November for me is all about cozy style and comfort foods, so i'm excited to kick off this month's conversation series with Natasha – Brooklyn bon vivant, supremely talented pastry queen at Marlow & Sons, and all-around cool girl who counts Peggy Bundy and Maggie Cheung as inspirations.
read on for the interview!
hi! my name is natasha li pickowicz. i have experience in arts journalism, radio, and music curation, but for the past three years i have been working full-time at restaurants. i'm currently a pastry cook at marlow + sons and diner, two terrific side-by-side restaurants in south williamsburg, brooklyn.
i recently relocated from montreal, where i was the assistant pastry chef at lawrence restaurant. i moved to brooklyn for this job, and that felt pretty empowering and thrilling! diner is one of my all-time favorite restaurants, so a chance to work in a kitchen that i admire was too good to pass up. i was born and raised in san diego, california, and i always swore i'd never move to new york. yet here i am.
1. how did you get into the culinary world? what drew you to baking/pastry arts in particular?
when i moved to montreal in 2009, i became the baker for depanneur le pick up, a cultish bodega-meets-diner spot tucked away in a quiet neighborhood north of the mile end. i made a lot of betty crocker-inspired comfort food -- lemon bars dusted with powdered sugar, gigantic chocolate chip cookies, upside down pineapple cakes, juicy blueberry pies, cupcakes piled high with buttercream. i don't have a professional training in pastry like most of my peers (i studied scottish literature at cornell!) so every day brings different challenges and uncertainties.
moving to lawrence cemented my love for patisserie. marc cohen, the executive chef at lawrence, is english, so we made a lot of gorgeous, decadent british puddings and other french and italian classics. rhubarb crème légèr, baked alaskas, salted caramel tarts, apple tarte tatin, frozen nougat studded with candied nuts, delicate sorbets doused in booze. it was patisserie boot camp.
2. how do you approach baking? what's your creative/culinary process for coming up with new recipes, or testing concepts in the kitchen?"honestly, i got into the restaurant industry a little backwards — as a writer, peering in on the other side of things. as both as a writer and as a cook, i love that food embraces beauty, intimacy, generosity, and creativity. for me, pastry is so voluptuous, gorgeous, and comforting."
i love details, repetition, finesse, and precision, so working in pastry is a miraculous fit for me! i appreciate pastry that looks and tastes beautiful and has been made with thoughtful hands. there's something so soothing and rigorous about working with pastry, so i try to stay patient and focused.
when it comes to developing recipes, i really look to my surroundings for inspiration. what's in season? what's at the markets? what are my colleagues digging? when i go shopping, i enter the market with an open mind, and shop using my eyes, hands, and mouth. i also love cookbooks and get tons of ideas from my favorite writers. richard olney is my all-time favorite food writer (i blog about his recipes constantly!), but i also love mireille johnston, lindsay shere and alice waters, patience gray, nancy silverton, and chad robertson.
at home, i often think about the "big picture" when developing menus and concepts for a recipe. after a big pot of bouillabaisse, wouldn't it be nice to have a traditional provencal dessert, like a slice of sticky nougat and cold berries?
"food tells a story. i like mine to feel cohesive, rich, and thoughtful."
3. prior to moving to NYC, what did you do? what's a typical day like for you at Marlow & Sons?
my schedule at lawrence was challenging, on a physical, personal, and work level. because i ran the dinner service with the rest of the kitchen, i'd show up for work around 2pm. then you cook until the night is over, which could be as early as 11pm but as late as 1am. it could be hard. you'd get so tired from a long service, then you have to scrub the kitchen down. i'd stumble home around 2am and collapse.
being at marlow + sons is kind of the opposite! the pastry team does production for the two restaurants, so we arrive early — i wake up at 5am to be at work by 6am — and i'm finished around 3 or 4pm. no two days are alike. some days are focused more on bulk production — making base doughs like brisee, sucre, and sable. making large quantities of scones, gougeres, and cookie dough. other days i'm focused more on fine desserts and working with tricky caramels, sauces, and custards. it keeps me on my toes and feeling excited about everything. the day ends when i'm handed my shift drink...usually a big glass of wine.
we get the absolute best produce, fruits, and products from local organic farms. i feel really lucky. it's one of the most inspiring and special things about working for the company. i love handling beautiful and fragrant fruits, organic creams, butters, eggs, cheeses, and flours. it's a perk of the job, because it's not stuff i could afford to bring home. working with beautiful products is a privilege. we were recently serving a delicate cornmeal buttermilk pound cake, and one of the garnishes was a quick-sauteed pan of italian plums, concord grapes, and lemon verbena, deglazed with olive oil and sauteed in a light caramel. i would stir the pan and release the scent of verbena, so floral and heady. like getting a face full of late-summer sunshine. you sniff the air, and your knees buckle a little bit.
ten years ago... i was still a teenager wearing my uniform to high school! i was a bit of a jock, and kind of a punk... like dickies with band t-shirts on "free dress" days. i shopped at thrift stores and the mall, like everyone else. when i wanted to dress up, i bought DVF, marc by marc jacobs, betsey johnson, anna sui. i used to collect betsey johnson dresses - crazy prints with dragons or daisies or rainbows. i must have had 15 of those pieces.
these days, i still live in my converse and denim jackets. 70% of my wardrobe is thrifted, the rest are high-end pieces that i save up for. i think i'm a total casual-california vibe lady. i love dense patterns, saturated colors, and super feminine pieces. my obsession with pattern is so extreme i actually have a slight aversion to wearing things that are solid or black. like, somehow i can't "pull off" the minimalism of something that simple and understated... it makes me feel blah and boring. i envy NYC women who wear all navy or all a.p.c. and look feminine and chic!
"one of my chefs once described my look as 'peggy bundy,' which obviously i love. i'm also inspired by nelson from the simpsons, isabelle adjani, laura dern in jurassic park, susan sontag, maggie cheung, and sade."
my love for fashion has grown a lot, and i'll save up for months to have a piece that i can't stop thinking about. i adore rachel comey, mociun, ermie, sonia rykiel, vena cava, and suno. it's all about that insanity of color and pattern that i'm drawn to. i love pairing patterns with other patterns. things that clash but don't clash. and i'm addicted to collecting rachel comey's shoes. everything she makes looks so modern and smart.
in terms of beauty, someone at work recently told me i have a "signature" beauty look. black mascara and winged black liquid eyeliner the only makeup i wear, but it is my religion and has been for a decade. i just feel instantly put together. and my crazy hair... it's been this out-of-control since forever. i look to kate bush, ruth reichl, and catherine keener in "walking and talking" as my hair icons.
i'll fixate on a style or cut and collect pieces around that vibe. i collect jumpsuits and rompers, so in the summer i wore a lot of thrifted onesies and converse. i also collect a lot of vintage denim, and in the fall it's a jean jacket, printed pants, patterned top, oversized sweaters, old leather boots. i love the idea of being able to pull something crazy off. it's a challenge that i want to accept. can i make this work? do these patterns look tragic or exciting together?
7. is there a personal or sartorial piece that's really special to you? what's the story behind it?
like most people, i have attachment to special jewelry. one of my best friends, sasha (she pens the amazing sites water + wool and universal flowering), gave me this astrology pendant on a long chain. we're both libras and so similar, yet so opposites. she balances me out. an old boyfriend cast my favorite junk food (onion rings!) into a brass pendant that hangs on a chain. that's pretty sweet. and my mom gave me a heavy jade piece she bought in china. it's so substantial and makes everything i wear look amazing. i feel its weight in my hands and feel comforted.
8. what bag are you carrying lately, and what's in it?
so i have this weird thing, i don't know how to use purses! i ride my bike everywhere and i can't figure out how to wear a chic bag while riding... so i kind of collect backpacks. my work bag is a canvas baggu, and i wear them into the ground so hard that i buy a new one every 4 months. it's stuffed with boring things like work socks, bandaids, and bandannas. my normal day-to-day bag is a small leather backpack that i bought at the thieves' market in singapore.
what's in my bag? chapstick, NARS lipstick in heat wave, a few bangles from catbird, the simpsons watch my mom gave me, scratched sunglasses, several iterations of sugar (right now, snickers and two caramels from marlow + daughters), notebook, pens, and change purse.
9. since your recent move from Montreal, what are your impressions of NYC/Brooklyn? what do you love about each city?
i used to come to new york a lot to visit friends and go to concerts, but i could never imagine myself living here. it felt so overwhelming and intimidating. i spent 7 years in a college town, and have lived in smaller cities like montreal and portland, so this was a big transition. but working at marlow + sons is like belonging to a tight village, and that world has totally become my community and home.
i love my neighborhood where i work (williamsburg) and live (bushwick). it has a surprisingly small town vibe to it, which i didn't expect. i love rituals and my "spots", so i always go to the same wine shops, restaurants, record stores, and grocery stores. i really need that feeling of community and neighborhood where i am, and i've been pleasantly surprised to find such a cool one in brooklyn.
that being said, i miss montreal a LOT. nothing quite compares. it's eccentric, falling apart, and kind of infuriating. but it's absolutely stuffed with some of the most brilliant, creative, loving, generous, and smart people i've ever known. plus, montrealers really appreciate a good dinner party (my favorite way to hang). everyone can afford great, spacious apartments, so people tend to hang at home and cook rather than going out. NYC seems like such a social city... people eat out at restaurants and go to bars every night! that blows my mind a little bit. i'd rather stay at home and cook for friends and listen to records any day.
10. what are you passionate about? who / what inspires you?
my two biggest passions — beautiful food and incredible music — remind us all of our impermanence, our appreciation for ephemerality, and our obsession with beauty, sensuality, and pleasure. i think of pastry as being voluptuous and vital. i don't like things that are too fussy or thought-out. i like rustic, sincere, and elegant.