Chef Naomi Pomeroy talks to Malcolm Jolley about her cookbook Taste & Technique.
In 2007 chef Naomi Pomeroy opened Beast restaurant in Portland, Oregon. It’s reported as a relaxed family style cooking and hospitality quickly made it a destination restaurant in a city with a solid reputation for gastronomy. Pomeroy’s success at Beast has been hard won. A self taught cook (and cookbook lover), she and her life partner Michael Hebb started a catering business in the 90s called Ripe, which quickly became in demand. When the couple had a daughter in 2000, the couple began hosting dinner parties, which became a pop-up and then a restaurant called Family Supper. That begat two more outwardly successful restaurants: clarklewis and Gotham Tavern. While the personal relationship with Hebb had ended, the business one hadn’t, and it was he who broke the news to her in 2006 that they were out of business.
Pomeroy tells the story of her rise, fall, and comeback in the forward to Taste & Technique: Recipes to Elevate Your Home Cooking. It’s the debut cookbook from a successful chef who became one by reading cookbooks, and her love of the form shows. The recipes are sophisticated and elegant, but also straight forward and without undue fuss. The instructions are thorough: she even measures salt. A hundred delicious dinner parties could easily be permutated from Taste & Technique. Good dinner parties with happy hosts and guests.
I met Pomeroy recently to talk about the book and the food scene in Portland over the course of the conversation reprized below.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity and style.
Good Food Revolution: I love to cook and that’s how I ended up in food journalism. Your book is about the way that I like to cook and the way that people I know who love to cook cook. This is not a cheffy book.
Naomi Pomeroy: Good and thank God. I love cheffy books, but I really wanted to make something that felt authentic to what I like to eat. I love to go to fancy meals, but if I go to a city for a week, I’ll have one fancy meal and six unfancy meals. And I wanted to write recipes that felt really doable for people. That’s where my inspiration is. I do find inspiration in the tweezery things sometimes, but it’s harder to uncover. It can be so medical in a way, you know? The precision is so extreme. So I wanted to create something that showed how I like to eat and how people cook, so I’m glad it resonated that way. That was the point.
GFR: How many of the recipes in Taste & Technique are from your professional life and how many are from your personal life?
NP: I don’t know where that line is. The food at Beast is really different than it was when I started seven years ago, or so. Back then, I was doing what’s in the book: when I cooked every meal, and wrote every menu at Beast, that’s what it was like. Now that I have help, and I really heavily on those people, the cooking has evolved into something different, and a little bit more refined. It’s definitely not tweezers, but there are layers of fine dining in it that aren’t present in this book: the way vegetables are cut, or how many different garnishes are on something, or whatnot. Or whether there are hydrocolloids in something, or it’s cooked in an immersion circulator. I don’t cook in any of those ways, but my cooks do. And I let them because that’s how something evolves. So, for me the book goes back to the beginnings of Beast. It’s the backbone stuff, the stuff I always go back to.
GFR: But it’s definitely written for home cooks.
NP: Yes! I just want home cooks to have a better time. When I wrote it I thought about people like my step-mom. She doesn’t have total confidence in the kitchen. She’s good, but she has this idea that cooking is hard. Or that she’s not that good. I feel like a lot of home cooks could really use a big dash of self-confidence. And where’s that going to come from? It’s going to come from having the salt measured for them, so they know how salty something should be.
GFR: You’re very firm about that!
NP: Well because, how many times have you gone over to someone’s house and thought, gee if only had a squeeze of lemon, a generous pinch of salt and a little bit of olive oil drizzled on it, it would be amazing? I remember when I really started cooking I went home for Thanksgiving. I made the mashed potatoes. My parents were watching me and they looked panicked: whoa, that’s a lot of butter! So, I got them taste them and they said, ‘Oh they’re so good: they’re so buttery and salty!’ And I’m like, yeah! That’s what mashed potatoes want to be. That’s what I tell my cooks: if after one bite you don’t an another bite right away, it’s not ready yet. That’s what home cooks need to be aiming for.
GFR: You are a native Oregonian. What happened in Portland? How did it become such a hot food city?
NP: Good Lord, it’s for better and for worse. Portland was an O.G. city for dining because of many factors: product, inexpensive rent, a real food movement, especially around 2007.
GFR: You were part of that.
NP: Yeah, I was definitely part of it. Why Portland? I really don’t know. The possibility of being a chef-owner, of being the owner of an establishment and also the chef was important. And the way the community will align itself around something that’s done on a shoestring. There’s a real DIY culture that doesn’t mind if the table clothe isn’t nice enough or the silverware doesn’t match. You don’t have to spend a million dollars to make a million dollars.And that’s really what it is: people in Portland like that ethos and because people were thinking more about the flavour of something than the dish it was served on, we were able to do something quite magical.
GFR: I think this happened all over North America, but Portland truly seems to be specific to it.
NP: It happened there early, I think. I’m happy it did. It’s over now. We can talk about that later.
GFR: Wait! Is it? What do you mean?
NP: It’s over saturated. I have been thinking a lot lately about the analogy of chefs as rock stars, and cooking as music. I am very analog – partly because I don’t know how to use those machines. And I like the pop and scratch of a record. I was born in the 70s. So I feel there became this thing, with food TV and the rise of the chef as rock star, which has kind of ruined food in a lot of ways. If you think about the parallel with music, in way that a lot of people who like the music of the 60s and 70s thought music got really bad in the late 80s.
GFR: Corporate rock. Totally.
NP: Minus Prince, of course! Prince is not included in that. But I do feel that this sort of thing is happening with food with this over saturation. It’s food as pop music, and pop music by definition is kind of bad music, if you’re a stylistically inclined person.
GFR: What do you mean by over saturation?
NP: Everybody’s doing it: everybody’s opening a restaurant. We had 100 restaurant openings last year. That’s crazy. Portland has a population of under a million people. It’s going to cull itself quickly, I don’t think you can sustain it with that much competition. And the trouble is that it’s going to affect some of the older restaurants too. My restaurant’s been open for nine years and last year was the first year my sales ever dropped. When people are spending their dollars, I guess they’re trying the new place. That’s fine and to be expected, but I just don’t think a lot of the new places are living up to the hype. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.
GFR: It’s happened in Toronto, too. We used to cover restaurant openings. Now it’s “forget it”, there are too many. We’re more interested in the ones that can sustain themselves for a few years.
NP: I was talking to my friend Bonnie Morales who has Kachka in Portland. They get great press because it’s a Russian restaurant; they were smart because no one else has a Russian restaurant in Portland. But she was saying how frustrated she was about how fast the press cycle is now. They mention you the first week you open, and then it’s just like you’re over and done already. Anyway, that’s a big long topic of conversation, full of complexities and factors. We could have a real soap box conversation, if we wanted to.
GFR: Let’s go back to you and your story. You became a chef because you liked to have dinner parties. Is that correct?
NP: Yep. And I still hesitate to use the word “chef”. I do it because that’s how people know me, but ultimately I think of myself as a cook. That’s because I am not a very leadery leader. I am more like an editor at a publication than a… wait, I guess some editors are pretty ball bustery?
GFR: Uh, yeah!
NP: Sorry! That was maybe not the best analogy. I was thinking immediately to Anna Wintour. Anyway, I think that I like to do thinks collaboratively with people and I fell like I have a lot to learn. Like, if I went over to your house I would probably have something to learn from the way you cook and do things. I take that viewpoint, so when I am making a soup the dishwasher tastes it – everyone tastes it. What do you think this needs? I was thinking a little Tabasco? A little lemon zest? Somebody says, ‘salt.’ And somebody else says, ‘salt.’ And I’m thinking, oh two people have said salt. I better check it again. It’s a weird way of running things, but it’s really fun for me. I think it’s fun for others, and that comes across in the food.
GFR: It comes across in the book. What was the hardest thing about writing it?
NP: Cutting it down to the size they wanted. It’s my first book, and when I signed a contract for 400 pages I thought they meant at least 400 pages, not exactly 400 pages. When I turned it in it was 425 pages. So that was one of the hardest parts: going back and taking out what I had thought to be imperative instruction and trying to figure out how to make some of the sentences shorter. Or where to lose two sentences off the intro. I only lost one recipe, though.
GFR: But it’s not like you can take out a step?
NP: No. Although I think people do, unfortunately. I just got so lucky, actually. 10 Speed Press really took a chance on me and they believed in me. But I had a lot of vision for the book and I fought tooth and nail for every single thing that is in there and every stylistic choice that got made.
GFR: Well, you write that cookbooks are very important to you. I think you can tell from the book that this is something you wanted to do.
NP: It’s funny. I almost wrote a book in 2010. It would have been the Beast book. I don’t think I was ready. I was flirting with the idea, but I was still too immersed in the restaurant. The restaurant needed me every second of every day. I don’t think I could have generated what I generated here, which had everything to do with having a seasoned team of people in place at Beast who could really do it without me. Writing Taste & Technique took up all of my time, in a joyful way.