Dina Avila

Prix-Fixe Perfection

Underline Image
At Beast, chef/owner Naomi Pomeroy changes the menu weekly, enhancing Portland’s bragging rights as one of the country’s most dynamic culinary scenes.
By Connie Gentry September 2014 Executive Insights

Indra Nooyi should meet Naomi Pomeroy. In a broad­cast interview this summer, Nooyi, the charismatic CEO of PepsiCo, said women cannot do it all—referring to the delicate work-life balance that women strive to achieve.

Chef Pomeroy, 39, struggles with that work-life balance, as well, but this year’s James Beard Award winner of Best Chef Northwest, owner of Portland’s acclaimed Beast restaurant, and mother of a 14-year-old, appears to be doing it all—and then some.

To hear Chef Pomeroy tell it, she’s just a small-town girl (born and raised in nearby Corvallis, Oregon), who moved to the big city, opened a tiny restaurant, and began serving food that people really like.

Totally self-taught, the extent of her training was cooking three meals a day—all from scratch—with her mother. Now, in addition to leading Beast, Chef Pomeroy is running the food menu at Expatriate, her husband’s dynamic cocktail bar located across the street from Beast, and is actively engaged

in philanthropic ventures as well as raising awareness for social and environmental concerns. She’s also writing her first cookbook—but what she really wants is to find more family time so she can give her daughter some cooking lessons.

Balanced Results

What is readily apparent about Chef Pomeroy is that every decision, both professional and personal, is made with astute contemplation and unwavering commitment to those things about which she is most passionate: family, food, philanthropy, and the continued success of her restaurant.

This is not a woman who (as she humbly suggests) simply got lucky by opening Beast in 2007, slightly ahead of the wave of chef-owned restaurants that converged on Portland, making it one of the nation’s premier food towns.

“We came up with the concept because it’s a really small space—our whole restaurant is 800 square feet and the kitchen is only about 100 square feet,” Chef Pomeroy says. “To be profitable, we have to achieve a certain check average per diner. We did the math and figured to do that it had to be a fixed menu.”

Beast has an average check of $100 per diner and annual revenues of $1.4 million. It serves 26 guests per seating, with two dinner sessions four nights a week, plus one dinner service on Sunday and a prix-fixe Sunday brunch at $35 per guest. Special events, such as vegetarian menus or fund-raising galas, are held on Monday and Tuesday nights, when the restaurant is normally closed.

“We started with only two cooks [including Pomeroy], two servers, and a dishwasher,” she says. “Even now, we only have a staff of 12 people.”

Low overhead extends to inventory, too, which is kept to a minimum because of the limited space—Beast has only two reach-in refrigerators, no walk-ins. “There’s not a lot of room for equipment,” Chef Pomeroy says. “We had two electric induction burners and one electric oven, no hood and no range when we started. After a couple of years, we got a gas range and a hood. There was no space to do à la carte; it had to be a fixed menu.”

The name Beast was also a calculated decision, chosen to convey that meat would headline the menu. “We are keenly aware this market has a lot of dietary restrictions and preferences. In fact, Portland is probably second only to Los Angeles in terms of requests for vegan or gluten-free, so the name lets people know to think twice about booking a reservation if they are particular about what they eat,” explains Chef Pomeroy, adding Beast has begun offering an occasional vegetarian dinner.

Eschewing the perception that restaurants with a prix-fixe menu must be inherently fancy and upscale, Chef Pomeroy wants Beast to be comfortable and approachable, while always introducing diners to new culinary experiences.

“The most satisfying part of my job is serving things people wouldn’t order normally, and then seeing them get excited about it,” she says.

The menu changes every Wednesday and dinners include six courses, plus a palate cleanser between courses. “The only thing that stays the same are three items on our charcuterie plate that we’ve had since the beginning,” Chef Pomeroy notes.

Dinners start with soup, followed by the charcuterie course, then the palate cleanser—usually a sorbet—and then the entrée. Salad is served afterward—a very European practice, she notes—followed by a cheese course and a dessert course.

“It’s a lot of food, but it’s served across two and a half hours, and we aim for that middle ground where nobody leaves stuffed and nobody leaves hungry,” Chef Pomeroy says. The challenge, she says, is determining how much the average person can eat and still leave feeling perfect. “People have a broad scope of how much they are comfortable eating,” she says, noting that many newcomers to Beast opt to try the four-course Sunday brunch first.

New wine pairings are offered weekly as well, to complement the ever-changing food menu, and about 80 percent of dinner guests choose the wine-pairing package.

Fifty-two First Dates

“To wipe the slate clean and do something different every week is inspiring,” Chef Pomeroy says. “It keeps us learning and experimenting. I don’t think I could have lasted coming to a restaurant every night if I didn’t have that creative outlet.”

She has a hard time imagining what it would be like to do the same menu repetitively, but acknowledges “there is something amazing” about that model, too. “One of my favorite places is a noodle shop in Southeast Asia where they make only one thing. There is something really cool about being able to truly perfect something,” Chef Pomeroy says. “It can be frustrating to start a menu on Wednesday, then by Saturday everything is so perfected and styled that it can be sad to let that menu go.”

What doesn’t change is the prix-fixe structure; regardless of the menu the price is $75 per diner. Wine pairings are an additional cost. The goal, clearly, is to make a profit regardless of the cost of food, and Chef Pomeroy accomplishes this by adopting a big-picture perspective: “Over the years, I figured it out,” she explains. “Every month, I simply look at how much I spent and how much I profited, and we don’t keep much inventory so I don’t have to worry about backing that number out. We never run higher than 30 percent food costs.”

Because some menus are very expensive, and some are less expensive, Chef Pomeroy just tries to strike a balance. “I avoid doing four really expensive menus in a row,” she says. “For instance, next week I’m doing rack of lamb, which is pricey, even when it’s only two lollipop [pieces] per person.”
To compensate, she rounds out the menu with less costly items, like a soup built around produce and white beans—a more affordable choice than a creamier soup that would require a lot of butter and higher-cost ingredients. “It’s a balancing act, but it all works out in the end.”

Practical and Passionate

Identifying foods that balance one another from a cost perspective is a key component of menu engineering in a prix-fixe model, but Chef Pomeroy faces two additional challenges in her operation: maintaining practicality and credibility.

Given the space constraints, Chef Pomeroy says, “We have to choose things that we can execute well for 26 people at one time, and that we can do on a four-burner stove.”

Like her decision to break down full New York Strips into Strip Loin Roasts, about two and half inches in diameter—“I don’t have the surface area to cook 26 steaks at once, so I do [proteins] that can scale down to a 3.5-ounce or 4-ounce portion. Otherwise, it’s too much food, and people can’t eat the rest of the meal. I have to choose things that are practical.”

She has a list of proteins that work really well—like duck breast, quail, or squab—and one of her favorites is pork belly, which she pairs “with bright flavors like quickly pickled turnips and arugula salad.”

Menus also have to be inventive and fresh to appeal to a population increasingly knowledgeable about farm-to-table cuisine.

“Portland has a very educated population, and the people here are very discerning about foods—they know what is in season,” Chef Pomeroy explains. “Often, I see my customers at the farmers’ market buying things that most people have never heard of. Foods like kohlrabi, which is [akin to] a turnip or cabbage.”

The restaurant and chef have gained widespread recognition and, increasingly, she says, at least half the people eating in Beast are visitors to the area.

Chef Pomeroy loves to travel as well, and has spent time in India, Africa, and Asia.

“As Americans we can become overly focused on what we have, but having spent time overseas, and knowing how people live elsewhere, it’s a mission of mine to help raise awareness and help others.”

Chef Pomeroy works with Mercy Corps to provide aid, particularly during times of crisis, and uses Beast as a platform to host fund-raising dinners that she says can easily raise $10,000 for a charity.

“As chefs, one of our biggest responsibilities is to do that kind of work,” she says. “It’s like we’re standing on a stage because it’s cool now to be a chef, so it’s important to work for a charitable organization or try to make a difference with what you’ve been given.”

The cause that Chef Pomeroy is most passionate about is food preservation. “When I was on ‘Top Chef Masters,’ all the money I raised was for the Seed Savers Exchange, a seed bank out of Iowa that is focused on preserving our genetic cultural heritage. That’s really important and chefs should spend time learning where foods come from and that there are a lot of endangered species, both with the animals and the produce we eat.”

If she wasn’t a chef, Chef Pomeroy would choose to be a botanist or florist, and her retirement fantasy is to own a beautiful flower shop or install a pottery wheel and kiln in her garage.

“I really love flowers and plants; I love the nomenclature and identifying things when I go for a walk,” she says. There isn’t space for a garden at Beast, but she grows herbs and flowers at her home, just two blocks from the restaurant, although not enough to satisfy all of the restaurant’s needs.

She enjoyed throwing pots in college and would like to make pottery again, not as a business, but for relaxation. “I find that work to be very meditative, and I’d do it just for the [sense of] peace.”

Peace, prosperity, and passion seem already to be the trademarks of her life.

“I’m not a traditional chef—put me on a line somewhere like Balthazar in New York City and I’d probably fail miserably because I’m not a line cook,” Chef Pomeroy surmises. “I’ve excelled at knowing what I’m good at and what I’m not good at. I focus on my strengths and hire people who complement things I’m not as good at and who I can learn from.”