On a warm spring evening in 2001 in a Northeast Portland bungalow, two dozen strangers–artists, architects, designers, copywriters and philanthropists–were seated around a long table MacGyvered together from two-by-fours and old foam-core doors. Candles flickered; guests chatted about summer plans and delighted in the acquaintances that they, perhaps not so coincidentally, had in common. But their attention mostly centered around a slender, blond-haired, blue-eyed 24-year-old, Michael Hebb, the evening’s host, who busied himself by making introductions and pouring more wine, darting in and out of the kitchen, where his girlfriend, Naomi Pomeroy, a pixieish, glitter-eyed 26-year-old, put the finishing touches on the night’s dinner: platters of local salmon baked with fleur de sel, caramelized turnips, and artichokes simmered with lemon, herbs and garlic.
Diners passed the food to one another for what seemed like hours. By 10, the party was winding down. While guests ferried dishes to the kitchen, Hebb asked them to throw $5 into the bowl by the door before they left. Despite all appearances, this was a business plan, not a party. It had begun with a home-based catering business for which, according to Pomeroy, shrimp were thawed in the bathtub and dishes were hosed on the lawn. Now it was expanding into clandestine, invitation-only dinners dubbed "Family Supper." This had been the first.
Within a few years Michael and Naomi Hebberoy–the couple famously merged their surnames in 2002–would, with the help of some of Portland’s wealthiest citizens, build the upstart venture into what came to be known as the Ripe restaurant empire, a gastronomic supernova so bright it dazzled (some might say blinded) the city. Its gleam reached as far as New York, where the press praised Portland’s rise to culinary power; W magazine even dubbed Ripe’s creators "the prince and princess of the Pacific Northwest food scene."
Which is perhaps why the city was so astonished last April when Ripe imploded, Michael Hebberoy disappeared, and the Hebberoys’ impending divorce received prominent headlines in the Oregonian and other local publications. What the city had perceived to be an entirely new culinary and artistic business model (some used the word "revolution"), complete with its own celebrities, had curdled into disappointment, lawsuits and schadenfreude. Portland, in some ways, had been duped. An illusionist had appeared out of nowhere, made a moderate-sized city with a sizable appetite appear to be a top-tier cultural and culinary metropolis, and then stolen away in the night.
Michael Hebb grew up in Bend and Portland, the son of a father who was 71 when Hebb was born, and who, Hebb claims, "played polo … developed the Salishan Spa & Golf Resort … ‘groomed’ [Oregon Senator Mark] Hatfield … and was the first person to bring a Jersey cow to the United States," among other things. (Several of Hebb’s assertions about his father’s past are at best unverifiable; the last is unequivocally untrue.) His father died when Michael was 12 years old. In 1997, after Michael had dabbled in design and architecture at Reed College and Portland State University, he assumed duties as catering manager at Elephant’s Deli in Northwest Portland. By night he bused dishes at Zefiro restaurant in Nob Hill, where Michael says he was more interested in making social connections than in cleaning plates.
That same year, Naomi Pomeroy, a petite, dark-haired girl who grew up in Corvallis with a jeweler father and a stay-at-home mother, had graduated from Lewis & Clark but was unsure what to do with her history degree. "I’d lived in India for a year and studied cooking, but I didn’t realize it was something I could do as a job," she says, though she landed the occasional catering gig and bused tables at Il Piatto on SE Ankeny St. Then she met Hebb. "He would come into the restaurant, and we both loved dancing so we’d go out to clubs," she says. "He invited me to a potluck dinner at his house, and I pretty much never left."