November 16 2018

Chefs Stand Up: Naomi Pomeroy on #burritogate

New York-Chefs Stand Up
Naomi Pomeroy, one of the most influential chefs of her generation, has just arrived at the Standard, East Village on a cross country flight from Portland, and she’s tired. “Any time I can sit, I do.” She’s laughing as she says this, but not joking. Between sips of turmeric tea, the chef and entrepreneur discusses her evolution as a business owner and how charges of cultural appropriation facilitated a philosophical breakthrough.

Hi, Naomi. Thanks for taking the time to chat. What's happening in your world right now?

Well, Beast (her flagship Portland restaurant) is turning 11. I’m doing the food for my cocktail bar, Expatriate, and last year I opened a flower shop called Colibri, which means hummingbird in Latin.

A flower shop!? That’s cool. How’d you get into that?

I was getting itchy to do something new. Every five years or so I need to do something new and wanted to stop myself before opening a restaurant too soon. We found a space that was super beautiful and not too far from our restaurant. My husband Kyle (who runs Expatriate) started developing it as a community center, but then we thought, well, I’ve always done flowers for my own restaurants, why not this for other people since I do it myself anyway?

Three brick and mortar businesses. That’s quite an enterprise. How do you keep it all together?

At this point I consider myself to be the one who creates experiences that other people can find joy in. I think my role is to help the 40 people who work for me be excited about their jobs, and that those jobs are honest and fun.


The Standard
It was interesting. Obviously I’m a white woman and this dinner is about immigrant rights. Angela was like, “Your food should be focused on that,” and [laughing] I’m like, “Uuhhh... don’t you remember *taco gate 2016?”
The Standard

Honesty as a tenet. How are you inviting that into your work?

I’m having a lot of conversations with my staff about leadership and respecting the community. Coming into the MeToo conversation has made me feel like the way we do things is extra important.  A lot of the exercices we’re doing are about mutual respect. I work with my team on how they speak to each other. I told you we sit down for lunch, but we also sit down everyday before service starts to taste every dish on the menu with wine pairings, and everyone get to say what they think. The critique itself becomes a communal experience.

That must take some getting used to for some of the chefs.

The leadership in the kitchen, with the sous chef and chef de cuisine is a pretty egoless space. I guess it comes from feeling like in the past I didn’t always feel like I was enough. I was totally self taught, so I thought it was smart to hire people who were more experienced than me. Even though I was the boss or the person who brought us all together, I felt others didn’t always think I knew what I was doing. I think there was time when I felt I had to out dude the dude. It’s nice to be able to shed that skin and say, ‘That’s not something I’m interested in.’

How’d you get involved in this series?

If [the Standard creative director of food and culture] Angela [Dimayuga] asks you just say yes because she’s so damn awesome. As chefs we do get looked up to in a certain way, and how we spend our time is important. Chefs work really hard, but for those of us who have been fortunate and gotten a lot of recognition, paying back is part of it.

How’d you come up with the menu?

…. It was interesting.  Obviously I’m a white woman and this dinner is about immigrant rights.  Angela was like, “Your food should be focused on that,” and [laughing] I’m like, “Uuhhh... don’t you remember *taco gate 2016?”

Yes….

Funny enough, right after that I was doing this dinner with my friend Troy McCarthy who is a white guy running an Indian'ish place. He never claimed that it was authentic, but it’s the food he liked and wanted to cook. So I was doing a dinner with him and put up a post on my Instagram page and suddenly had so many comments on the post about cultural appropriation. It was super interesting and valid, valid.

What made the critique valid?

It’s way easier for white people to get money. Duh. There are obviously people in society who have an easier time planting a flag in something, then claiming it. So it’s a really important conversation to have.

It must’ve been unsettling, but it feels like that experience was really illuminating for you.

I was really sad to be called out by people I admire and respect, but the fact is why can’t people police the food I make!? Go ahead! I was like, ‘Look these are fair questions.’ That people don’t want to have the conversation is the problem, that people get so upset about it is the problem. If we can’t understand that there’s a charge around this, then that’s a problem.

Things are more challenging for chefs now than ever. Do you ever worry about the saturation of restaurants and how difficult it is in this moment?

If Beast gets swallowed up in a bubble, I’m proud of what we’ve done there. If it became time to just close it down and do something else, I would feel pretty comfortable doing that. I think that’s just going to have to be part of that conversation for people. What will be interesting is watching how the general public responds.

What do you mean?

We’ve become an Instagram culture. The things we think that we value could go by the wayside if we’re always chasing the newest and the coolest. I think there will be a return, that there has to be a return to a different value system that’s not just about snapping a photo and proving that you were at the newest, coolest spot. Because if that’s the case, people are just going to be making places to close quickly. I like to hand write tickets and play records. I like a really analog life and so whatever I choose to do next i hope it will involve keeping something of that tradition alive.

*Taco Gate is actually Burrito Gate. Last year two white women took road trip to Mexico to learn how to make tortillas. After describing the experience with a series of objectionable comments which were taken as exploitative, a social backlash ensued. The women soon closed down their social media account and shortly afterwards, their pop up restaurant.

Writer
Stephen Satterfield
Photographer
Alexandre Hertoghe