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?
THESE DAYS I'M LOVING...
Images by Julia Hembree, shot at Cafe Altro Paradiso in New York City