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Natasha Pickowicz’s Secret to Success

Natasha Pickowicz next to her pastry creations at a launch party for our Founders Seven collection, hosted at Sarah LaFleurs Brooklyn home. Natasha wears the Nicky jacket and Smith pants.

Natasha Pickowicz’s Secret to Success

The pastry chef and cookbook author takes us inside the restaurant industry—and her closet.

By Madeleine Kim

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s possible to change the course of your career path, just look to Natasha Pickowicz: pastry chef, cookbook author, and prolific pop-up producer. Her story is proof that the most rewarding journeys are often anything but linear. Today, Natasha is best known for her illustrious restaurant career, hosting charity pop-ups that draw around-the block crowds, and her debut cookbook, More Than Cake. But she didn’t always dream of working in the food industry.

“My background is in writing—I studied English literature and worked in journalism—and I never imagined that the first thing I would publish would be a cookbook,” she says. “But the cookbook has turned out to be a perfect way to meld my experience as a pastry chef and my love of writing, storytelling, and presenting my world to people.”

Natasha’s approach to pastry is innovative in many ways. Her recipes feature unexpected flavor combinations (have you ever had a cake made with miso?), but she also pushes the boundaries of baking by taking her work out of the kitchen and into the community, producing bake sales and events that benefit organizations like Planned Parenthood.

Here, she tells us about her route to the pastry world, her love of uniforms, why she doesn’t think culinary school is necessary, and so much more. Read on for the interview, as told to our founder and CEO, Sarah LaFleur.

Natasha Pickowicz pastries

A few of the beautiful pastries Natasha created for our recent collection launch party.

Sarah LaFleur with Natasha Pickowicz

Our founder and CEO, Sarah LaFleur (left) wears the Tatum shirt and Daria jeans. Natasha (right) wears the Nicky jacket, Choe top, and Smith pants.

On her unexpected path to becoming a pastry chef…

Both of my parents are in academia—my dad is a historian of Chinese film and 20th century Chinese history, and my mom is a visual artist. They teach at UC San Diego, so I grew up surrounded by academics and intellectuals, running around campus and taking in what was happening from the sidelines.

I went into college thinking that academia was also going to be the path for me. But toward the end of undergrad, I was super passionate about the arts—music, film, visual art, writing. My first job out of college was as the arts and entertainment editor for a free, weekly alt newspaper called The Ithaca Times. Food was not really on my radar in any meaningful way at that point. 

It wasn’t until I moved to Montreal that I fell in love with the pastry practice. I was heavily involved with the music scene and ended up applying to a PhD program in ethnomusicology. But in life, you think things will go a certain way, and then, of course, they don’t—a relationship ends, or you lose a job you love, or you have to move. In my case, it was that I didn’t get into the PhD program. I was so focused on this very singular dream, and it was very devastating to ask myself, “What am I going to do if it’s not academia?”

In the meantime, I had gotten a job as a baker at Depanneur to pay the bills. Depanneur is a Canadian convenience store, but this one in particular had a luncheonette, so you could buy paper towels and batteries and beer, but you could also sit in the back and have a tofu-skin sandwich or a lemon bar. It was really through working there that I discovered that I love not just baking and pastry, but also the camaraderie of working in a kitchen, being on my feet all day, and making things.

On advocating for equal pay in the fine-dining industry…

In hindsight, when I think about the fine-dining jobs I had in New York, there is a sense of being taken advantage of. I think a lot of chefs and business operators use their reputation and clout to make up for lower pay. In the first pastry chef job I had as a manager, I was working up to 80 hours a week and making $45,000 a year. So, you tell me if that was a great thing that happened to me.

The reality of working in food, especially fine dining in New York, is that the people who get to participate in those economies are those who can afford to make a little bit less for a few years. There’s also a massive discrepancy between what women and men are making for the same work. That was shocking to me when I realized it. I was always advocating for my team, arguing that pastry cooks should get the same hourly wage as line cooks. You’re constantly trying to convince the people who hired you that your team is a good investment.

Natasha Pickowicz success story

Natasha wears the Nicky jacket, Choe top, and Smith pants.

dessert bites

Pastries ready to party.

On bringing her whole self to work…

The reason I was able to get so far was, paradoxically, that I was bringing a lot of myself into the work. I wanted to bring my interest in fundraising and activism to the table, so I started doing bake sales and producing culinary workshops on the side. This was all extra work that I wasn’t compensated for, but I felt like, when you’re working in New York City and have a beautiful restaurant and a state-of-the-art kitchen available to you, you should be doing things that will connect you to your neighborhood. As soon as I started putting myself into the work and bringing extra ideas beyond what was expected of my job description, that gave me leverage in the company. 

I love making pastry, but I think what I really love about baking is that it’s a tool you can use to bring people together. Whether it’s at a Depanneur in Montreal or a fine-dining restaurant on the Upper East Side, I’ve always been scheming about ways to utilize the space in unexpected ways.

On uniforms and personal style…

Another reason I love working in restaurants is that I love a uniform. Growing up, I went to a private Episcopalian high school, and we wore a uniform every day—plaid skirt, button-down, knee socks, the whole thing. To this day, I love the idea of being able to put something on, almost without even thinking about it, and having everything go together. 

When it comes to the kitchen, obviously, function is more important than anything. But as my role shifted outside the kitchen—whether I was doing wedding cake tastings with clients, leading a workshop, or doing an event—I had to look put-together in a way that I wasn’t thinking about when I was just working behind the scenes.

I’m also a pretty conservative dresser. It’s not ideological or political—I just like being covered up a little bit more. I tend to gravitate toward tops that are loose or boxy, and I typically have my shoulders covered. Because I wear things that have similar cuts, I love playing around with color and pattern. My mom, who’s an artist, is a very cool dresser, but in a way that’s not based on labels or trends. She can wear two patterns together effortlessly and layer pieces in a way that looks really cool. I’m definitely inspired by how she has a signature look that’s centered around layering, colors, and patterns.

Natasha Pickowicz More Than Cake

Natashas cookbook, More Than Cake.

Natasha Pickowicz success story

Natasha wears the Nicky jacket, Choe top, and Smith pants.

On discovering a new way of working…

One of the things about being a freelancer is that no two days are the same. If I’m in cookbook-writing mode, I’m being much more structured around getting it done, because while writing is the thing that I really love, it is also excruciating, and I have to create a serene environment around it. I wrote most of More Than Cake at different New York public libraries, because I wanted to channel being in college and writing papers on a deadline. 

If I’m being honest with myself, my schedule as a freelancer is a work in progress. I’m trying to create more rituals for myself. But generally speaking, I prefer working in the morning—that is when my energy is the highest and my writing is best. So, I usually wake up around eight and make coffee, then just try to use that energy to work until I need to stop. 

It’s definitely a lifestyle I’m very grateful for. Sometimes I’m doing site visits, or in-person meetings, or bake sales, or meeting up with my editor. There’s a variety to my day that is really exciting.

Written By

Madeleine Kim

Madeleine Kim is the Senior Brand Manager at M.M.LaFleur, where she started out as a stylist. She loves developing styling-focused content and creating newsletters that bring the M.M. community together.

See more of Madeleine's articles

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