A Farmer’s New Restaurant, Pomet, Opens on Piedmont Avenue
By Bonnie Powell | Photos by Bart Nagel
When high-end chefs start their own farms, it’s to grow the exact peak-flavor produce they want for their menus. But why, two years into a business-battering pandemic, would a successful farmer—who already sells to Michelin-starred restaurants all over Northern California and ships to more nationwide—decide to open her own bistro?
The exuberant Aomboon Deasy, whom everyone calls Boonie, just laughs at this question. She explains that the opportunity on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland simply fell into her lap. It’s also because she loves good food.
“I think of this restaurant as an added-value product for K&J Orchards: to enhance what the farm can do, to make a finished product we can serve to people.” Then she adds with a shrug, “I don’t expect to become rich doing this.” And, of course, few restaurant owners—or farmers—ever do.
Deasy may have started Pomet (pronounced PAHM-eht) on a whim, but her new restaurant seems uniquely blessed to blossom and thrive as it taps into her deep roots in the Bay Area’s culinary and farming communities.
Growing up on the farm
Aomboon Deasy’s LinkedIn profile lists her as K&J Orchards Managing Director/Proprietor since January 1990. But Boonie thinks of herself more as the farmers’ daughter than the farmer.
The K in K&J stands for Deasy’s mother, Kalayada Ammatya, a registered nurse with Kaiser who emigrated from Thailand. The J is for Deasy’s stepfather, James Beutel, whom Kalayada phoned for some farming advice after she bought 40 acres in Yuba City around 1982 with a plan to grow Asian pears, which are still K&J’s biggest crop. Beutel was a UC Davis professor of pomology (the study of fruit and nut tree cultivation) as well as an advisor with the UC Cooperative Extension (which extends the values of university ag research out into local communities). The two fell in love and began farming together as K&J Orchards around 1990. As is typical in the farming community, they simultaneously held off-farm day jobs, going full time with farming only after they retired. (Beutel died in 2015 at age 88.) Deasy derived the name Pomet from the Latin word for fruit tree as an homage to her stepfather.
K&J Orchards now grows more than 150 varieties of fruits and nuts on nearly 100 acres in Yuba City and Winters. They have more than 50 types of peaches and nectarines, 10 Asian pear varieties, multiple citruses, and 10–15 kinds of cherries, such as the heart-shaped Garnet. They grow all three popular persimmons—Fuyu, Hachiya, and Maru (aka chocolate)—as well as both red and the prized white pomegranates. Also on the crop list are blackberries, figs, walnuts, and chestnuts. The broad range of varieties means that the orchards are essentially producing year-round, and the 17,000 trees must continually be thinned, pruned, and replaced by the 10 full-time workers and roughly 30 seasonal workers. Everything is harvested by hand.
Deasy began pulling weeds and helping with farmers’ markets every weekend starting in high school. “As soon as I got my learner’s permit, I was schlepping fruit,” she says, adding that she and her sister Ona have continued to schlep fruit despite holding full-time, off-farm jobs.
For Deasy, it was housewares sourcing and product development for Williams-Sonoma; she also picked up a master’s degree in project management from UCSF. In 2020, she was finishing up a master’s in finance at Harvard, flying to and from Cambridge in order to cover her K&J shifts at weekend farmers’ markets, when the pandemic hit. Then the Pomet opportunity appeared.
Boonie’s mom, Kalayada, is turning 79 this year. She still oversees the growing side of the farm and is carefully passing down her decades of knowledge to the next generation, which includes Deasy, sister, Ona, and Deasy’s husband, Tim, a Lafayette-born “city boy” who became K&J’s dedicated tractor driver and fruit deliverer not long after joining the family.
“[My mother] loves the trees as much as her own children—or more,” Deasy jokes. “She sings to them, talks to them.”
One wonders: Does Pomet perhaps represent Deasy’s chance to be in charge at last?
“Oh yeah—this is my thing. My baby,” she nods vigorously. “And I’m learning what I can and cannot do.”
With a little help from her friends
K&J Orchards sells at over a dozen Bay Area farmers’ markets, including a few markets in the East Bay (Pleasanton, San Ramon, and Livermore), and it supplies more than 150 of San Francisco and Napa’s best restaurants. It was Tim’s idea for them to knock on the door of the French Laundry back in the early 2000s, and the whole Thomas Keller Restaurant Group remains one of their flagship customers, as does Benu, the three-star Michelin SOMA restaurant that former French Laundry head chef Corey Lee opened in 2010.
“K&J is one of the best examples of how you can reap the benefits of working closely with your farmers,” Lee writes in an email. “Because Boonie is so in tune with the farm and season, she can tell us week by week what products are at their peak.”
K&J’s East Bay customers include Commis, The Wolf, and Mago. It was in a conversation last June with another longtime East Bay customer, Homestead, that Deasy learned that owners Fred and Liz Sassen were selling their beloved Piedmont restaurant and moving to Florida.
“Maybe we should buy it?” Boonie, who had never before thought of opening a restaurant, said to Tim. She called many chef-friends for advice. “They all told me I was nuts,” she recounts cheerfully. “But they also said, ‘If you need anything, let us know.’”
Two weeks later, Boonie and Tim decided to go for it, and after a few months finalizing the terms of sale, the keys to the light-filled space in this historic Julia Morgan–designed building were in her hand. Friends like Evan Rich from Rich Table and Joel Bleskacek and Maxine Siu from Plow came through with sample cost worksheets and ordering templates plus advice to Deasy about trusting her gut in decisions. James Beard Award–nominated sommelier Paul Einbund of the Morris designed the wine list, and an old friend from her housewares work helped with the colors for the interior. Another old friend joined as florist. Deasy, an avid photographer, shot the moody, large-scale black-and-white photo of K&J fruit trees on the dining room’s main wall herself.
A chef walks into a restaurant
Alan Hsu, who knew Deasy from his five years as sous chef at Benu, lives just up the street from Pomet in Piedmont. He saw Deasy in the restaurant window as he was walking by with Koji (his red border collie, named for the mold-fungus-inoculated grain mixture that forms the basis for soy sauce, miso, and sake), and stopped in to say hello.
Hsu had recently finished a proof-of-concept project as culinary director for Sagra, an agritourism venture that partners with Stemple Creek Ranch. He and his partner, Sarah-Jane Cooper (now Pomet’s baker and pastry chef), were planning to move back to New York, where they’d met at Dan Barber’s influential Blue Hill at Stone Barns. They were dreaming of buying land to start a farm. Using a Sagra-like model, they might try growing rice in concert with ducks and fish, build an inn, cook dinners, run a bakery…
Deasy had other ideas for Hsu. She invited him to become Pomet’s executive chef, with full creative control over the menu and the chance to collaborate with multiple farmers.
“It’s a dream: to have a reason to buy as much as we can [from local farmers] and have these conversations about, ‘How can we make your life easier as a producer?’” Hsu says. “As a chef, it’s more often, ‘What do we want to cook; what’s best right now?’ Obviously, there’s going to be some of that, but we’ll also be using things that maybe aren’t moving as well for whatever reason.”
Hsu is quiet and watchful. He has gleaming chef’s plating tongs clipped to his immaculate apron and wears the kind of battered, pull-on leather boots more favored by farmers than chefs. He began cooking as a child and grew up watching Jacques Pépin and California Culinary Academy lectures on PBS. Instead of culinary school, he majored in mechanical engineering; it took his mechanical engineer father a little while to accept that Hsu would not be following in his footsteps, but he’s a top fan now. And Hsu’s engineering background does come in useful for repairing kitchen equipment.
Hsu regards Benu’s Corey Lee as his greatest influence, from organization, cleanliness, and management style to his focus and precision on highlighting ingredients and showcasing food with simplicity and finesse. Hsu also intends to build a restaurant culture that won’t burn people out, where it’s OK to take days off.
“From day one, Alan struck me as someone who thinks about restaurants in a very holistic way and cares deeply about all the different aspects of how a restaurant is run,” writes Lee. “I look forward to seeing how that sincerity and thoughtfulness materializes in this new project.”
Umami on the menu
Hsu’s menu is seasonal, of course, celebrating peak California produce from K&J and Deasy’s friends at Star Route Farms, Zuckerman Family Farms, Full Belly Farm, and others, as well as pastured beef from Stemple Creek Ranch and Wolfe Ranch Quail. He pairs these exquisite ingredients with creative techniques and umami-rich flavors that reflect his Taiwanese heritage and culinary travels. For example, the quail is first smoked in an open oven fired with K&J fruit tree branches. Then it’s battered with a light coating of salt, pepper, five-spice, and rice flour and fried to a gloriously light crunch. Served with perfectly crisp pickled daikon radishes and jalapeños, the quail’s charred foot proudly points skyward. The Stemple Creek short rib is first marinated in a house-made shio koji mixture, which Hsu says enhances the flavors already present in the meat. It’s served on a bed of koji, instead of the usual potatoes or polenta, with charred artichokes and the gleaming bare rib bone as a visual statement.
“I want you to be reminded that you’re eating an animal,” Hsu acknowledges. “To honor it.”
In addition to his own handmade koji, Hsu uses fermented foods from Shared Cultures (see Edible East Bay’s profile in Winter 2021) to provide subtle depth and an exciting twist to dishes, such as the honeynut miso butter in the house-made mushroom pasta, and the cake with peanut butter and Shared Culture’s cacao miso. Another dessert, Taiwanese-style shaved snow, will change seasonally, but as of this writing, it featured K&J Shinko pear juice with a sprinkling of shiso leaves plucked from pots in the back dining room. The customary chocolate or mint parting bite steps aside for a slice of perfect K&J fruit.
Pomet opened on March 16, 2022, for indoor dinner Wednesday through Sunday with an expected expansion to the alleyway outside, which seats 32. The private dining room in back can seat eight, but it’s currently being used for pasta making and other prep. Deasy hopes brunch will follow at some point. Phase three is for a pantry offering provisions such as preserves, eggs, kombucha (like their delicious “pombucha” made from K&J pomegranate juice), and baskets of K&J fruit.
Opening a restaurant is always a huge gamble, even in non-pandemic years, but with the glowing press and eager flow of walk-ins and reservations, Pomet is off to a very promising start.
The gauche question must be asked: Do Deasy and Hsu dare dream of a Michelin star?
“We just want to do what we’re doing well and have a point of view,” says Hsu firmly. “If we get recognized for that, we’d be really proud. But it’s not something that we’re striving for.” ♦
Bonnie Powell is an Oakland-based writer, editor, and strategic communications consultant. Photographer Bart Nagel is specialist in executive portraiture who especially enjoys capturing images of people who are passionate about their work.