How did the culinary world inspire you to become a chef?
My love of cooking was gradual and unintentional — my first job in a kitchen was more out of necessity than by choice. I started baking professionally in Montreal, where there is a really unique food culture. People have an intense love of going out, shopping at markets, and also entertaining and hosting at home. I fell in love with the behind-the-scenes energy of restaurant cooking. The long hours, the kitchen camaraderie, the exactitude and focus and precision, and of course, feeding people and making them happy with delicious bites. I’m naturally a competitive and ambitious person and that feeling was really amplified when I moved to NYC to continue cooking — there’s a fire of wanting to become better, to practice, to experiment, to have this drive, that really resonated with me. I really love process — the way disparate ingredients come together and are transformed. And the structure and discipline that is at the heart of a skill like baking really resonated with me too.
Tell us the story behind your newest cookbook, More than Cake.
I think I had always fantasized about writing my own book someday — I have been a big reader and writer my whole life. But I don’t think that I ever thought that the first book I would publish would be a cookbook. Now that it’s out, I see that it is actually the perfect format for the way my brain works. I was able to write more personal, emotive essays — and all the chapter openers, every single recipe headnotes, hundreds of side bars and extra anecdotes and context for ingredients — and then also hone in on the exactitude of technical writing in the recipes themselves. Even though most people know me as a pastry chef, I also wanted to show that I am a writer, and wrote every inch of the book myself, which was really, really hard. I wanted to share the decade of baking knowledge I have acquired, but also find a way to communicate that in the voice of someone with a deep love of community, literature, music, nature, gardening, film, and animals.
My hope is that someone would see the book, and the recipes inside, as a process to be enjoyed, and not rushed through. Like any skill or hobby (like gardening or knitting or woodworking), it’s not really about racing to the end result — it’s about relishing being present and inside the act while it’s happening. It’s not about amassing a pile of new socks; it’s the meditative quality of knitting slowly over time and seeing the sock come into being. I’m never in a rush to have a chocolate chip cookie — I actually really love all the steps and sensations around toasting flour, browning butter, chopping chocolate, etc. If you skip any of those steps, it just doesn’t feel the same; you lose the opportunity to build on a skillset, to engage your senses, to slow down time.
What’s your favorite part about the New York culinary community?
The baking and pastry network in NYC is really strong, but everyone works so hard and has such long days that it can be hard to pull those people together to celebrate or commiserate around our work. So bakers and chefs help each other where they can — recommending new hires, insider tips around ingredients and farms, recipe or service troubleshooting, loaning equipment or tools, showering someone with love when they come in to eat at your spot. Love of hospitality isn’t just directed at the paying guest — it also means showing up and supporting your colleagues in the industry.
What’s your favorite restaurant in NYC?
The Four Horsemen in Williamsburg always gets it right. The staff is warm and funny. The food is delicious and craveable. The music is different from the same algorithm junk that plays in most dining rooms. The wine list is surprising and deep. I’m so happy that they have a cookbook coming out soon, because I desperately want to recreate all their food (the sungold tomato-sauced pastas, the crunchy celery and mint salad, the giant milanese, the focaccia ham sandwich).
What’s inspiring you right now?
I started gardening a few years ago, when I moved into an apartment with its own backyard and raised beds. This time of year (late, high summer) is when I “let go” and sort of stop fussing over everything. I can’t keep up with the weeds and bugs so I just focus on the harvest. I’m getting cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, beans, tomatoes. Greens like bok choi, spinach, amaranth, arugula. All the herbs. I usually let all of the herbs bolt so I can collect the seeds and dry them for cooking (bronze fennel, coriander, parsley). What I grow in my garden directly inspires my approach towards decorating cakes, developing recipes, and feeding others.
I also continue to be super inspired by Queens, in my opinion the best borough in the city. I’ll head up there to go to a market or shop and suddenly six hours have passed. I love Flushing Meadows — the giant geodesic dome at the zoo, the beautiful grounds at the Botanical Gardens, all the World’s Fair detritus. I adore all the architecture that is sort of arrested in that mid-60s era. The Queens Museum is free and plonked right in the park and has the original Robert Moses-made 10,000 square foot architectural model of NYC, which was part of the World’s Fair exhibit back in 1964. It’s totally insane and immersive. I think it’s really important for my creative process to break out of my apartment and have solo “field trips” where I wander around for hours and walk 15-20 miles.
Excerpted from More Than Cake by Natasha Pickowicz (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2023. Photographs by Graydon Herriot.