A Personal Chef with All the Right Smarts Opens Her First Restaurant
I got my first job at a restaurant in Washington Heights, peeling potatoes in the basement. I literally peeled hundreds of pounds per day,” Chef Bo O’Connor recalled, sitting at the sun-drenched bar of her Astoria restaurant, The Pomeroy.
The happy hour and dinner crowd hadn’t arrived yet, and the serene, wood-paneled and antique-adorned dining room was reminiscent of that very cool friend’s apartment you just wish you could live in. “From my first day working at that restaurant, I knew this was what I was meant to do. The hours suck, you have no life, but you know what? At the end of the day, I really, really love it on every level.”
O’Connor’s connection to food is an essential part of her identity. “One of the first memories I have is of me cooking at 4 years old. Well, heating up food, more than cooking, for my grandfather who was sick at the time,” she said. “My history with food is long and important to me.”
After she was adopted from Seoul, South Korea, at age 6 by lifelong New Yorkers, O’Connor’s love for food continued to grow. “My parents exposed me to restaurants at a young age. I was very opinionated about food from day one,” O’Connor said. “My dad would read the New York Times dining section with me and take me to hole-in-the-wall places where I’d look at the menu and was adamant that I was ordering whatever I was going to order and they weren’t going to order for me.”
Early on, O’Connor didn’t see food as a viable career option for herself, not with a lawyer and a psychiatric nurse for parents. She studied psychology in college and returned to New York contemplating med school. “I wanted to be able to help people,” she said.
Though academia was tempting, love altered her course. In her early 20s, O’Connor started dating her future husband, who encouraged her to pursue a food career. On one of their first dates, they dined at Astoria’s Trattoria L’incontro, just a few blocks west of O’Connor’s future restaurant.
Skipping culinary school, O’Connor learned about cooking on the job, working at a handful of small restaurants and reading, researching and testing ingredients and recipes along the way to create her own culinary education.
Opening her own restaurant was a dream, and it started coming true when O’Connor became personal chef to pop star Lady Gaga. Their close friendship dates back to their Manhattan school days in the ’90s, and in 2015 during her Art Pop tour Gaga even stood as a bridesmaid at O’Connor’s wedding. While on the road with her famous friend, O’Connor received a call from one of her partners about the Astoria space and she knew it would be her first restaurant’s home. “It happened by chance, but I’m very happy that it happened that way,” she said. “I love this area.”
Though The Pomeroy may have been put on the map for some when Gaga strutted down Ditmars Boulevard in stilettos and a hot pink dress to celebrate the restaurant’s opening in October 2015, the venue has become a neighborhood staple in its own right, catering to locals that O’Connor affectionately refers to as “The Pomeroy family.”
“We have a loyal customer base, which is great,” she said. “I feel very lucky when I come upstairs and see the people on the floor and walk around and say ‘Hi’ to everybody and it feels like family.”
The Astorians aren’t here for celebrity sightings; they’re here for the food. “It was really important to me that this place was food-focused,” said O’Connor. “I didn’t want to just open up a bar for my first place; I wanted it to be food-driven and this place really is.” The majority of Pomeroy guests both eat and drink, which O’Connor loves.
Ever influenced by that fateful date at Trattoria L’incontro, since opening The Pomeroy O’Connor has enjoyed the mentorship of the Italian spot’s chef-owner Rocco Sacramone. “He’s been uber generous and nice to me. I very much look up to him,” O’Connor said.
Open since 1999, Trattoria L’incontro is renowned for its daily specials, something O’Connor has embraced at her own restaurant, playing with seasonal ingredients to create new dishes each week. Some of them become so popular they find a more permanent home on the regular menu. Small plates that have earned such a promotion? The short rib tacos and bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese have migrated over due to guests’ obsession with the items.
In the dimly lit dining room, which can elicit a (unprecedented for Astoria) wait on weekend evenings, you’ll see tables sharing seasonal salads, seafood and that fried chicken O’Connor is known for, all washed down with colorful cocktails like the Astoria Park Paloma, of course.
“I wanted the menu to be broad enough that you could be healthy if you wanted, or if you wanted to indulge, you could do that as well,” O’Connor said.
The Pomeroy’s fried chicken has reached Lady Gaga levels of fame with some Astorians. O’Connor’s secret? It’s simple. “We use really good chicken,” she said. “For me, it’s all about the produce and the meat and the fish. As long as you’re getting good product, it doesn’t need to be super complicated. As a cook, that’s my philosophy.”
The Pomeroy sources Bell & Evans chickens, which are marinated in a buttermilk brine packed with secret ingredients (O’Connor divulged that Mexican oregano is in the mix), and fried to order.
“It’s not worth eating fried chicken when it’s not good,” O’Connor said. And yes, this chicken is so worth it.