.” We kind of worked the equation backwards on how we would do that, and the answer is everybody has to spend at least $100 in order for us to make this work, so that’s how we do it.
Helen: That feels like the same philosophy that is behind the whole ticketing phenomenon with restaurants.
Naomi: It is.
Helen: Where it’s like, “Look, we need to approach this like it’s a real business. What’s the P&L on our daily operations, our monthly operations?”
Naomi: Well, I’ve been thinking about that. That’s a question that I have, too. I’ve kind of been toying around with the idea of abolishing the two seating times, which would totally mess with everything that you’re saying.
Helen: Yes, it would.
Naomi: So maybe later we’ll talk about this off —
Helen: You can fill me on this.
Naomi: Yeah, but I want to continue the conversation because one thing that does happen in the heart of winter in Portland is that I don’t have 26 guests clamoring to eat dinner at 9 p.m. for two-and-a-half hours, you know?
Naomi: You’re out of there at like 11:30 p.m. So I’ve been trying to sort of solve that problem. Like, would I get more people in if I allowed the staggered seating? But then, honestly, on the flip side, I’d have to have more cooks, because I only have two cooks working in the kitchen at night, because that’s all it takes, and that’s all there is really space for back there. So, I don’t really know. We’re going to be 10, and I have to sort of figure out how to stay relevant in some ways.
Helen: Do you?
Naomi: I think so. Absolutely. There’s no question about it. One thing that I would say in answer to an earlier question, how the restaurant has evolved and changed, is that I don’t write every menu anymore. I found that the key to my success has always been empowering the people around me. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. And I also realize that if I’m going to be stepping away from the restaurant to come to New York or go to Minneapolis or LA, I have to have a team in place that feels 100 percent behind whatever it is that they’re doing. And I think that the most successful chefs are the ones that can relinquish certain controls, and give their team some creative input, and empower them to have ownership over it.
I think any successful business is like that. Who needs their boss coming back in and sticking their finger in everything and being like, “Well my idea is this and my idea is that,” and then walking away? Because we’re not the experts anymore, you know what I’m saying?
Naomi: Young people are the people that keep this business strong and keep it relevant and interesting, and I think my style of cooking is just my style of cooking. If you put a blindfold on, and I brought you a plate of food and someone else’s plate of food, you could tell that it was mine no matter what I made, I think.
Naomi: You know, if you got to know me a little bit.
Helen: It’s like handwriting or fingerprints, yeah.
Naomi: You can’t change it. And, if you want your diners to continue coming back in and being interested in what’s going on, a great way to do that is to empower someone on your team that’s talented and has creativity, because they love it, and so then the diners love it. It kind of goes back to that philosophy of “Is everyone having fun?”
Helen: This feels like it’s hand-in-hand with what you were saying about becoming nicer, also. Anger is not quite the right word, but part of that intensity of a young chef, or a young creative person in any field, is that feeling of like, “I have to do everything myself. This is my vision and it is only my vision.”
Naomi: Oh my god. I can’t even tell you. That is the absolute — that is almost the mark of a young chef that’s ready to burn out, burn themselves to the ground. It’s just that feeling of I have to, you know, go in at six o’clock in the morning, and I have to control everything, and I have to touch every single plate. And I definitely was like that for years, and I think that was part of the heavy drinking and the crazy-making. Like, what was I going to do? I was working myself to the bone because I felt like no one else could do it, and maybe there were points when it was true. I couldn’t afford to have staff in the beginning, you know, so I just built it from scratch.
Greg: But, it’s better to have a team there, then, and to have some people that take some authority, so that you don’t have to be there all the time doing all that stuff. Is that the case?
Naomi: Absolutely. I think it makes the whole restaurant better when there is — because otherwise it’s very disruptive. Like if I write a menu, and it’s my vision and all my control, and then I’m gone for a week, it’s like, well that’s not the same as if my chef de cuisine writes a menu. And it goes through extreme vetting, where I’m looking at it and I’m like, “What about this?” or “What about that?,” or “I don’t really know how I feel about that dish. You need to make that dish for me so that I can try it before we put it on the menu.”
There’s a lot of rigorous talking and creative process. But then it comes to be that it’s this thing that represents my team there very, very well, and everyone can stand behind it.
Greg: So what are the things that every Beast menu has to have? What do you guys talk about when you are putting together a new menu, which sounds like something that happens fairly often?
Naomi: Yeah, every two weeks actually.
Naomi: But that’s one thing that has changed, too. We used to change the menu every single week.
Helen: That’s a breakneck pace.
Naomi: And I think what was happening when we changed every week is that the menu would still be in its incubation stage on the first Wednesday. It’s always going to be delicious, no matter what. Nobody should be afraid to come in on the first Wednesday of a menu change. It’s just that little things might change, and we’ll be like, “Oh there should be a garnish over here, or this needs a little crunch,” or whatever. And then by Saturday or Sunday the menu would be like wham bam, totally done and ready to go, and just so perfect. And then we’d change again.
Helen: Yeah. Just pulling the rug out from under yourselves.
Naomi: Yeah, it’s kind of fun to do that. It’s a wild ride. But we decided that we would use that second week of a menu to bring forth the next one and do some testing and things like that.
We used to never sit down for a lineup. Does everyone know what a lineup is? A lineup is, in a restaurant, where the servers come in, and the cooks sit down, and we taste through the wine pairings, and we taste every single dish. And we never did that before. We would just fucking start making stuff and then put it out and be like, “I hope this is good.” I mean, we would taste it and all that, but now we have an official, formal 5 p.m. lineup.
Helen: It’s like a dress rehearsal.
Naomi: It’s awesome. But I missed your question. I kind of went off the rails there on that.
Helen: So each menu is six courses, right?
Naomi: It is and so basically every — Look, everyone does this differently. Like, when I write a menu, I’m writing from some weird, special place that I can’t really explain to people.
Greg: The well.
Naomi: It is. I call it, I mean it’s more like the sky. Mine comes — I mean I don’t know if your stuff comes from the well, which is like below, which means basically that you are the devil. No, I’m kidding.
Helen: I haven’t really thought through my creative metaphor yet.
Greg: Yeah, I haven’t thought about — if land, sea, air — where the creative energy comes from.
Helen: But so okay, so things fall from the sky into your head. You become the vessel for the stuff that comes out of the sky.
Naomi: I’m grabbing stuff out of the sky. I’m just a vessel, I say that all the time.
Greg: Right. The creative muse is speaking through you.
Naomi: It is. And what happens for me is that it just kind of writes itself. I don’t really know how to say that other than maybe I pick a starting point and, you know, it might be the entrée. So we have six courses, and I think of it like in a really sort of symphonic way, or like in a bell curve situation, where it starts out kind of quiet, and then you have the buildup, and then there is the peak moment, and then you are coming back again.
Helen: That’s beautiful.
Naomi: So that middle dish, the third course of the six, is always the richest, the heartiest. You know, for the most part, unless it’s the middle of the summer which can shift things around a little bit, that’s the meat moment.
Helen: It’s the crescendo.
Naomi: It is.
Helen: It’s like the big, explosive climactic center.
Naomi: Yeah, and so we always do serve meat for that course, and it could be lots of different things. We just did this just really beautiful braised beef cheek, and we did these little — this is for my dinner at Animal, actually — but we did these little pastas, agnolotti, filled with a smoked potato puree, and then we shaved some horseradish and some 10-year aged white cheddar.
Helen: I’m making such a blissed-out face right now. That sounds so good. I’m so hungry.
Naomi: And then little pea tendrils, sautéed in there and some crispy fried shallots. It was a beautiful dish, but that would be all the rich, heavy flavors. In the beginning, the first course is usually pretty light and bright. It depends, it can vary. That could happen somewhere else in the meal, but it has to happen somewhere.
This is another big change: We used to always do a charcuterie plate as a second course, kind of famously. Like, people have seen pictures of it. If you go online and google “Beast” and “food,” you probably would see a picture of a charcuterie plate.
Greg: It is the thing that pops into my mind when I hear your name.
Naomi: Okay, but we stopped it. Don’t freak out.
Greg: Oh, you did?
Helen: Keeping it fresh.
Naomi: Yeah, here’s why. I’m gonna be totally, totally frank. Last year in the winter, you know, in January, February, and March, we slowed down pretty significantly. It was kind of like, “Whoa what is this? Our sales are down by 20 percent.” It was something big.
Greg: Yikes, yeah.
Naomi: And I was like, “What the fuck.” At first in January, I was like, “Oh, it’s just kind of slow. It’s just a weird year. Whatever.” So I noticed this pattern starting to form, and I was like, “Whoa we have to figure out what’s happening here.” And I had always been that person that was sort of like, “If people don’t like it, screw them,” you know? I never read any of my reviews. I was just like, whatever.
Greg: You seriously never read any of your reviews?
Greg: I would think that would be the most impossible thing not to do.
Helen: I self-Google like every day.
Naomi: Really? Yeah, I can’t. I think it was like people just didn’t always understand [the restaurant], and, frankly, I was too busy [to read reviews] a lot of the time. At some point I started to have managers that would read the reviews and let us know if somebody kept hating something. And then, generally, I think that Yelp — I will definitely go on record as saying Yelp is to be wildly distrusted. Wildly.
Greg: Oh yeah.
Naomi: But, I feel like at the end of the day, when you’re a business owner — I mean I’m the only owner of Beast. I have 100 percent accountability to how that place is working. So this is like a long story version of why I took the charcuterie plate off, but I could never find any complaints about the food. Everybody was like, “It’s delicious. It’s great. It’s yummy.” Every once in a while, somebody would be like, “I thought there’d be more meat,” or, you know, something stupid like that.
But, I noticed that people felt like it was the same. I read a couple of reviews of people saying, “Yeah, go here once or twice, but you don’t have to keep going back, because it’s kind of like once you’ve gone there you’ve [done it].” And I felt that way about the French Laundry, honestly. I mean, I love the French Laundry. It was a wonderful meal. I can’t visualize myself heading back to the French Laundry again.
Greg: I think they are having that very same problem right now, as a matter of fact.
Naomi: Yeah, and I think that is sort of the crux of what’s happening. It’s about staying relevant. You can’t just rest on your laurels, and I’m not saying that you are — you’re continuing to push and pump out the stuff — but what I’ve realized about the charcuterie plate, specifically, is that it had the same shape every time. So even though all the elements were different — there were like six or seven different items on this plate — the way that they were arranged was like this clock of little pieces on this round plate. It was very beautiful. There was fresh salad in the middle. I kind of miss it, but at the same time, visually, it made people feel like they were having the same meal every time they were coming.
Helen: It was the psychological sticking point. This is really fascinating.
Naomi: Yeah, so I was like, “You guys, I think we need to stop doing that.” People are wrong because they’re not having the same meal every time they come in. But, you know, back in the past, we did almost always start with a soup. That was really common, too. So it was those first two things — even though it was a different soup every week, it doesn’t matter. If people have soup every time they are starting they are going to feel like it’s the same thing. So we made this menu revamp, and Jake Stevens who has been my chef de cuisine for the last three years is a pasta guy. And I used to be really rigid and be like, “You know what? Pasta is not French. We’re not turning this place into an Italian restaurant, Jake.” And I don’t know, he is really good at making pasta, and he was excited about it, so I was like, “Fuck it. Make some pasta.”
Helen: I think France touches Italy. There are parts of France where there is totally pasta.
Naomi: Yeah, totally.
Helen: Organically, yeah, sure. Why not?
Naomi: And then the other little thing I noticed is that Portland has gotten really traffic-y. It’s changed.
Helen: The cars?
Naomi: It’s busy.
Helen: Okay. I mean, it’s cool.
Naomi: It’s really busy compared to how it used to be.
Helen: People love Portland.
Naomi: Yeah, well it’s great. I mean the growth is massive. But one thing that happened in that — Beast is in northeast Portland, so we’re not very close to downtown, but nothing in Portland is far away. So it’s like when I say not close, I mean on a good day, it might take 15 minutes to get there in the car. It’s no big deal.
But, on a bad day, on a Friday, it could be 45 minutes or an hour, and that never used to be that way. But one thing that was happening, I noticed in the reviews, is that people were arriving to be on time for their reservation, and sometimes they would get there at like 5:30 p.m., because they were trying to judge and they weren’t sure how long it would take.
Helen: Oh and the reservation would be at 6:00 p.m.?
Naomi: Yes. And in the past, we would be like, “Well, cattle, wait outside.” And so in Portland, as you all know, it pretty much rains every day. So there’s not really waiting space at Beast. And you know, the server would be vacuuming, and the kitchen would be scrambling, and we’d be trying to figure this out or that out. And we see the first guest, and the first thing that happens is it’s that “oh shit” moment. Like, “Oh, we need to be ready for service.”
Greg: Yeah. Not good for anyone to be 20 minutes early to the party.
Naomi: You know, it’s not, but it’s kind of unavoidable. One thing that we’ve done to mitigate that is three-and-a-half years ago, I opened up a cocktail bar across the street called Expatriate. A lot of times we can just send people over there. But one thing that we did change at Beast was I realized that that moment — that first moment that we touch customers — can’t be an “oh shit” moment. You know, I don’t want to see your face and be like, “oh god,” you know?
Greg: It’s brilliant.
Helen: Right, because that throws the diner off.
Helen: Like you walk in the door and they’re like, “Why are you here?” You know, like, “I feel welcomed and ready for hospitality.”
Greg: It’s like walking in the middle of something.
Naomi: Yeah. And so what we shifted was we said, “You know what? Welcome. Thank you for taking the time to get here.” I told everyone in the restaurant, “Even if you are in the kitchen and you are grilling some asparagus or whatever, you have to step out from behind the line.” And if the servers are in the back printing menus, somebody has to go to those people and say, “Welcome. Thank you so much for being here.”
And then we get them seated. I mean, not maybe at 5:30 p.m. but soon thereafter, like 5:45 p.m. And we get them a little half glass of sparkling wine, and a little amuse-bouche. And we never used to do that, but that has been really transformative, too, where it’s like, “Oh my god. Now I’m getting some free shit.”
Helen: Yeah. Oh my god. I would love that. I feel like I’m totally — like everybody — completely susceptible to these little gestures of, like, you’re in the in crowd.
Helen: You know, if someone is like, “Oh yeah, totally cool. You’re going to watch us vacuum, but we’re going to be psyched that you’re here, and you’re going to like sit behind the curtain and watch us prep, and we’re going to be like ‘We’re so glad!’”
Greg: Like, come in.
Helen: I’d be like, “Oh my god, I love you forever now.”
Greg: It’s a little taste of something.
Naomi: Yeah. So those two things — the switching the charcuterie and then switching the attitude and the energy of the entrance of the guest — have been remarkable. So anyway, it really shifted things. It’s been good. We’ve picked back up again. We’re not at 2014 numbers, yet. I mean, frankly, there is part of that that’s because I won a James Beard Award that year.
Helen: So that really moves the needle, winning a Beard Award?
Naomi: I think so. It’s hard to say.
Helen: I’m curious about this.
Naomi: I don’t know.
Naomi: Thank you.
Helen: It’s a huge deal to win a Beard award and within the universe of people who obsessively pay attention to food, it’s a massive honor. And I think it is the kind of thing that can often bring chefs and restaurants onto the radars of people who might not have otherwise known about them. But I am genuinely curious about what the reach is of the Beard Award into the population at large.
Naomi: Not that far. Not that far. I say I won a Beard Award and people are like, “But you don’t have any facial hair.” They don’t know.
Greg: This might be a weird question, but it’s not as far as say Top Chef Masters?
Naomi: Oh massive.
Helen: You were on my favorite ever season of Top Chef Masters. That was Season 2 right? Or Season 3? I remember loving that season.
Naomi: I’m not sure which one it was.
Helen: It was a really good season.
Naomi: You guys, full confession: I don’t watch the shows that I’m on either. I can’t handle it.
Greg: It’s okay, I don’t listen to this podcast. Just kidding.
Greg: Actually, I love this podcast.
Naomi: Maybe I should, but I just can’t handle it. Somebody asked even last night, “Oh my god. What was it like being on Top Chef Masters?,” and I’m like, “That was like seven years ago.” I don’t remember — six years, a long time ago. But, yes, people still come to the restaurant every night because of it.
It definitely is a career booster and it’s an interesting question about being on TV because some people do it — I feel like this is maybe just not true — but in my mind, I see young people that are like, “I want to go on Top Chef.” And for me I was like, “Fucking no, I don’t want to do that. Absolutely not.” But, and the first time I got asked to be on a show it was Iron Chef, and I had only ever seen Iron Chef Japan. I had never even seen the American version. And I asked one of my servers, “Should I do this?” And she was like, “Yes, you should absolutely do it. It’s a great, really cool show.” And it was the most fun thing that I’ve ever done. I loved it so much. Shooting that show was incredible.
Helen: It’s so fun. You know, it’s coming back.
Naomi: Oh, that’s great.
Helen: It’s like the most exciting news of my life right now.
Naomi: So I did that, a little begrudgingly, enjoyed the process, and then continued to —
Helen: Who were you competing against?
Naomi: Jose Garces. It took forever for the episode to come out, because when we filmed he hadn’t actually been announced as the winner of his season.
Greg: Oh right.
Naomi: It’s like a time delay.
Greg: You had to sign some contract ahead of that.
Naomi: Hell yeah, I did. It was a closed screening. My dad was there, and that was about it. It was really cute.
Helen: What was your secret ingredient?
Naomi: Yeah, and I didn’t win.
Greg: You probably had that on lock, right?
Naomi: Well, I didn’t win, but I definitely should have.
Helen: That seems fair.
Naomi: You know, to be honest, I was definitely robbed, because I think that he was young, and they definitely wanted to show that he was going to — I mean Jose Garces is a great, great chef, don’t get me wrong, and a super nice person. But I think it’s weird that you can win on taste, which I did, and not win.
Helen: Yeah, that seems pretty fucked up.
Greg: Yeah. What else is there?
Naomi: I mean, it’s not like I made it look ugly.
Naomi: Well, I think that the parameters are maybe creativity and visual, and then taste. And it’s like, how could you actually weight those categories evenly? I’m really not sure. But, moving on from my Iron Chef experience — I didn’t care that I didn’t win, and I would totally go back and do that show, but it’s probably the only competitive show that I would do again.
Naomi: I would never be a contestant on a show again, I don’t think. I mean, knock on wood or whatever. Who knows? Maybe I need to. Let’s get to the point of this. Chefs, real chefs, serious chefs, like the kind that cooked up through Daniel — Take Gavin Kaysen, for example. Maybe he has actually been on TV. Has he? He has been on a show.
Greg: He’s got to be on one of those shows as a judge or something, if not a contestant. I don’t think he has been a contestant.
Naomi: Well, maybe not, but anyway, I was thinking I feel that some people would — and do — kind of pooh-pooh the idea of being on a show.
Helen: Selling out.
Naomi: Big time. And I just don’t take myself that seriously. Frankly, look, I’m not even a trained chef. I didn’t even go work for any of these old man chefs. I didn’t put my time in as a commis chef and grow and change and struggle. I started a catering company in my basement when I was 22, and I didn’t really know what the fuck I was doing, and then I just kept trying stuff and people somehow decided that it was good.
I have natural skill, and I really care about creating a team. And I think that ultimately what happened is that I keep my people around me really well. I’ve had like half the people that used to work for me come back and work for me again. So anyway, long story short, being on TV is something that I don’t have a particular position about. I think I needed to do it, and it was good for my career, but I didn’t go out into the world saying, “I really want to get on TV.”
Helen: Right, like it was cooking first, not fame first.
Naomi: No, I hate fame. It’s terrifying.
Helen: It seems kind of horrible.
Greg: What is the relationship now between Beast and Expatriate? Do they have the same customers, or do they have their own?
Naomi: We’re married. Beast and Expatriate are married.
Helen: You had this answer immediately, and you said it with such confidence. You have clearly thought about this before: if your businesses were people, what would they be?
Naomi: It’s actually physically true, because my husband runs Expatriate and I am married to him.
Helen: Oh. So it’s not actually like a metaphor.
Naomi: But it is kind of a metaphor. One of us, Expatriate, is really, really fun — it has so much energy to it. It’s dark. People have described it as being kind of an opium den. I make spaces really organically. Remember, I told you earlier that Beast wasn’t this idea that I had where I was like, “I’m going to find a space where I can do a set menu and have two big long tables.” No. First I found the space, and then I was like, “Oh this is what the space needs.”
Expatriate was the same way. My husband designed it, so it’s very different from the way that Beast looks. Beast is really clean and feminine looking. I do all the flowers for it, so there are beautiful flower arrangements — P.S., that’s my next career — and the walls are this beautiful dusty pink that’s actually I think the most popular color right now. I walked by Macy’s last night and like every single object in the window was the same color as the Beast walls.
Helen: Yeah dusty pink is really hot right now.
Naomi: Dusty pink is the rage.
Greg: I feel like I’ve seen that in a lot of New York restaurants recently, as well.
Naomi: Oh yeah.
Helen: I feel like very hand-in-hand with New York’s return to obsessing over French food is this embracing of the feminine. It’s really interesting.
Naomi: Well actually, you know what, I ate dinner at Estela last night, and I was with three other chefs, and we were all women. And we were talking about how that food is so awesome — god, I love that restaurant — because there is a femininity to the food. There is. It’s balanced with some, like, what I want to call “dude food.” There is just this sort of gut punch of too much flavor, too much “I am trying to put my mark on this thing.”
Helen: Our national critic Bill Addison actually wrote a column that touches on exactly this. I’m so excited. I think this was the most brilliant insight. Bill Addison, who has been a guest on this show before, his job is literally to travel the country eating at restaurants all over the US. And so he has this incredible immersed experienced in food and all of what’s happening in every single American city at once. And he and I were eating together in Atlanta recently, and we were at Staplehouse, which is like the coolest restaurant in Atlanta right now. And I pointed out, sort of offhandedly — and Staplehouse is spectacular. It’s absolutely wonderful. I loved my experience there. I loved every dish — I pointed out how much the food reminded me, in a way, of the food at Wildair and the food at Estela.
And Bill was like, “Oh my god. You are totally right,” and we were sort of riffing on this, and we were trying to figure out, what is the word that connects all of these restaurants? What is the style of cooking because there is exactly what you are talking about. Primarily it’s men cooking this food that has a very delicate touch. And I was like thinking through my head and I was like, “It’s romanticism.” And Bill was like, “No. It’s bro-manticism.”
Helen: And I was like, “Jesus, Bill, that was brilliant. You have to write a column about that right now,” and he did, and it’s on Eater, and you can read it.
Helen: But it’s such a thing. I think you are totally right. There is this aspect of the feminine, visually, like there are ruffles, literally ruffles.
Helen: Like the ruffle out of a mandolined radish, but it’s delicate and thoughtful and beautiful, and has that re-embrace of the feminine that I think that sort of fuck-you-punch-in-the-face flavor bomb food was rejecting.
Naomi: I think so. And I think it’s really interesting, because we’ve been talking today about evolution and growing up, and becoming less — I don’t know how to say this; I don’t want to be totally sexist — but less manly. We’re not yelling as much, we’re not drinking as much. There’s a shift. Part of it is, I’m going to say, I think that California cuisine is also sort of growing up, as well. We stopped just putting a peach on a plate or whatever, and now it’s like the ingredient focus has swept the nation. It’s not only on the West Coast in cities that have farmers markets and things like that. People are trying to figure out how to let the food and the ingredients express themselves. And so you are shepherding this thing into existence and trying to make it the best version of itself, not trying to be like, “I’m gonna tell you how to be, steak.”
Helen: Yeah, I love that. Well, Naomi, we have come to the portion of the show that we call the lightning round, because we ask you questions in a somewhat lightning-ish manner, and you can answer them at whatever speed you prefer. And sometimes our producer adds a thunder sound effect. He actually has never done that, and I have always wanted him to, so I just say it, in the hopes that whenever he audio edits the show, he will add lighting or thunder.
Naomi: I hope it happens today.
Greg: Maybe we’ll make that change today, yeah.
Helen: To ask our lightning round questions, we have Eater’s deputy editor Erin DeJesus who used to run Eater Portland where she chronicled you and your goings on.
Naomi: Yes ma’am. She sure did.
Helen: All right, Erin, welcome to the Eater Upsell.
Erin: Hey Naomi, this is Erin, deputy editor of Eater and also a huge fan of the brunch at Beast. So I have some lightning round questions for you: What’s the one dish you would be happy to literally never cook again?
Greg: Charcuterie plate. No, just kidding.
Naomi: Stumped. I’m stumped. I don’t have a dish that I would literally never ever want to cook again, I don’t think. Oh, oh, oh —
Helen: I can see the hate boiling up in you. Let it flow through you.
Naomi: Yeah, ugh. It’s not hate. It’s just like — and I’m actually working on my relationship with salmon but —
Helen: Because you’re in the Pacific Northwest, that’s a thing.
Naomi: Yeah, I am working on it.
Greg: Yeah. People love salmon up there.
Naomi: There’s a recipe for salmon in my book [Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking], actually. That’s how far my relationship has come since I vowed to really never eat or cook salmon again in 2004 or something.
Helen: For personal, emotional reasons?
Naomi: It’s just I ran a catering company for like five years, and every single wedding that I ever catered, that’s what they ate. It was just like god I’m so over it, like, the smell of breaking it down. And, okay, so when I go to a sushi restaurant and they’re like, “Here’s some raw salmon,” I’m like, “No sir.” It’s the only thing. I guess I’ll eat it; I pretty much will eat anything. But yeah, I would just — salmon.
Helen: Salmon. Fuck salmon. We’re striking salmon from the earth.
Naomi: I’m working on it. No! Salmon, I love — Don’t strike salmon. We protect salmon in the Pacific Northwest. They’re so special.
Helen: Oh no, of course we love them as animals.
Naomi: Yeah, I’d rather have them as animals than food.
Helen: They are friends, not food. Salmon are our friends.
Greg: Good pets.
Helen: Salmon are horrifying looking, if you ever see photos of all the various varieties, their faces are like monster faces.
Naomi: I think they are beautiful.
Helen: I mean, monsters can be beautiful.
Naomi: That’s true.
Greg: Erin do we have another lighting round question?
Erin: So Expatriate is known for its DJ stand and its vinyl selection. What’s the go-to album when the room needs a little bit more energy? What about when you want people to calm down?
Naomi: Yes, so for me my go-to energy music is always Prince, I will say 100 percent assuredly.
Helen: Does it work on the dining room, too? Like if you put on Prince, suddenly the whole vibe of the room is like everyone is really upbeat and also wants to have sex.
Naomi: Yeah, and I can also do whatever I want, so yeah, sometimes I just put it on because I feel like it.
Greg: Do you have a turntable at Beast? Is that correct?
Naomi: No, Expatriate has two turntables. They have a DJ system, and at Expatriate we play nothing but vinyl, 100 percent. And at Beast, I make playlists and stuff, and we all make playlists, and we can play whatever we want. So energy-wise, Prince. To chill it out, I’m always into D’Angelo, Sade.
Helen: On both sides this is doing-it music. I just want to point that out.
Naomi: Fuck yeah.
Helen: It’s upbeat sex with Prince, and like slow romantic making love.
Naomi: Well food is like a thing.
Naomi: You know, food and sex, it goes together.
Helen: All right Erin, what’s next?
Erin: If you could transplant Beast or Expatriate to another city, where would that be and why?
Naomi: Oh, I would totally come here to New York.
Naomi: With Beast, I would. Well, we used to call it “Beast East.” Like we always had this plan. The reason I wouldn’t come to another city, I don’t think, is because all my friends who are doing that — and I’m watching them trying to run these multi-city restaurants — they seem tired from flying all the time. And it seems like anxiety. Like, what if your sous chef walks off the line, and you are like, ‘Whoa, I need to go to Alabama right away,” or whatever.
Greg: No disrespect to the chefs that have restaurants in multiple cities, but it’s kind of part of my personal brand that I really, really love chefs that just stay in their own cities and are just kind of all about it.
Naomi: I’m doing that right now, although sometimes we also jokingly talk about opening an Expatriate in Los Angeles because —
Helen: Bars are different.
Naomi: Yeah, I think bars are a little different. I mean we have a lot of food at Expatriate because in Oregon, you know you have to, and also because I love cooking food that’s so different than the food at Beast. It’s all like kind crunchy and spicy and southeast Asian, in a way. But ultimately, I think probably I’ll just stay there, but maybe I’d go to New York or LA I don’t know. Life is long, and actually I’m going to change my answer and say one other thing, if I could relocate Beast anywhere in the world I would 1,000 percent move to Japan.
Helen: Okay yeah. I feel like that’s the correct answer, and Erin probably completely agrees with that.
Helen: Erin just got back from a super cool trip to Tokyo.
Helen: What’s next? Erin, do you have more for us?
Erin: Soufflés are a big part of your cookbook, so asking for all the bad cooks out there, what’s your tip for saving a fallen soufflé?
Naomi: My tip for saving a fallen soufflé is that you can’t save it, but my tip is fucking eat it. The whole thing about soufflés being intimidating is I think there is a lot of urban legend and myth and lore around these things. If you over mix your egg whites, which is usually what happens to deflate a soufflé — In the initial whipping of the egg whites it’s like you overdid it and then they start to break. They’re just not going to lighten the soufflé enough. It might be a little heavy and it might sink in the middle. Or, if you take it out of the oven it’s going to fall so it just is, and it’s okay. It’s the same ingredients whether it rises high or falls, so just eat it. It tastes almost exactly the same. The texture is not as light and airy, but it’s still awesome.
Helen: In an earlier episode of the Upsell we were talking with Julia Turshen, the cookbook writer, and she was telling us that she had this moment when she was a private chef for a family. She was trying to make them a bourbon ice cream, and she had put too much bourbon and so the ice cream didn’t freeze all the way. She was like, “Fuck, what do I do?” and she was like, “Oh, I’ll serve it as a milkshake” and it’s like, it doesn’t matter.
Helen: Like, you can totally turn your failures into successes, you just need to be okay with it.
Naomi: In fact, that’s what being a good chef or cook is all about, or a good business owners.
Greg: Turning your failures into successes.
Helen: Hot tip: just tell everyone it’s a win.
Greg: I’m just going to think about that, yeah. Here’s this awesome thing I did; it’s not a mistake.
Naomi: I actually really find honesty is awesome, because I love to stand up in front of people and say that chefs make mistakes, too, because I think it’s important to humanize us. I also eat in front of people. If I’m tasting something on the line, I just taste it. I’m not one of those people that ducks behind, you know, because chefs are people, too. So anyway, I think it’s very important to say, “I fucked up this ice cream. It was going to be —” This is how I would do it: “I meant to make this, but I screwed it up, so I made this other awesome thing.”
Naomi: Because that then actually liberates other people to think that they can make mistakes and change, too, and that you are just a person.
Greg: Hey Erin, do we have one more question for Naomi?
Erin: Who is the one chef you would love to collaborate with but haven’t had the opportunity to yet?
Helen: Living or dead, I’m going to add that.
Naomi: Well you made it harder by adding living or dead.
Helen: In the entirety of human existence.
Naomi: I like the fact that the question was about collaborating with the chef, because it doesn’t necessarily even have to be about making a meal together. It could be any kind of collaboration.
Helen: You’re lawyering this question.
Helen: Yeah, okay.
Naomi: Recently, I met Alice Waters, and we had a really great conversation about education. And, you know, because she is obviously really into Edible Schoolyard and these projects, and she had some other good ideas about how to teach kids about cooking, not just about gardening, but also food.
So, my answer is that I would like to collaborate on helping educate America’s youth about how to cook some basic things. I think people should be graduating from high school knowing how to scramble eggs and such, and I think that they aren’t. So I would say that I would like to collaborate with Alice Waters on changing the way that people relate to food and cooking.
Greg: That’s awesome.
Helen: I love it.
Greg: Yeah I could imagine that happening though, you know.
Naomi: It’s not that farfetched. We’ve already talked about it.
Helen: And if it does happen, we can just say that the Eater Upsell makes magic.
Helen: Appearing on the show is like doing the Secret — just say it into our microphones, and it comes to pass.
Naomi: I like it.
Naomi: Then I have to come back with a list.
Helen: To great and terrible power. Naomi Pomeroy, thank you so much for coming by the Eater Upsell. If our listeners want to pick up a copy of your cookbook, if they haven’t already because, honestly, it’s an amazing book, and it basically functions as a primary to teach you how to be a better cook, they can get Taste & Technique anywhere.
Naomi: Anywhere books are sold.
Greg: Naomi, where can we find you on social media?
Naomi: I am on Instagram @naomipomeroy.
Namoi: And I don’t spend very much time on Twitter @naomipomeroy.
Greg: It’s cool, we’ll check you out on Instagram.
Naomi: Yeah get me at Instagram.
Helen: And we’ll just lurk on your silent Twitter account. Naomi Pomeroy, thank you so much for joining us.
Greg: Yeah, thanks Naomi.
The Eater Upsell is recorded at Vox Media Studios in Manhattan and Los Angeles
Hosts: Greg Morabito and Helen Rosner
Producer: Maureen Giannone
Associate producer/editor: Daniel Geneen
Editorial producer: Monica Burton