More than Cake, the title for pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz’s first book came from a letter a New York public high school student wrote her after she spoke to his class. The ninth grader thanked her for teaching them that being a pastry chef was so much more than cake. An observation that resonated deeply with Natasha. Yes, there is the mountain of patience, focus, determination, and stamina that her particular career requires, but what has made her path as a pastry chef about more than cake is more than that: it’s community.
Natasha’s baking is about forging connections and a shared pleasure versus a solo one; it’s about the convivial spirit of working in a restaurant kitchen; and it’s about using her chosen medium of baking as a means of giving back. It’s the latter that really came into sharper focus during the pandemic when Natasha, like countless others who work in the food industry, found herself jobless. While activism has always been front and centre for her, during this time her commitment to rallying support and raising funds via bake sales for non-profit organisations devoted to food insecurity and women’s health, was accelerated. Efforts that did not go unnoticed: last year she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Next, among fellow advocates, plus other innovators, artists, and thought leaders. Recipes for the charmingly offbeat baked goods she’s become known for abound in her first cookbook, and, unsurprisingly, it's about a lot more than just cake.
I noticed that your book is dedicated to your parents. Did you grow up in a home where food and cooking was a central focus?
My mom is a phenomenal cook and we ate dinner together as a family every single night. My dad is also a great cook, but my mom definitely did the bulk of all the cooking when I was growing up. Though pastry and baking really never figured into it at all. While my mom is a phenomenal cook, she truly doesn't know how to bake, and baking is not a big part of the home cooking repertoire in Chinese cuisine as it is with American or Western style cuisine. So we never really baked together. It was really something that I discovered and learned about on my own, separate from them. But they always instilled in me a love of cooking from scratch and eating together. I'm an only child so I think that idea of coming together at the table around food is completely at the core of why I love baking, and why I wanted to write this book. Pastry is this thing that I use to bring people together.
Were your parents surprised by your choice of baking as a career?
They've been so supportive of this project. When I really fell in love with pastry and with baking, that was something that did really surprise them. I don't think they really understood it at all. Some of that is cultural, and also generational. Both of my parents are in academia: my dad is a historian and my mom is an artist, and they teach at UCSD in San Diego where I grew up. So, I was very much raised in an academic kind of household around grad students and professors, and I studied English literature at university and always had sort of imagined that my life would be an extension of that, or tied to it in some way. It’s also worth pointing out that my mom is an immigrant; she moved to California in the ’80s from China. With a lot of first generation children of immigrants there's an expectation to pursue a certain line of work, and it's not creative work, it's not artistic work, it's those rarefied trades like medicine, law, business. A lot of that is this immigrant idea of just wanting your child to be secure and have a good life. Obviously those careers never resonated with me, but I certainly felt the pressure of the things that my parents wanted me to pursue.
How did your path end up leading you to baking?
It was kind of an accident. I got this job baking in a little cafe in Montreal where I was living and I just really fell in love with the practice of pastry and the camaraderie of being in restaurants; I felt like I had found my people. And that was actually very hard to explain to my parents, because the pay is excruciatingly low – I was making minimum wage for years – the work was incredibly physical and demanding, and when I was working in New York at fine dining restaurants, your shift finishes 1:00 or 2:00 AM and you have to take public transport home. These are all things that terrified my mom, and I think it really was hard for her to understand that this was work that I wanted to do and it was my choice.
Writing a cookbook was something that legitimised my work with my family. It’s been incredible to be able to combine all of the things I love. I wrote every single word, on top of developing every recipe and testing it, on top of food styling. Every photo in the book was something that I made by myself on no budget. It was a coming together of all of these different things that I've been cultivating throughout my life. And it was really great to be able to show that to my parents. They feel super proud and really excited for me. My mom illustrated the book so she texted me when she got her advanced copy and was like, ‘I've been carrying my book around with me everywhere I go’. And that really moved me, because it's so obvious how proud she is.
Many people in pastry take an academic route, going to culinary school, to get there, but you didn’t.
I didn't go to culinary school, no. Part of that was just that I couldn't afford to. But I think also something that my parents can appreciate as artists – as thinkers – is what it means to approach something as an outsider, from the fringes, looking inside at something. At first I felt very insecure about the fact that I didn't go to culinary school, that I don't have the training, the technique, the skillset. But now, I’m grateful for that in a way because it allowed me to develop my own perspective and ways of thinking, not influenced or coloured by the institution – the so-called “right” way of doing things. I'm glad I didn't spend money on that education, and just focused on working in restaurants with chefs who served as mentors so I could create my own identity.
The pandemic really upended things for people, particularly in the food industry, but it seems like it also opened up a new portal for you.
It was a complete paradigm shift. It completely upended not just my professional identity but my personal identity. I think when you're working in restaurants at such a high level and it's so intense, and you're really committing all of yourself to it, your work and your personal identity really becomes tangled up. The way that I thought about myself as a chef in those restaurants was how I thought of myself as a person in the world. So, when I had that taken away from me and I lost my job, I felt bereaved of all of these things that made me who I was. But, of course, those things don't make me who I am. The pandemic really pushed me outside of my comfort zone and that felt super scary. I was somebody who was uncertain about my place in the pastry world, the restaurant world; somebody who constantly felt like I had to prove myself. When you work in a great restaurant your work is often strong by association just from being there, so that's kind of a safe place to be in. When I didn't have that anymore, there was a phase of fear and uncertainty where I was like, ‘are people going to be interested in what I have to say if I'm not tied to a name-brand restaurant? Are people going to come to my pop-ups if I don't have this restaurant behind me?’
And so you worked on and wrote this book after losing your job?
I actually started working on the proposal for my book in the winter of 2020 when I was working in restaurants. And the original version, the draft of that proposal, was certainly informed by all of the restaurant work that I was doing as the executive pastry chef of a restaurant group. I was going to write a book about my life at these restaurants, then I lost my job, and my book agent suggested we look at this book proposal again and figure out how we want to re-conceptualise it.
I rewrote the entire book proposal. And wow, that was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because it feels much more true to my story, my narrative, the way I actually cook and entertain for other people, the way I actually bake for myself at home. It felt so empowering to just be like, this is all me. I'm not leaning on an institution to feel validated in that way. I mean, of course I'm talking about my time in restaurants, since that's a huge part of my narrative, but it felt extraordinary to not have to run every dish or recipe by some guy who was in charge of me. I no longer had to have a man at the top have the final say on what my work was going to look like; it could just be me who did it and that was an adjustment.
The thing that I miss about restaurants is you can work on a scoop of ice cream, and if you want feedback, you have about 20 people you can ask at any moment. Cooks, chefs, front of house, back of house managers; everyone wants to tell you what they think. And I loved the collaborative nature of getting feedback like that because when you're in a restaurant you're kind of working as one and you're developing a palate together. I found that process very fun and I love working with other people. When I didn't have that, I was like, ‘is this good? Who's going to try it?’ So it was definitely a new way of working for me, but I feel so lucky that I was able to make exactly the kind of book I wanted to make, for better or for worse.
While you were working on the book you were also conjuring some incredibly well-attended bake sales for charity.
I've been producing bake sales since 2017. We're actually bookending the book tour with bake sales. So that's really exciting for me to be able to live out the values and the importance of bake sales and relate the community social justice work that I do with pastry and the book.
Not working in a restaurant anymore and producing bake sales now, it's truly from scratch because you're finding the venue, the brand, the chefs. When I was working in restaurants, I was involved in a lot of charity events, but they were very fancy events that were expensive to participate in. My bake sales were really born out of this desire to create a fundraising moment for a cause I cared about that everyone I knew could attend or participate in if they wanted to. It's a very accessible price point so anybody can come and buy a cookie or slice of cake. I found that people really responded to the inclusivity.
There's so much horrible stuff going on in the world, and there's a lot to be angry and upset and frustrated about. But the bake sales are a way for us to express our strength in the community, in the neighbourhood, through a moment of joy, and through fun, and laughter, and coming together. There's nothing heavy about it. It's very light and it's cake: it's sweet, it's sugar, it's just a real feel good moment.
Your book may be called More than Cake but your cakes are so distinctive; how did you hone your cake aesthetic and what’s on your cake mood board?
I am definitely influenced by things that don't necessarily have anything to do with cake! The main thing on my mood board is my garden. I'm more drawn to a natural living flower than making a sugar flour that doesn't taste that good. When I'm thinking about what I'm inspired by, I'm going to the farmers’ market and I'm looking at what all the farmers are bringing in. There are beautiful lettuces in all of the markets at the moment that have these blush tones, and speckled patterns, and stripes. To me, that is more unexpected than a flower, but it also relates to how I think about cake decor. I want something that's not what you expect to see, but that kind of gives you that same romance and joy – ruffles and volume and a sculptural look.
I'm definitely interested in ways of making cakes that don't look too mechanical or airbrushed or picture perfect. Those cakes astonish me, but the cakes that I like are ones that you can see that a human made them. You can see the swoop in the icing, and you can see that it was a person who arranged the decor on top. I like things that aren't too perfect.
Your flavour profiles feel intensely personal and not the traditional ingredients someone might associate with a dessert course.
Definitely. I'm not a big chocolate person. I think there are two chocolate recipes in the entire book. I love making jams with unexpected things and using them in layer cakes. I have a pineapple and lime jam that I love that's also great on a cheeseboard. I have a fennel jam in the book, which has a licorice sweetness to it. I'm trying to bring in some of those savoury elements into cakes as a way of bringing huge flavour to something without adding too much sweetness. I love the acidity of tropical fruits and citrus together in layer cakes; and I’m obsessed with black sesame paste, which adds such a great nutty flavour to everything and makes pastries a beautiful grey colour.
You’ve mentioned accessibility and desserts are often something people are intimidated by because of the precision involved; how are you trying to make it all more approachable?
I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately. There's so much pressure on pastry chefs and bakers especially to be like, this is approachable, this is easy, this is simple, this is effortless. But, what's the definition of easy? It’s kind of subjective, and what’s easy for one person might not be easy for someone else. So, I want to be sensitive to those skill levels, and not alienate people through language like that. What I'm really trying to do is take this idea of easy versus hard out of the equation completely. Pastry and baking are really just a set of strategies. There's so much that we can learn as home bakers from strategies and tips that restaurants use to do the things that are really important when it comes to baking, which is honestly about consistency and following directions.
My layer cake is the strongest example of my whole approach to pastry and baking, because in that one recipe, nothing is arbitrary; there's a reason for everything. Instead of building a cake that's leaning or listing to the side because you're building vertically you do it in a container that doesn’t just support the layers, but will help create a more even look without you having to do anything special at all. How can I convince people to make layer cakes? Show them a strategy that will work every single time. That’s what I'm hoping to add to the conversation with this book: here's a strategy that will set you up for success.
Interview by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Photographs by Blythe Thomas.
More than Cake: 100 Recipes Built for Pleasure and Community, is available now.