On a recent Sunday morning in the East Village, a single-file line formed outside the restaurant Yellow Rose, making its way up Third Avenue and snaking around 13th Street. Half the storefronts on the block bore signs advertising empty spaces for lease. “Cry Baby,” by Janis Joplin, wailed, and in the distance, a woman in wire-rimmed glasses talked, somewhat loudly, about Claire Saffitz’s new dessert cookbook. A crowd of younger millennials — clad in neutrals and carrying totes advertising allegiances to Psychic Wines and New York Times Cooking — tittered anxiously, worried that the items they’d come to purchase might sell out too soon. The line crept nervously forward, until a kind, harried server had to give one patron some bad news in a tone that’s usually employed by ER doctors informing loved ones of a surgical complication. “I am so sorry, but between when you ordered and now …” the server inhaled sharply, “we ran out of sticky buns.”
It was 11:14 in the morning, and the pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz’s latest pop-up baking event had been open for barely two hours. Though the sticky buns were gone, there were other one-time-only offerings to sate the still-growing crowd: a brown-butter blondie topped with adzuki-bean butterscotch; a Simpsons-themed pink doughnut glazed with hibiscus; and a coconut layer cake, studded with shredded parsnip, swaddled by kumquat-tangelo confit and barley cream-cheese mousse.
The event was the most recent in Pickowicz’s Never Ending Taste series of pop-up events, which she’s hosted regularly over the past year, putting her culinary training to use with a looser style and a direct connection to her fans. “I am more me now,” she says of the oversize cookies and jam-ribboned, buttercream-piped sheet-cake slices she produces for Never Ending Taste. “I’m getting closer and closer to that feeling I like of a lemonade stand, a stoop hang,” she says. “Not working in restaurants has helped me be kinder to myself: I’m making things more rustic, more on the fly, less perfect. Maybe I’ve lost the people who liked what I did before, but I’m gaining appreciators of my new approach.”
At Yellow Rose, as Pickowicz rushed by, a man working his way through a hibiscus doughnut called out, lifting a hand to wave: “Natasha!” For a moment, she looked perplexed, before a warm smile slid onto her features. He introduced himself as a former pastry chef who had braved the wait to taste her latest creations. He’d said that he’d been following her work for years.
Until March of 2020, Pickowicz had been comfortably ensconced in fine-dining restaurant kitchens, turning out concentrated menus of elegant, stripped-down pastries, like sesame-seed vanilla-bean pound cake. By early last year, she had racked up three James Beard nominations. Then, the pandemic hit, and Pickowicz’s half-decade reign as executive pastry chef of Flora Bar and Café Altro Paradiso ended with something of a whimper.
When her restaurants’ kitchens shuttered, Pickowicz began taking what she calls “weird boomerang walks” around the city to clear her head, 10 or 11 aimless miles, ending up within spitting distance of La Guardia on at least one occasion.
Eventually, through ever-grimmer mass emails, she learned that she’d been furloughed and, in June, permanently terminated. “My first thought was not of liberation or of freedom,” she tells me over Zoom some days after the event at Yellow Rose. “It was terror. It was a feeling of, ‘I’m a nobody.’ Part of the toxicity of fine-dining structures is that I felt like I was nothing unless I was attached to somebody with credibility. I felt scared to pursue things on my own, like people were only interested in what I was doing because I was affiliated with trendy restaurants. If I’m just me, I’ve lost any clout or resources.”
Pickowicz’s friend Paige Lipari, owner of Archestratus Books + Foods in Greenpoint, reached out to suggest Pickowicz contribute a handful of pastries each week to the shop’s contactless pick-up offerings. She did that for two months, donating a portion of the proceeds to nonprofits supporting food-justice initiatives.
Then, Brooks Headley, the owner of Superiority Burger, got in touch — “Probably in response to something emo I posted on Instagram,” Pickowicz jokes — and, like Lipari, offered her the keys to his kitchen. Never Ending Taste was born.
Almost every Friday throughout July and August, Pickowicz and her former colleague Kirsten Lee would head to the Union Square Greenmarket to peruse doughnut peaches, lemon verbena, and tristar strawberries. On Saturdays, they would prep, turning orbs of passionfruit into layer cakes and blending ripe mangoes into pert, creamy sorbet. And on Sundays, they’d sell out. For Pickowicz, it was an opportunity to express a messiness that wouldn’t have flown in a restaurant environment: “Menus written by Sharpie, punk posters, bootleg Simpsons illustrations,” she recalls, “these things are closer to who I actually am than working in a restaurant none of my friends can afford to go to.”
Later in the year, Never Ending Taste jumped cross-country to Kismet in Los Angeles and Chino Farm in Pickowicz’s hometown of San Diego, before skirting back to the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn. Each week, she donated roughly $1,000 of profits to causes like Food Education Fund and Heart of Dinner.
Pickowicz’s work has had a charitable bent since the spring of 2017, when she and her team at Café Altro Paradiso put on the first in a series of annual bake sales to support Planned Parenthood. In the three years they were held, these events raised over $100,000, and Pickowicz credits the bake sales with pushing her to find her voice in a professional environment that otherwise encouraged her to be a “cog in a machine.”
“When I was hired, my salary was $45,000 a year and I thought that was an appropriate amount. I would make desserts that I thought would please my bosses,” she says. “The bake sales pulled me out of that. I found my sense of, ‘This is what I’m about’ — pastry, community moments. And it let me be me: super emotional, and someone who cares a lot about other people.”
These days, one-plus year out from her last restaurant job, Pickowicz is leaning into the opportunity to talk openly. In restaurants, “you learn to be more buttoned-up and appear resilient, for your team’s benefit,” she recalls. But now, separated from that structure, “this last year has been about unlearning some of those values — and losing tons of friends and connections in the process.” Nevertheless, her focus is on, she says, radical transparency: “I want to get into that dankness about more unsavory things that we’re all thinking about, and put my opinion out there.”
She is starting with herself and going public with the self-doubt she says she still wrestles with. She recalls one of the first desserts she ever made for Never Ending Taste, a spin on three-layer carrot cake. “It looked messy. There were crumbs everywhere. I wanted to cancel the whole thing and crawl into a corner,” Pickowicz confesses. “I needed the external validation from someone I perceived as smarter, better, cooler.” She pauses. “It’s fucking crazy, the head games you play with yourself.”
The warm reception of any given pop-up is always a surprise. “I never go into it thinking it’ll be a success,” she says. “I’m always nervous and don’t know what to expect. Something I struggled deeply with and continue to struggle with is being like, ‘This isn’t perfect, it’s not done, how can I sell this?’”
She has plans to continue Never Ending Taste, but, on balance, she isn’t an evangelist for pop-ups as moneymaking ventures, either. “It’s a form of romanticizing the gig economy,” she says. “It’s a crazy fucking hustle. The margins are insanely slim. Scale prevents a reasonable profit. The reality is, pop-ups are draining in a way a restaurant — which is set up for scale and success — is not.” Instead, Pickowicz says, the appeal for her is that, “It feels good to turn these pop-ups into something to help people,” especially after grappling with feelings of “doing okay” during the pandemic. “And it’s such a fun way to check back in with a neighborhood.”
She’s also working on some upcoming charitable bake sales, developing recipes for a debut cookbook, and taking on select partnerships (last month, she released a line of CBD-infused Turkish delights with Rose and Gossamer). Between all that, Pickowicz also hosts “Never Ending Salon,” a virtual chat room on social network Demi, where pastry honchos talk leak-free springforms, the best rainbow cookies in town, and what they thought was a rosy spin on restaurant layoffs in the Times’ recent look at micro-bakeries.
As to whether she plans to rejoin the restaurant world anytime soon, Pickowicz says she’s just not ready. She’s enjoying the opportunities her bake-sale cameos and pop-ups present, to get short bursts of experience in restaurant kitchens that align more with her vision for high-functioning food businesses that treat their employees equitably.
She’ll be participating in a community bake-sale series with Ursula Brooklyn, for example, in May. “Ursula is exactly the type of place I would want to work if I went somewhere full-time again,” she says. “It’s uplifting, they empower marginalized communities, and they’re creating low-key unpretentious gatherings for people, ways to come together.”
For those who do plan to rejoin the restaurant world in the near-term, Pickowicz has teamed up with her friend Jared Spafford to create a survey that they hope will generate a searchable database of compensation details. “We’re trying to get to the heart of salary discrepancies, and to encourage people to reimagine their labor strategies so they’re offering more equitable wages across the board regardless of age, gender, race, and ethnicity,” she says. “There’s so little regulation for these things.”
Her willingness to use her platform to candidly discuss herself and her industry has clearly resonated with her audience. Even still, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not talking enough,” Pickowicz tells me. “Like with the recent AAPI violence — my mom is an immigrant, she’s Chinese, she’s getting older. And you’re reading about people her age getting the shit kicked out of them. There was an urgency for me to find a way to talk about that.”
Participating in a near-constant conversation is not an accident for Pickowicz. “I made this decision that I was going to talk about myself and that my work would feel confessional, ugly, a little painful,” she explains. “I can’t pretend to be some mysterious, cool person — I’m going to be working out my problems out loud.”
She pauses, reflecting on the last year. “We all went through this thing, in our own way. And it seems exhausting, at this point, to cultivate anything that doesn’t feel real.”