Apiece Apart Woman: Natasha Pickowicz
Photos: Erica Gannett
Interview: Leigh Patterson
We have all had curvy paths. Please list all of your jobs, since you were 16.
Babysitter, YMCA camp counselor, video rental store cashier, stockist at an old UCSD co-op bookstore, cashier at a record shop (honestly just sat around playing records, did not actually sell many records), rowing coach, radio station DJ, wedding DJ, alt-weekly newspaper editor, freelance journalist, music concert curator, and, finally, baker and cook.
In your opinion, what’s the best way to initiate change?
Being able to articulate my strengths and then apply it to the change that I want to see always feels like the most efficient and genuine way to build momentum. You’re forced to look inward first to gather all your tools. It can be hard and feel awkward and vulnerable. In 2016, I wove together my love of gatherings, community, and pastry into what became the bake sale fundraiser for Planned Parenthood. It made sense to relate what I was already passionate about (parties, baked goods, female allyship, and reproductive rights) into a cause that I wanted to support. Building community around shared values has been a really powerful tool for me.
When you feel overwhelmed, unfocused, or uncreative what do you do to get out of your head?
My deep and abiding love of NYC boils down to one essential truth: It is the perfect walking city. Going on a super long walk by myself is my favorite remedy for almost everything: when I need more energy, when I need to clear my head, when I want to be alone, when I’m hungover, when I’m anxious, when I’m sad. A long walk provides comfort for every psychic disruption. I rarely set out for a destination, instead preferring to wind my way through multiple neighborhoods, over bridges, through parks, clocking in mile after mile and feeling very free.
Something that is absurd that I love anyway is:
I love absurdity, I love insanity. Tim Heidecker’s “Tim’s Cooking Tips” series makes me laugh SO hard. It’s so extreme and subtle at the same time. It’s absurd. He’s a genius. Also, unrelated, but once I ordered this pizza from Vinnie’s in Brooklyn that came in a delivery box that was also made out of pizza. Pizza inside pizza. Ridiculous. So dumb. It tasted terrible but very worth it.
What flavors remind you most of your childhood?
Garlic and ginger sizzling together, plain Ruffles, sweet Chinese sausage (lap cheong), frozen lima beans, Haagen-dazs ice cream bars, steamed white rice, Triscuits and swiss cheese, cold tangerines, crisp green beans, skim milk, dumplings stuffed with cabbage and pork, Papa Johns.
Makes you dance, lifts your mood, brightens you?
Tirzah, “Holding On”
Makes your emotions swell (maybe inducing a cry if the moment’s right)?
Velvet Underground, “I’m Set Free.” John Martyn, “Spencer the Rover.”
Transports you to a specifically nostalgic moment of your past?
Black Flag, “My War.” Immediately I’m in 9th grade. I bought the CD used because of the Pettibon artwork and also recognized the SST logo. Big time life changer!
Mellows you out, calms your nerves?
Black Sabbath, “Planet Caravan.”
Do you put on when you want to dial in and focus?
John Coltrane, “Blue World” LP. One of my best friends, the Montreal-based archivist Frédéric Savard, works at the National Film Board of Canada. Fred single-handedly unearthed this unbelievable artifact, which Coltrane exclusively recorded (with his classic quartet!) for the Quebec filmmaker Gilles Groulx’s first feature film, Le Chat Dans le Sac in 1964. It is an indelible document of a fascinating, transitionary Coltrane period and brings me so much pleasure every time I listen.
Is perfect for playing in a dining moment? When you envision your “perfect” dining experience what is the soundtrack?
I love playing full albums when I’m cooking for myself at home. Just a few that are gorgeous from start to finish: The Durutti Column, “The Return of the Durutti Column”, Tyler, the Creator, “IGOR”, Chris Isaak, “Silvertone”, Arto Lindsay, “Cuidado Madame”.
What’s a secret local spot in your neighborhood that you love because, or in spite of it being very uncool?
I live in Greenpoint and love Amber Steakhouse, a very low-key, two-story Polish restaurant. It is always too bright, the food never looks great, the room is usually pretty empty, but the staff are super nice, the (Polish vodka) martinis are huge and cold and dry, and it always feels really warm and relaxed.
Five years ago I wish I had known:
I wish I had known safe and effective ways to advocate for myself and my team in moments of stress, trauma, and harassment. When I was first starting out in the restaurant world, I felt like such a novice and outsider. I felt like everyone was doing me a favor by hiring me and having me around. It was impossible to see what worth I was bringing to the table, because I couldn’t untangle the toxicity of kitchen culture with the quality of my actual performance. Some women who work in busy, stressful kitchens feel profoundly uncomfortable reporting sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. There was definitely a “suck it up” mentality that I adopted. You want to be perceived as being tough and willing to endure.
But I gradually saw how disordered my definition of “tough” was. What is “tough” to me now is holding people accountable, strenuously documenting everything, checking the emotional temperature of my team on a regular basis, and being fair and kind and respectful and disciplined. I have had many wonderful people in the last five years show me the way to be.
These days, making sure my team feels safe, protected, and heard has been the most important driving force behind all of the work that I do.
We are all formulating and gathering life hacks all the time. What are the some tried and true tricks that have stuck with you?
Some pastry tricks for you: A halved apple will rehydrate the hardest, most dried-out sugar. Tuck spent vanilla beans into simple syrup for morning coffee. Don’t just chill your butter when making pie dough, also chill your dry ingredients! Use leftover sourdough starter to flavor biscuits, pancakes, and cookie doughs. Every ice cream or sorbet tastes better with a squeeze of olive oil and a pinch of fancy salt on top. Brown butter makes chewier cookies. Nothing is more efficient than PAM spray. A little flick of water helps clingy plastic wrap stick to any surface. A spoonful of cold heavy cream will relax and gloss out any overwhipped whip. Almost every cookie dough tastes better if it rests for at least three days.
In the name of articulating your strengths, building community, collecting pastry/life hacks, and rolling your sleeves up and getting to work: Meet the intrepid and inspiring face that is Natasha Picowicz, NYC-based pastry chef and creative brain between behind acclaimed spots Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar.
We discovered Natasha’s genius a couple years ago through the much-loved annual charity bake sale she organizes through Café Altro Paradiso for Planned Parenthood, which brings together top pastry chefs in the name of community and grassroots change.
Below, we stopped in to visit her at work at the airy Flora Bar inside the landmark Met Breuer, to discuss, among other things: nostalgic flavors, the magical healing powers of a long walk, and the unexpected path that’s led to where she is now.