Natasha Pickowicz

Natasha Pickowicz

If you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting Natasha Pickowicz’s desserts, then head on over to her Instagram immediately (@natashapickowicz) to get the closest you can to her beautiful confections. She’ll make you believe in bread and sugar in a way no one ever will. Not only is she the tremendously talented pastry chef at the New York City restaurants Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso, she’s also a philanthropist, organizing a huge yearly Bake Sale to benefit Planned Parenthood. We spent the morning with the Natasha and some espresso at Altro Paradiso, and learned all about her journey to becoming a chef and what she enjoys during her free time…

 

 

 

Can you tell us a little about how you became a pastry chef, and what lead you to where you are now?

I am what I like to call a "career changer." I went to Cornell University and majored in English literature. I read and wrote a lot and generally only thought about books and music. I fixated on the idea of becoming a writer, either as a journalist and critic, or in academia. I moved to Montreal and applied to phD programs in ethnomusicology, but was rejected everywhere. This is a story I like to tell precisely because it was so devastating when it happened. It was hard to imagine that I could do anything else. It felt like my life was over at 27. But then I got my first baking job at a little luncheonette called Depanneur Le Pick Up, and it changed my life. I became obsessed with pastry. There was something so rigorous and detail-oriented and physical about pastry and bread work. I had never really tapped into that "maker" side of me. I found that I really loved the physicality of my day, of being side by side other people, of creating beautiful things with my hands. 

I actually first saw you and your ridiculously delicious food on Instagram during the first Planned Parenthood Bake Sale. You started this sale a couple years ago, and now it’s a huge event! What motivated you to put this brilliant fundraiser together?

I came up with the idea for the bake sale shortly after the presidential election in 2016. Everyone at work was really devastated by the results and we all agreed that it was important that we stay super vocal about our beliefs. It felt so important to publicly stand behind the organizations that were meaningful to us. For me, it was Planned Parenthood and their quest for affordable and accessible sexual health care for women and their families. I felt I had to keep the fundraiser accessible to our entire community — that people could donate in manageable $5 increments and not feel "priced out" of a fancy dinner or ticketed event. There's something really galvanizing about activism on that level. Everyone can participate. It's so much more inclusive. And I loved the idea that something so homey and nostalgic about a bake sale would be the context for "fancy" "big city" chefs to participate.  

 

What advantages do you think being a woman can bring to a career in the food industry? 

One of the reasons why I gravitate towards pastry in particular is because the work force does tend to be very female-dominated, and I really love working with strong, focused, compassionate, and smart women. In my experience I find that women tend to be really great at working together towards a common goal. There's this grounded sense of support that feels really intuitive and powerful and humble. There's less "ego" at stake, which I have seen a lot in young male cooks, who feel like they have a lot to prove and want to get to the top, fast. The women I work with see the value in hard work and discipline and detail and community. If my cooks are healthy and happy and strong, I genuinely think that you can taste that love in their food. 

 

 

Do you have any mentors, idols or role models you admire?

Because I didn't go to culinary school, I always approached the restaurants where I worked as places to learn and grow. I chose those places because I wanted to be mentored by chefs I admired. My mentor for the past three years has been Ignacio Mattos, the chef and owner at Altro and Flora, where I work. When I joined the team, it came down to this desire: I wanted to know how he made food taste so good. I wanted his palate, I wanted his discipline, I wanted to be a part of his vision. I wanted to be better. A LOT better. Nobody has supported or empowered me more in work than he has. Like any meaningful bond, our relationship has evolved and changed so much, but there is a mutual respect and trust there that is very valuable to me.
 
What about style icons?
Kate Bush, Ruth Reichl, Sade, Maggie Cheung in "In the Mood for Love," Catherine Keener in "Walking in Talking," Kim Gordon. I'm drawn to wild hair.
 
We love that you picked such colorful pieces for this shoot! Do you dress for your mood at work, or do you generally wear a uniform? What about off hours?  
I love wearing a uniform! I would honestly wear my pink Loup pants to work every day I could. I should probably just get 5 pairs so I have one for every day. But there's something empowering about wearing such a feminized color to work and just being tough and getting on with it. I love pink. Everyone wears the same short-sleeved white porter shirts and aprons at work, and I'll wear stretchy cotton pants and either Birkenstock clogs or Blundstone pull-on boots. There's something really liberating about wearing a uniform — I never worry about how I look, just about the work that I have in front of me. I have a pretty predictable "off-hour" uniform, too — I own like 6 jean jackets, 10 pairs of Vans, and at least 12 jumpsuits, most of them pink. I have a jumpsuit for every occasion, not joking. 

 

 

 

 

 

THESE DAYS I'M LOVING...

FOOD
The pepperoni personal pan pizza at Scarr's. Slightly underripe yellow nectarines. The arugula salads dusted with horseradish and manchego at Cervo's. The sesame sourdough at She Wolf. Sour cherry sorbet at Superiority Burger. I've been making a lot of bright sorbets at Cafe Altro Paradiso now that we're in peak summer — the fruits are juicy and full of heady flavors. I've been making small batches of juicy raspberry, cooling cucumber mint, lemon verbena, pineapple spiked with Thai chiles, salted mango, concord grape blasted with olive oil. At Flora, we're all in love with the new zucchini bread, which we bake with whole wheat flour and stuffed with pecans and unsweetened coconut. 
 
CLOTHES
I've been wearing those rubber Birkenstocks sandals all summer. They were like $40 and so comfortable. I love Rachel Comey, Caron Callahan, A Detacher, Apiece Apart, Muji, Sandro, and try to thrift everything else. I bought my first Reformation piece in LA this summer, this clingy red wrap dress, and it is basically the sexiest thing I own now. 
 
MOVIES/TV
I actually don't have internet at home (or a computer, or tv...) so I often feel like I'm super behind when it comes to the cultural zeitgeist. That being said, my friend Ali introduced me to Chewing Gum earlier this year and it's so goddamn perfect I have probably watched every episode 3x over. Oh I love that delicate wobble between crying and laughing. Usually on my day off I'll stream a few episodes of The Simpsons on my phone. The Simpsons is the best television show in the world and I will never get tired of it. In fact the episodes get richer and more delightful with the passing years. 
 
BOOKS 
I will read and reread anything by Anne Carson, Lorrie Moore, Sheila Heti (just finished "Motherhood" and it was as terrific as everyone told me it would be), Deb Olin Unferth, Elif Batuman, Rachel Kushner, Amy Hempel, Maggie Nelson. I'm a book freak, apparently skewing heavily towards misanthropic fiction written by women, haha.
 
BEAUTY
All of my makeup ("all" = eyeliner and mascara, that's it) is cheap L'oreal, and I like that I can go into any pharmacy in the city and get what I need. I'm also addicted to the healing powers of Kiehl's "Ultimate Strength Hand Salve," which brings my skin back to life after baking in hot kitchens all day. 
 
“ME TIME” ACTIVITY
Going on long walks alone for miles and miles is my #1 absolute favorite thing to do in NYC. I don't know if I could ever leave NYC because I don't think the walking scene compares anywhere else. That's how important my walks are to me. The way that neighborhoods morph before your eyes, the insane people watching, the funny and beautiful and sad and awful and tender things I see every 30 seconds, listening to music for hours and hours, the dogs and the trees and the buildings... I'm addicted. It is truly my favorite hobby. I'll walk from Flora Bar, in the Upper East Side, down to my boyfriend's restaurant in Chinatown. I'll walk from Cafe Altro Paradiso, in SoHo, over the Williamsburg Bridge, to Greenpoint, where I live. Those are my two most common walks. There is no better way to both explore the city and get lost inside my thoughts.

 

Images by Julia Hembree, shot at Cafe Altro Paradiso in New York City