September 25, 2019
Most of the people I seek to feature for this series are strangers. I glimpse their lives on Instagram or in magazines; I form crushes, I obsess. I wonder about their habits and ambitions. Eventually, I gather my courage and shoot off an email: Would you be interested in a conversation? So far, everyone has replied yes, a fact that continues to shock and delight me. I begin all of these interviews with a hunch (I like you) and many assumptions (you’re like this). I map out what I want to discuss based on research I’ve done and impressions I’ve formed from afar. Yet inevitably, after an hour or two of talking, all of my planned questions have gone unasked.
Usually, a single topic will form the central gravity of these conversations, becoming the focal point about which anecdotes and introspection revolve. When this idea emerges and takes hold of the discussion, my prepared notes become irrelevant. I have learned it is futile to guess what this main theme will be before I meet a subject; I’m inevitably thrown for a loop. That was the case with Natasha Pickowicz, pastry chef at Café Altro Paradiso downtown and Flora Bar in the Met Breuer. I wanted to interview Natasha because she makes truly exquisite food: elegant desserts whose deceptively simple presentation belie complex ideas and sophisticated technique. When we sat down to talk, though, pastry barely came up. Instead, Natasha’s love of people drove the conversation. It’s not just that she’s an extrovert: her every decision (at home, at work, in her neighborhood) is made in consideration of the impact it might have socially and socio-politically. We talked more about what it means to invest in your coworkers and community than we did about elaborate tarts or fancy cakes. Professionally, playing with and pushing the boundaries of dessert seemed almost like priority number two: a sweet reward after the hard labor of building teams that feel like family and restaurants that feel like home.
This process offers many pleasures; one of them is getting to discover the heartbeat at the center of each woman’s story. I’m so happy to share them with you. Here’s Natasha’s.
Natasha Pickowicz photographed in the courtyard at Flora, September 2019
You didn’t take a “traditional” path to pastry. Can you talk a little bit about your early education and how it affects your kitchen style now?
I didn’t go to pastry school, I don’t have a formal education. What I did instead was pick the restaurants I wanted to work at very specifically because I was looking for a mentor type or teacher type that I could learn from. I’ve been really, really lucky to work beside three or four people in the three or four kitchens of my life who were fabulous teachers. They are absolutely the reason why I have certain habits that I have, or certain mechanics, or body language, or knife skills.
With Ignacio [Mattos, the chef for the Matter House restaurant group, of which Altro and Flora are a part], there was something very particular I wanted. I had eaten at Estela [his first restaurant] and I was like, “Whoa, I want to learn how to make desserts that make me feel the way this food makes me feel.” I wanted his palate. He makes food that is surprising, that has layers of flavor, that has secrets. I wanted to know what it was like to make something that seemed so simple but that had a lot of thought behind it. I think that I really wanted who I was as a pastry person to be driven by his influence and what he had to offer. I maybe could have gotten to his level on my own, without him, because I wanted so much to get to that place, but being around him and being pushed to over-deliver every day is just so much more efficient.
I thrive off of being able to learn and to respond to other people around me. I need people to taste and look and help me figure stuff out, to stimulate me in that way. Who I am and what I know is so generated by the people that I’m around, from my cooks all the way through front of house. I don’t think my food would be where it is now if I didn’t have that, if I was working somewhere less rigorous or less disciplined, if I was working alone or in another city.
What is the recipe development process like for you at Altro or Flora? Where does an idea start? What does your process look like now and how has it changed over the years?
Something Ignacio and I talk about a lot is how we are intentionally sourcing and buying the absolute best ingredients you could possibly find anywhere. With no exceptions and no holds barred, that is really paramount. The next question becomes: How are you taking these things and elevating them to have an experience that is sort of out of body? That’s hard, that’s really elusive. I don’t feel like I’m nailing that every day but that really dictates how we organize our creative principles before we begin something, especially in things that seem deceptively simple. For me, the greatest challenge is exceeding expectations and disarming people.
The transcendence is in the exceptional details and really honoring the simplicity of a dish, not injecting too much of your ego into making it your own. I’m so not interested in inventing something that’s never been done before or that is sooo creative because I think: Is that really more delicious? I think that’s a trap that some chefs fall into when they’re really driven by their ego.
There are stalwarts on the menu that really don’t move because those are the things that people crave and return to. At Altro, it really is about cultivating a repertoire of dishes that people expect and have a relationship with. On the dessert side, we’ve had panna cotta and flourless chocolate cake on the menu since the day that we opened. From my perspective, one vital question is: How do you derive meaning and how do you demand excellence from something that you make every day for one year, two years, three years plus? The challenge is figuring out how to dig deep and get significance or feedback from something that you think you know inside out. Something that makes these restaurants really unique is the way they ask, through their food, what does it mean to be really in the moment in what you’re doing? What does it mean to be present in your work? It means tasting as you go, reflecting, adjusting salt, dialing back the sweetness, really thinking about how the ingredients relate and inform each other in this greater whole.
Once a week, at a minimum, all the chefs sit down at each restaurant and we talk about the existing menu. The first way we figure out what we want to change is by looking at what we already have and making adjustments, maybe based on seasonality or availability. Another way our conversations will start is with a technique or an ingredient or some refuse. For example, we use sheets of nori for an uni dish so every day there are scraps of nori leftover that people crumble into family salad or crush over eggs in the morning. I’ve been thinking: Let’s buzz this up into a powder and use it as a seasoning salt to create flavor and texture in a bread. Often times a dish will come from something that seemingly insignificant and then we start picking away at it.
For the most part, I’ll work on a dish for three or four weeks and then make a change to the menu. Then it’s another two weeks to teach the team how to execute it, to produce all the components, to plate it properly. It’s so intensive. Nothing feels better than figuring a dish out. It can’t be something that tastes amazing and looks gorgeous but is something that your cooks can’t replicate. There is a pragmatic aspect to it. Trying to balance reality with what our fantasies are about making food is really important too.
What is the balance between creative work, administrative work and mentoring in your job these days?
I’ve really seen that balance change in the years since I started here. When I started at this company, which will be four years ago in December, I was only opening Altro Paradiso. I was dealing with one restaurant. It was just me, I wasn’t managing anyone, I wasn’t taking care of a team or nurturing people or bringing them up. I was spinning ice cream, I was making panna cotta, I was cooking jam. I was doing production stuff.
Then I spent a lot of energy and time over the next three years getting a team in place at both restaurants [after Flora opened], nurturing and mentoring young women who are coming from other professions, who don’t have a lot of pastry experience. I have been developing them, fostering their loyalty, commitment, and devotion. That’s something that I have really seen results in. I love my team. Now what I see happening is that other people in the kitchen are looking at the pastry team’s dynamic as a goal. Like, “Oh, they have no turnover. They’re engaging with the community. How can we be like them?” Because of that, I see my role shifting a little bit, where I’m trying to figure out how to implement similar values within the rest of the kitchen. For me the biggest wake-up call in how my time is organized and what I truly feel my moral obligations are to this restaurant group are has caused my role to become way more theoretical.
There’s this idea, whether it’s projected or real, that if pastry is secondary or marginalized or not as important, no one wants to hear my voice on the savory side. But actually getting over that idea and having people like Ignacio say, “I need you to be more vocal in the way things run over here,” has caused my role to evolve. I never thought that my job would expand and involve other parts of the restaurant, but it really has. It’s not even just within the kitchen, it’s figuring out how to share my connection to community work with everyone in the restaurants and how to show our restaurant group that those projects are vital to preserving our core values.
How do you handle the pace and pressures of working in restaurants? The demands seem so relentless and you are dealing with two kitchens and two dining rooms. How do you create boundaries?
We were just talking in our production meeting about how there is no time to rest and to gather as a team, to commiserate or to get into deep issues that we should explore more. You’re always just getting through that day or getting through that week. Lately I’m thinking: How do we make time for each other as peers and as colleagues to talk about what we could do about turnover or what we could do about morale in the kitchen, these bigger things? If we don’t even make the time to have twenty minutes to talk about it, the status quo continues.
I think that the burnout is super real in this industry and that’s something that I’m always trying to stay in front of. I think being able to create my own schedule has empowered me to take the time and space to be me. As any extrovert can tell you, there is still a price you pay for being an extrovert, you need to recover from being so social. For me that means I live alone, by design. I am surrounded by people from the moment I get on the train in the morning to the moment I leave work to get on the train to go home. It takes a toll. Being able to go home and be truly alone (truly alone: I don’t have internet, I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a TV) is important. Because I don’t work nights, I think it’s easier for me to build a healthier lifestyle around that. I can make dinner for myself every night, I can make sure I’m in bed before 11 PM, I can go to the gym. If all of those things are in place, my work will be better. Having boundaries is something I’m always working on for myself. I think that helps me be on when I need to be on and recover when I need to recover.
How do you logistically manage being the pastry chef at two different restaurants, aesthetically similar but geographically distant? You can’t be in two places at once so how do you spread yourself between the physical spaces and mental landscapes?
Doing double the work at two places means that what happens is that you feel like you’re not giving enough to anybody, anywhere. I’m moving between the two restaurants where there are two different menus. There are so many moving parts. I’m constantly figuring out how to budget and manage my time. Those things keep me up at night. For me, the priority is the team and making sure the team is trained up and has what they need. There’s one woman doing pastry at Altro under me now, and three at Flora. If you’re a chef, you’re only really as strong as your weakest cook. It’s like being on a sports team. Managing a team is all about delegating and showing people how to do stuff.
In the breakdown of my week, I try to have one day where I’m only at one place. Fridays, I’m only at Flora. Mondays, I’m only at Altro. That way, I get as long a day as I want from start to finish. Sometimes with restaurants, it really is about putting in the time next to a person’s body, talking to them, looking at them, tasting food with them, logging those hours. Sometimes, I stress that if I’m not in a place long enough, people don’t know who I am. I want to make sure that I know who everyone is and everyone knows who I am, for them to think, “She works here, she doesn’t just pop in and out.”
The reason why I loved this work initially was the physical and tactile connection to product. I love making stuff. That’s the thing every chef wishes they got to do more of: recipe development, menu development, inventing new dishes, engaging with ingredients, stuff from the markets, stuff from purveyors, things that your friends show you. You work ten or eleven hours and then, finally, you have all of the stuff that you must get done for the day done, and then who wants to play around with food for four more hours? I can’t do it, I’m not a machine. It can be frustrating when I feel like I’m tethered to this day-to-day grind and I can’t be thinking about the bigger things that I need to be thinking about. It’s a struggle, for sure. Putting the time into people so that they have your back and you can peel away to focus on other stuff has been huge.
How do you decide who to hire for your team? You mentioned that many of the women you train come from non-pastry backgrounds. How do you intuit who will be a good chef when they’ve never worked in food before?
I really listen to my gut and my instinct when it comes to getting impressions of people. For a lot of the women who apply and are coming from other industries, they don’t have restaurant experience or any of those skills, so I ask: What do I have to go on? I know I can teach people everything that they need to know. I’m not concerned with that. For me, it’s really more personality-driven because of the way I run my team. I need to know: Are you organized? Are you going to read something from start to finish? Are you respectful of other people? Do you have empathy? Are you on time? Can you keep things clean? Are you going to get overwhelmed? Do you ask good questions? Are you curious? Do you have a curiosity for pastry specifically? For me, being enthusiastic about pastry while having no ego, being willing to make mistakes and be vulnerable, that’s what I need to see. Communication is super important: being able to candidly talk without getting defensive. I am so over ego, narcissism, and that impatience to ascend. I want to know if you’re into consistency and repetition, if you’re detail-oriented, if you are good at taking notes and documenting things, if you know when to ask for help. You can have that in so many disciplines and if you have those traits, great, you can work with this team. I want people to stick around, I want to develop people internally, I don’t want to have to hire new people.
You foster a spirit of community and connectivity at your two restaurants. How does that intimacy and care-taking compare to the wider restaurant world? How much dialogue is happening in the larger industry about standards and best practices?
One thing that frustrates me about the industry — and this is my personal experience — is feeling like I don’t know what other people’s jobs are like in similar places. I’ve talked about this with some of my friends: How many hours is the Natasha at another restaurant working? How much money do they make? What kind of benefits do they have? How big are their teams? What are their resources like? Sometimes I feel like I have no idea and that can be hard because, as someone who hasn’t spent that much time in the industry, you get stuck in a hermetic world that is all you know. How would you know if where you are is toxic, or unsustainable, or if you’re being underpaid? I wish there were more ways for people in this industry to have open conversations about what our roles really look like without having to leave where you work to go see how someone else does it.
When I was in LA for Pastry Action Network pop-up — shit — it was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had around pastry, ever. All of these women, five pastry chefs, some of whom I had met in real life and some of whom I admired from afar, stayed in the same house. We were doing everything together: taking Ubers everywhere, having breakfast together, drinking wine after our day, going out to dinner. We couldn’t shut up, we couldn’t stop talking and comparing notes. It was so fascinating to hear about their days, what they struggled with, often identical to what I think about. I felt like I was really with my people. You open up and you are vulnerable with someone, talking about the crazy hours, when you felt unsafe at work, talking about money woes and staffing woes, and you realize, “Wow, I’m not as bad at this as I thought I was. This is endemic and a larger issue.” It was really comforting to know that a bunch of people I look up to and admire so much, who seemingly have it all together and are perfect, are also struggling.
I feel like I work really hard to be transparent with people about how I spend my time and what my resources are, but obviously money talk can be very weird. Luckily, I have a very great, open, loving boyfriend [Aaron Crowder, one of two chef-owners at Cervos] with whom I can compare notes. It has been amazing to hear how their restaurant group, which is also three restaurants (The Fly, Hart’s and Cervos), functions.
Where did the inspiration for projects like the annual bake sale you organize as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood or the workshops you host in partnership with Lenox Hill House come from? How do you make time for them?
When I started cooking, I wanted to figure out a way to still have a relationship with people, not to just be stuck in the back. I’m such a big believer in the idea that if the thing you want or need doesn’t exist, why wouldn’t you make that thing happen for yourself? The bake sale was an answer to the question of: How can I interact with all my peers in the pastry world? How can I bring all of the people in the New York City restaurant world together? How can I come up with more ways for us to collaborate for causes that we all agree are important? I’m not going to wait for someone to invite me to something, I’m going to figure out how to make that thing happen and get the people there to participate.
For me, knowing what my priorities are and what I’m interested in means that what this restaurant group becomes a set of resources that I can provide. Doing workshops with Lenox Hill at the Met Breuer because we’re closed on Mondays, that’s an incredible resource to offer.
I’m such a planner and I love organizing events and I love conceptualizing moments, whether it’s a field trip for my pastry team or planning our staff party or the bake sale or the workshops, it’s all an expression of my need to be around people and to organize people and to make moments for learning and togetherness. I really thrive being around like-minds and to generate enthusiasm and excitement for something different, like learning that new skill. It’s also really cool for me to be on the other side of it and be taught something.