Natasha Picowicz

If you were to draw yourself an interpersonal Venn diagram, you’d find there were some people in your life that would seem to occupy a different piece of paper altogether. They don’t appear to overlap with your world at all, but somehow, intuitively, you find yourself floating into each other’s circles over and over again. These are the kinds of acquaintances that keep our lives from becoming staid and narrow. They provide our existence with depth of color and new frequencies of sound. They challenge the way we see the world.

I first encountered Natasha Pickowicz when she published a long and fascinating interview with the cellist Charles Curtis in Paris Transatlantic, the now-sadly-defunct website run by Dan Warburton. Pickowicz’s interview was the first time I’d had a chance to experience Curtis’s thinking and aesthetic, and her way of writing and letting his words resonate became an inspiration for me as an editor and interviewer.

A few years later, I played a very snowy, very packed concert in a basement at Cornell University. At the time, Pickowicz was a central part of the Ithaca music world, and she told me she was there that night. Neither of us remember if we met or not. It was a very special show for me, a fairly brutal and energetic duo set with Paul Lytton, who used a metal box as a bass drum and was a particularly confrontational sonic duo partner that evening. The fact that Natasha was there has now overlayed itself onto the memory of that evening.

But the connection between two worlds sometimes needs a catalyst, and ours was Jeremiah Cymerman. An important figure in both the music and culinary worlds, his ability to naturally bring people in and make them feel at home was central to his 5049 podcast (which remains one of the best documents of the contemporary New York music scene) and his success in the world of New York fine dining. It was through his connection to restaurants that he met Pickowicz as her star was on the rise. And in one of his last interviews for the podcast, he invited her to talk about her career as a pastry chef and her early work as a music writer and promoter. A lightbulb went off, worlds connected, circles overlapped.

We didn’t officially meet until I attended an Issue Project Room gala event at which Pickowicz was volunteering her culinary talents. It was my first chance to eat her food, which made me rethink some preconceptions about what pastry could be. And it was my first chance to chat with her, which did the same for how I defined creativity. I was, and still am, in awe of her drive and accomplishments, but she also has the ability to be naturally warm, casual, and friendly, qualities I think are evident in our chat, undertaken via email in the midst of the release of her first cookbook, More Than Cake.

NWFor most of the world, you are a three-time James Beard Award finalist, one of Time magazine’s “100 Next,” a revolutionary baker, and a community organizer. But, to a small group of us, you are a music fan and writer. What strange path brought you to being an experimental music fan and one of the world’s great pastry chefs?

NPFinding my path towards pastry has been long and confusing and exhilarating, full of self-doubt and anxiety. Maybe these complicated feelings are similar for anyone who learns about themselves as they inch their way closer to their passions—self-discovery can feel harsh but also liberating. There was certainly plenty of heartbreak and failure around getting to where I am now.

Growing up, my passion was almost exclusively music: thinking about it, listening to it, being around it. (My personal music training ended in high school, where I played the piano in my high school jazz band and was classically trained for about eleven years.) I certainly wasn’t thinking much about pastry during those years! As a teenager, I was fanatical about going to live shows but limited by what was available to me in San Diego, and what my parents would allow me to see. But because my parents taught at UCSD, they were familiar with the legendary all-ages straight-edge cooperative Che Cafe; my dad would sometimes hold office hours there during the day, because they had a cheap, vegan kitchen that made delicious food. So, my strict parents allowed me to go to that venue, but not other places downtown or further east. In the late nineties and early aughts, I saw local San Diego bands like The Locust throw furniture off of the roof of the Che. I bought CDs by San Diego bands like Hot Snakes and No Knife at Lou’s Records. I bought used Black Flag CDs there, too and by extension methodically went through every band I could find in the SST catalog. I heard about Sonic Youth through their SST releases, and they became the first rock band that introduced me to avant-garde, no wave, the NYC downtown scene, free jazz, all of it.

At Cornell as an undergrad, I helped out at shows with the Fanclub Collective, which put on big indie rock shows with bands like Interpol, but also really cool weird noise shows with bands like Wolf Eyes, Sunburned Hand of the Man, and White Mice. I was pretty deeply into the American noise scene that exploded around 2005 and 2006, right when I graduated, but I noticed that a lot of those bands didn’t tour through Ithaca.

I was driven by this selfish desire to see the bands I loved come to the town I lived in, which eventually became a commitment to build a scene in central New York for improvisational and experimental music. It was my biggest passion. That dovetailed with the kind of sporadic journalism I was hoping to do, too, writing tiny record reviews for WIRE magazine, Signal to Noise, Paris Transatlantic, Foxy Digitalis—all of the spots that were writing about noise and improv at the time. (Pitchfork never bought any of my pitches, haha.)

At the same time, I was working as a programmer at WVBR (the local rock station made famous by Keith Olbermann) and then as the arts and entertainment editor at the Ithaca Times—the local alt-weekly newspaper. I always featured musicians I admired, like James McNew, Alan Licht, Aki Onda, Pharoah Sanders—when they came to town to play.

Faculty and staff at Cornell and Ithaca College also helped bring new voices to town; I think it was when the percussionist Tim Feeney was hired at Cornell that I learned more about the genre EAI [Electro-Acoustic Improvisation] and labels like Intransitive, who released albums from Bhob Rainey, Greg Kelley, Jason Lescalleet, Vic Rawlings, and others from that scene. My partner at the time and I booked a nmperign show at a local record shop and it was one of the most riveting, paradigm-shifting shows I had ever seen in my life. It was the kind of night that underscored why live performance is so essential; it felt critical that I was able to experience it in person.

I was booking shows constantly but started to incorporate other genres outside of noise and drone and improv—Jack Rose or Windy & Carl or Michael Chapman or great local Ithaca acts like cellist Hank Roberts or string bands like Evil City String Band. I loved sharing outsider and avant-garde music with my community, but I think what I really loved was the act of bringing people together, creating community around sound, and meeting all of these smart and funny people through producing shows.

That’s how I felt about interviewing musicians, too—it was this chance to get a complete oral history from a person, to talk until we exhaust ourselves, to commune over music and art. It was such a pleasure. I was lucky enough to conduct long interviews with musicians like Charles Curtis, the percussionist Jon Mueller, Mission of Burma founder Roger Miller, the filmmaker Paul Clipson—artists with long and remarkable histories. They almost function, in my opinion, as archival pieces. Maybe the interviews are too long to read in one sitting, but it makes me feel really good to know that they exist and are out there. I used to bring a small recorder with me to every interview. It would take me days and days to transcribe the conversations. I would submit the interviews often as an unedited transcript with an introduction written by me. I was very lucky to have relaxed editors like Dan Warburton, who allowed me to submit ridiculously long pieces, because there was, I felt, a sanctity in keeping the conversation complete and whole.

The way that food and music organically came together was, of course, through the kind of community-building that happens within small music scenes. I booked and promoted a lot of touring musicians, which meant that not only was it my responsibility to source equipment, book a venue, meet their guarantee, and promote the event, but also, in many cases, to provide food and lodging for the musicians.

It meant a lot to me to provide a warm, clean, and inviting home for people to sleep. Just as important were the meals I could provide, which I really loved cooking myself, knowing especially that most musicians weren’t eating as well as they wanted while on the road, and that a nourishing and delicious and healthy meal was often a highlight of a small-town stop. I put so much thought and energy into those feasts, often creating elaborate dinner-party-style menus with appetizers, savory pastries, and a big dessert to finish, all from the basic Barefoot Contessa and Julia Child books.

I started to find that sometimes musicians would ask me to book a date in their tour schedule because they were looking forward to those meals and the time that we would get together. Later, when I lived in Portland and Montreal, I kept booking shows, but the cooking became more confident and prominently featured in the night. The organist Blake Hargreaves used to curate this great noise and experimental music festival in Montreal called Cool Fest. For two years in a row, he asked me to cook food for all the guests: The Cool Feast. For the first time, I felt like I was part of the “lineup.” It was great to be included like that. I prepared super elaborate, themed menus like a rustic French menu with coq au vin and chocolate ganache tart or a Baja California menu with stewed beans and fresh tortillas. And I think most of the crust punk and noise kids that came through were kind of shocked—in a good way, I hope.

When I started cooking professionally, I lost the time (and energy) to promote shows. I was cooking sixty hours a week, and I was exhausted physically in a way that I had never felt before. When I moved to New York in 2013, I was completely overwhelmed with choice and bounty. Compared to Montreal, where there was maybe one cool show a weekend to check out, it felt like there was someone I wanted to see play every night. But I wasn’t able to sustain late nights and 5:00 am start times for very long, and soon my obsession with pastry completely took over; my commitment and discipline for seeing live music kind of ended.

My one dream as a teen through adulthood was to write a book someday. And even though my life revolves around pastry, I still found my way into book writing. When I sold More Than Cake—my first cookbook—to my publisher, I insisted that it be written by me, in my own voice. I think a lot of professional chefs bring on a writer to create the book together, but I wanted to do everything myself.

Writing this cookbook has been one of the hardest and most rewarding things I’ve done in my life. I feel it uniquely synthesizes my professional expertise as a chef with my own passions and curiosities for storytelling, art, music, and nature. It feels intensely vulnerable to share this cookbook with the world, even though it’s a technical text and not, like, an emotional novel. And yet all of myself is in this book, and writing the chapter openers, the standalone essays—even the 200 word headnotes—brought me satisfaction. I was very inspired by the literary cookbook authors of the sixties, seventies, and eighties: Richard Olney, Patience Gray, Edna Lewis, Elizabeth David, and the more contemporary authors like David Tanis, Paul Bertolli, Rachel Roddy, Brooks Headley—people who bring wit, intelligence, curiosity, and exactitude that goes beyond the instructions or the ingredient list.

Now that I’m cooking full time, I’m searching for ways to bring music back into my culinary practice. Part of that is working with organizations like Issue Project Room to support their mission and programming. Part of it is collaborating with local musicians for concerts that feature food as part of the ticket price. Now that I work for myself, I have so much more freedom who I get to work with and why, and that feels really great.

NWYou have a reputation for your work with food, of course, but also for your activism. The clearest example of this is your bake sale for Planned Parenthood which started, I think, in 2016. What were you seeing then that changed what you wanted to do?

NPI was working in fine-dining restaurants, making and serving food to rich people while making very little money myself. Sensing the inequity of it all made me feel a little disconnected from my work. I was working at restaurants where my friends couldn’t afford to eat; I could barely eat there myself without my staff discount. I introduced bake sales to the NYC restaurant industry using the DIY know-how I picked up organizing small noise shows. I was cooking at a lot of “top-down” charity galas—the kind where a seat at the table is $10,000. I didn’t want to produce an event like that. I wanted to do the opposite of that. A bake sale felt like the most approachable format I could think of, and I really liked the conceptual tension of asking NYC’s greatest pastry chefs to bake a pastry that we could sell for five dollars.

After Trump was elected in 2016, I was feeling furious and helpless. The way that I think about giving back to my community is an act of looking inward: What can I offer? What do I know how to do? What resources are available to me? And how can I use the tools that I have to build community and share my values? Making pastries and organizing events is what I know how to do, so that’s how the first bake sale came about. I learned so much that first year. It was a huge learning curve and a lot of work. We went from raising $8,000 in our first bake sale in 2017 to raising over $100,000 in 2019. 100% of the profits went to Planned Parenthood of NYC (now the branch includes Greater New York).

Once I started doing that kind of work, it became inextricable from my relationship with pastry and baking. Working with non-profits that I love—with causes that I care about—gives my life meaning and fills me with hope and joy. I don’t think I would enjoy pastry nearly as much if it were not tied to these organizations and the kind of events that we produce. To me, a small event with ten people is just as moving and effective as a massive event. To me it is all the same; I think they both need to exist. So, I’ll make dumplings at the Older Adult Center at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House with fifteen seniors or produce a bake sale for 800 people at the Cherry Lane Theater; they’re equally energizing.

NWThis is going to be a naïve question, probably, but when you get up in the morning, what are you hoping to achieve as a creative human being? To give you context, I get up and, of course, I think about work, but also what I want to do musically, what I want to write, or how I want people to feel. I was daydreaming a bit today, and I ended up wondering what that kind of wake-up clarity looks like for you.

NPI love this question! Right before the pandemic, I was working full-time for a restaurant group as their executive pastry chef, overseeing multiple properties, pastry teams, menus. It was exhausting; I was running ragged. I would work six or seven days a week, often seventy hours a week or more. I had cultivated very little room for myself outside of my work identity; the drive for perfection in the industry completely consumed me. So, my day-to-day life was mostly about waking up and getting out of the door, managing and nurturing my team, developing new desserts and recipe development, producing off-site events, and just trying to keep my head above water while staying excited about the work
around me.

Everything transformed when the pandemic hit and I lost my job. It was a cathartic period for me; the shock of losing my job left me furious and hurt. I had worked so hard to build something, and then I lost everything. But slowly I looked inward and worked on things that mattered to me without seeking clout from so-called “prestigious” dining institutions, without seeking approval from the men who managed and controlled me, and without being bound by a schedule or paycheck or really any structure.

I finished my book proposal and sold it. And I started my pastry pop-up, Never Ending Taste, which raised over $10,000 through pop-ups in 2020. I worked on relationships with people I loved and met new people who understood me. And I started feeling a lightness and relief and euphoria around what I was doing. I was (am) still terrified about the finances and stability of it all, but every couple of weeks I’ll have this shock of gratitude when I think about how lucky I am to work with people that I admire and respect and cherish, to handle ingredients made with love and care.

NWYou have a lot going on right now, and with the book coming out, you’re in the public eye a lot. From the outside, of course, we see your confidence and spirit. Were there, or are there, ever moments of doubt?

NPOh my gosh! If my incredible self-doubt and insecurities have not already become apparent in everything I’ve said before, then I’ll happily say it again, haha. I feel like my failures—of which there have been so many—have been absolutely fundamental to how I’ve grown as a chef and as a person. On a granular level, making mistakes and failing in something like developing a recipe only results in a stronger, more confident, final product. I apply this process to everything I take in around me: trial and error has informed my career and identity in ways that are essential and necessary for growth.

My first pastry job—as the part-time baker for a queer punk luncheonette called Depanneur Le Pick Up in Montreal—was, in a way, a direct result of failure. It was never meant to be permanent. I was desperately hoping to get into grad school but didn’t get in anywhere. I was so sure that academia was my path in the arrogant way that a twenty-three-year-old can be sure about anything.

And as I dealt with the grief of losing my restaurant job in 2020, I started making work without having to run it by some man, without having to serve it to some rich investor, without having to make any concessions at all. It is really scary to work outside of an institution, because I felt that I gained clout by association, like I relied on it to have my own sense of self. It felt like I would disappear if I didn’t work for this specific person.

Those feelings don’t go away completely but they are tempered by the incredible collaborators and colleagues that surround me. I feel the insecurities coming up again with the book release on the horizon; thinking about going on tour fills me either with excitement or dread, depending on the day. It is scary to share this text with the world as a permanent object up for evaluation and derision. I have a hard time filtering out the criticism. One nasty comment will stick with me longer than a hundred positive ones. I definitely still suffer from imposter syndrome: “Is this book, and by extension my career, a house of cards?” Some days it feels like the slightest thing could knock it all over. With so many beautiful books in the world, do we really need another recipe for a muffin? Every time I hit a new milestone—a good payday, a nice recognition, an exciting gig on the horizon, filing my manuscript with my editor—it feels like all new anxieties and their attendant, nagging questions replace the old ones.

NWSuccess comes as a mixed blessing; the more attention you get, the more requests come your way (like questions from music journals!). How do you feel about your work life/creative life/personal life balance at the moment?

NPI LOVE structure, which is why I thrive in a kitchen environment. The shift starts at the same time every day. The menu changes every month. Dinner begins at 5:30 pm every night. The people keep coming in, so you have to be ready. I was responsible for so many other people, which made me keep my life organized. It’s trickier now that I work mostly out of my home. But it also feels gentler and better and safer. I sleep better. I drink less. I go to bed earlier. I have time to read and listen to records.

When I was working in restaurants full time, my apartment, because I was in it so infrequently, was kind of a cocoon. I didn’t own a TV or a computer. I didn’t have wi-fi. I really needed to keep all of that out of my apartment. But now that I’m home more, I’ve treated myself to more creature comforts. I still don’t have a TV, but I have wi-fi. I bought a computer when I sold my book. Baby steps.

I moved into an apartment with a big garden backyard—a rarity for NYC—and taught myself how to garden. That was a deeply transformative experience. I have always had an appreciation for plants because of my work in restaurants, but it was another thing altogether to grow and nurture them myself. I have a big fig tree, rose bushes, three giant vegetable beds. So, most mornings I like to make coffee and go outside, see what’s happening in the garden, maybe spend an hour in the beds before doing anything else.

And I cook so much more for myself now! Three simple meals a day, it’s really a privilege to make food for myself. On a good day, between all the emails and recipe development and meetings and writing, I’m also cooking and playing with my cat and gardening and reading and watching movies.

Taking long walks is also very important to my writing practice. I am a long distance walker; most of the time I’ll go eight or nine miles, way up into Astoria, Queens. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a “scenic” walk, although I find the city endlessly fascinating to observe. I just like getting the miles in. I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, so I’ll cross over into Long Island City and make my way north, loop around Roosevelt Island, and then walk up to Astoria through Dutch Kills before heading back. Or I’ll go through Sunnyside and Woodside and walk through Jackson Heights. I get super inspired by the diversity of groceries and restaurants in that part of Queens; it’s my favorite part of the city by far. I could walk forever; it’s essential for me now that I work out of my apartment.

NWI want to go back to 2016 for a second. That was a year that sparked a lot of anxiety and action. You managed to turn that energy into something tangible and beautiful. How do you feel about the work you’ve done in the past six years, and what are the larger trends you’re seeing in the communities you work with?

NPI think a lot of “ordinary” people feel kind of helpless when it comes to making a “difference.” What I see more is a greater appreciation and movement towards the smaller, grassroots-style neighborhood events that may not be a big splash in a national sense but bring a feeling of security and joy to small communities. Although I recognize that social media plays a huge role in sharing tools and resources and information, I’m an old-school analog lover at heart, and I cherish in-person, tangible acts: physical posters, community food fridges, bake sales, protests, talks, classes. I also think that the baking community and pastry chef world is deeply altruistic at heart; it’s no coincidence that the people who enjoy making celebratory pastries like huge cakes are also generous people that love bringing people together. I appreciate the power that a cake can have in this way. You don’t have to be a commercially successful baker to create a small event for your community.

My work with these institutions is a priority. And I think it is all worth it, even if it only impacts a few people. I still internally struggle with the sacrifices that come with these commitments—every non-paying project I take on is a missed chance to be supporting myself. But I find ways for it to work. I think there is a fine balance for many chefs like me. I work without pay for causes I care about because I need to, and once in a while I’ll partner up with bigger brands that pay me well, because that helps subsidize the time and labor it takes to execute everything else. I feel optimistic that everyone can find a balance that works for them in their own lives.