Natasha Pickowicz | Executive Pastry Chef, Matter House
My mother is a Chinese immigrant and did all the cooking when I was growing up. Chinese cuisine doesn't really have a tradition of "baking" in the American sense, so I never grew up around pies cooling on the counter. My mom is truly a mind-blowing cook but her incredible instincts for creativity and improvisation never translated as successfully to baking.
Once we tried to make her favorite cookie, a buttery Walkers-style shortbread, but my mom was so repulsed by the amount of sugar and butter that she adjusted the recipe drastically. Of course, she didn't anticipate how that would change the treat. It was so disgusting. We still laugh about her nightmarish pastry experiments. Now, I find I really love the chemistry and math aspects of pastry — understanding the rules, embracing repetition and technique, and getting results.
Because I split my time between Cafe Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar, I'm constantly bopping back and forth between the spaces. The day is always bisected with a long train ride uptown or downtown and a meditative walk through Central Park. I used to feel frustrated by all the commuting and running around but now I find I need the break to help me transition into the next space. Once I'm at work, more than anything, I love spending time at my bench, physically working on projects and being around my team.
The number one priority for me is to assure the safety and well-being of my team. Everyone on my team is female and either works super late or super early hours. I know for sure that those circumstances make them more vulnerable, so I try as hard as I can to make sure that they know that I am 100% here for them and I want them to come to me if anything EVER makes them feel bad. Anything. So I try my best to develop that trust, to make sure that I seem as transparent as possible, that I'm setting a good example and don't put up with bullshit.
There are SO MANY scary and dangerous things that can happen to you if you're a woman AND you work in a restaurant. It's like ground zero for harassment, casual sexism, and actual physical abuse. I have felt this first hand from working in many of them. Insidious things that we are taught to "accept" as being "how it is." So I just try to be there for the women on my team, push people to have those hard conversations, stay vigilant, and follow through. As a consumer, I try to only support restaurants and businesses that I think are being run by smart, compassionate, and kind people. That isn't too hard to do since I prefer to hang at all my friends' places. Part of where the zeitgeist is now is that it does seem a little easier to have these conversations. Trading stories and strategizing. Yanking out the bad apples and building a team that truly shares your principles.
I've always felt more comfortable working in the back of house, doing all the "behind the scenes" work that goes into a beautiful dining experience. But sometimes that perspective can get a little myopic. You start to lose that visceral connection with people. You're making food but you don't know who it's going to. It started to make me feel a little crazy!
I wanted to find a way to relate my practice with meaningful face-to-face experiences within our community. It's SO important to develop relationships with our neighborhood, especially in a crazy place like NYC where you can feel a little lost or overwhelmed. The bake sale idea was this magical opportunity to connect not just with chefs that I admired, but also a chance to show my appreciation for Planned Parenthood, which has been so essential to me since the day I moved to NYC five years ago. And most importantly, I wanted to make sure that our contributions from the bake sale would impact programs right in our neighborhood, which is why we worked not just with Planned Parenthood the national organization, but PPNYC, their local chapter.
Restaurant "activism" is a little tricky because usually, it involves expensive ticketed events, like fancy dinners or auctions, that most people I know could never afford. I wanted the bake sale to be a cause that we could all support — a $5 donation for a sweet treat or two is something we can all enjoy. And it's not even about the $5 donation in the end (although we DID raise $21K on just baked goods, which is totally insane), but more about presenting a venue for everyone to come together, swap strategies, talk about the next step. The bake sale generated a ton of energy from people who wanted to continue the conversation — hearing about people who wanted to host bake sales in other cities, or wanted to keep volunteering with Planned Parenthood, or wanted to find more ways for to develop a local pastry network. It went so far beyond my expectations.
As for surprises in the industry, I don't think I really ever anticipated the "mentor" relationship some chefs have with their cooks. Most chefs just want to make delicious food. You sort of forget that people look up to you. I always try to push my cooks, to work them in a way that I have always wanted to be worked. I have super high expectations and demand perfection and consistency. But hearing from former cooks, stagiaires, externs, whomever, that they want to work with me, or feel loyal to me, is always super surprising and the BEST feeling. I often feel like I know nothing! And wonder what I have to offer. At the beginning of every year, I force my team to make a "pastry resolution." Every year mine has always been technique driven — like, "this year I want to become more comfortable with naturally leavened breads," "this year I'm going to force myself to work more with chocolate"; that kind of thing. But this year, my pastry resolution was to be more present for my team, to be more available for them. You have this responsibility to them — it's not just about playing around with food and creating new dishes.
Both within this industry and out I have endured a lot of failures. A lot of rejection and loss and pain. I've been fired from jobs I've adored, rejected from chefs I admired, felt lost and unsure of my path. But in every case, that failure was actually this incredible, painful environment for understanding. I knew that failure made me vulnerable. But I wish I could tell my younger self that sometimes being thrown into an uncomfortable, scary place is the way that true growth is generated. Not from sitting easy and having everything handed to you. I was rejected by every grad school I applied to, so I started baking. I was dumped by boyfriends, so I learned how to be alone. I was fired from a pastry cook job, then I got my first pastry chef job. I was diagnosed with cancer, then I learned to respect my body and take care of myself. You get shoved into a corner and then you fight your way out.
To learn more about Natasha, you can follow her on Instagram.