Text: Maja von Horn
Photography: Stanisław Boniecki
Before the pandemic, pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz led an extremely busy life working for fine dining restaurants in New York. But when lockdown put her out of a job, she found solace in home baking. Soon afterwards she launched Never Ending Taste – a pastry pop-up that devotes part of its profits to various causes, whether it’s food insecurity or reproductive rights. Through her old-school community bake sales, she has raised, in collaboration with other chefs, more than $180,000. She also finally had time to write down her unique baking recipes and stories around them. Her debut cookbook “More Than Cake” in which she also weaves in food history and social justice, will be published this spring.
Maja von Horn: Was it lockdown that made you think about writing your first cookbook?
Natasha Pickowicz: I have been developing and collecting recipes all throughout my many years of restaurant work, hoping to one day put it all together in a book. I was very excited to tell stories around those places, those teams, those ingredients, the identities of those restaurants. But when I lost my job due to the pandemic in the spring of 2020, I realised that I can’t write that cookbook anymore, because it would not reflect my current reality. At first it was extremely devastating and very hard to imagine writing a different story. But that difficult period made me think more deeply about why am I actually specialising in pastry, why am I not a savory chef or someone else?
M.V.H.: So why pastry?
N.P.: During the pandemic a lot of people were looking inward, reflecting on what was important to them. So did I. It may sound like a cliché, but it is so true. I realised that I love pastry and baking and desserts because they bring people together in a way that’s uniquely joyful and celebratory. It does that in a way that nothing else can. I was already discovering this dynamic through the work I was doing with my fundraising bake sales – community events that brought together chefs and people from the neighbourhood. It was all very intimate, inclusive, and fun – and a way for me to express my values. It became really exciting to write a book that was more approachable for home bakers, with recipes that anyone can do in their home. I live in a very small apartment in Brooklyn and don’t even have half of the usual fancy equipment and top-shelf ingredients, I have to make do with a lot less. I think many people who like to bake at home can relate to that, so I wanted the book to reflect that as well. I spent the last two years developing, writing, testing, and styling the recipes, and it became a very personal story.
“More Than Cake” Natasha's debut cookbook.
M.V.H.: Is it true that you wrote your book proposal without a computer?!
N.P.: I was living in a studio apartment – it was just one room, without wi-fi. I was working, like so many other people in New York, 60-70 hours per week. Before the pandemic I was basically always at work. So my home had to be a calm, relaxing space - it was for reading and for sleeping. I had no internet, no computer, and no TV. It was intentional. When the pandemic started, I was suddenly at home all the time, and when it came to writing a book proposal, I wrote most of it – about 40 pages – on the Notes app on my phone. Later I borrowed a wireless keyboard from a friend and used that instead, as I realised writing on the phone goes rather slowly.
M.V.H.: Apart from your restaurant work, you’ve been organising bake sale fundraising for Planned Parenthood for many years. How did it start?
N.P.: It started right after the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Many people were feeling really bad about that. He talked a lot about taking reproductive rights away from women, which we have seen happening since. I felt compelled to do something. I looked at my skill set, and thought about what I know how to do. I know how to bake pastry, I love bringing people together, I love organising events. The concept of a bake sale brought all those things together in a very nostalgic, sentimental way. I wanted it to be something that everyone could go to – friends, family, neighbours – without having to spend hundreds of dollars. You could spend five dollars, you could spend nothing. The point was just to bring people together in support of Planned Parenthood.
M.V.H.: It turned out to be a huge success.
N.P.: Yes, I decided to keep going with it and it really took off. That says a lot about how much people crave the connection, a reason for gathering. It’s been a very fulfilling part of my work. I want to show people that you can do those things and it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It’s not impossible. Anybody can do it, you don’t need special skills, you just have to volunteer your time.
M.V.H.: You’re a self-taught chef. Has it always been your dream?
N.P.: I didn’t go to culinary school, but I learned from the chefs that I’ve worked for. My mum works in academia and is an artist (she is actually illustrating my cookbook, which I’m very excited about) and my dad is a Chinese film scholar and historian. I think there was some kind of assumption in the family that I would do something similar – either go to grad school, or work in humanities. That was my passion for a long time. I studied English literature at university, I worked at newspapers, I wanted to be a writer. When I was 24 I applied to grad school to do a PhD in ethnomusicology, but I didn’t get in anywhere. That was when I started baking to pay my bills, and I realised that I loved doing it more than anything that I’d ever done. I spent a lot of my twenties writing and trying to get published, but I never would have thought that my first book would be a cookbook. I’m very glad I finally got to combine my passion for baking with my passion for writing.
M.V.H.: There is a visible influence of Asian cuisine in your pastry recipes. Are they inspired by the food your mum cooked for you when you were a child?
N.P.: My mum emigrated from China to the US when she was 27. My father, who is American, was living in China and they met through his host family. They married there, at a time when it was very unusual to get permission from the Chinese government to marry a non-Chinese person. When they moved to San Diego, California, they both started teaching at the university where they still teach. I was born and raised in San Diego. I grew up with my mum’s cooking, so Chinese cuisine is the one I’m most familiar with. Incorporating those ingredients into my own recipes feels nostalgic to me, and maybe unexpected to others. I have a peanut cookie recipe that has soy sauce in it, or sesame peanut candy inspired by my mum’s favourite sweets.
M.V.H.: Baking often seems overwhelming to people. Even those who like to cook consider it “the next level”. Do you think anyone can learn how to bake?
N.P.: Baking does seem overwhelming, because it looks like there are so many parts of it. I’m all about breaking everything into tiny manageable projects. Let’s take a layer cake – it seems like such a challenging project, whereas in fact, it’s just multiple components made separately. If you look at it like that, it’s really not that hard. If you have a good plan, it doesn’t have to be stressful. It can be a meditative, enjoyable process. My very practical tip for Americans would be to start using the European metric system instead of the terrible system of measuring by cups, which is so inaccurate. Buy a scale – it’s fast and precise. That’s really a game changer. There are many more tips in the book, with which I’m trying to release people from all the pressure and the expectations of hosting. When you invite someone over you want everything to be perfect. But honestly, when your friends come to visit you, they’re just happy to be taken care of, happy to see you. They don’t care if the cake has the right size or consistency. They’re happy someone made an effort for them. Once you release yourself from the pressure that things have to be perfect, you can just focus on good flavors and then look forward to doing it again.
Natasha’s Favorite Places in NY
- Archestratus Books + Food, Greenpoint Books and kitchen treasures on one side, Sicilian cafe and grocery on the other. It feels like an extension of my actual home.
- Kabab Cafe, Astoria On grey, cool days, I love walking directly north to Little Egypt in Astoria. I head right to this tiny Egyptian cafe, where I ask the chef for the vegan platter, which comes with soft, warm bread, translucent Swiss chard chips, fava bean hummus, and a rainbow of vegetables.
- SOS Chefs, East Village This little jewel box of a shop sells rare citrus, spices by weight, and all the hard to find dry goods and items that my chef heart desires. The owner, Atef Boulaabi, will almost certainly be there to answer any questions or entice you with something fragrant and irresistible.
- Tudor Gardens, Turtle Bay In the summer, this tucked-away garden (which is meant to serve the residents of Tudor City but is also open to the public) explodes into a lush, thick jungle. I love taking a book and a snack here and relaxing on a bench overlooking their wide bird bath.
- Cafe Sabarsky, Upper East Side My favorite “genre” of restaurants is the museum restaurant — whether it’s upscale, linen table-cloth dining rooms, or the casual, bustling coffee shops. Cafe Sabarsky captures the magic of both: a grand piano and brocade-wrapped booths evoke Viennese old world glamour, and the food is simple, hearty, and precise.
- Kimchi Kooks, Bay Ridge A wealth of incredible shopping, and I always stop by Kimchi Kooks first for their dizzying selection of banchan [small Korean side dishes], perfectly sized for me to enjoy an impromptu solo picnic by the water.