Natasha Pickowicz Is the Queen of Sticky Buns

"If I leave something out in my kitchen, I want it to be beautiful."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Natasha Pickowicz is the executive pastry chef at Flora Bar and Cafe Altro Paradiso in New York, where she’s rightfully earned a loyal following for her sticky buns and cheesy scones. She also organizes an annual bake sale to benefit Planned Parenthood; this year’s is on May 19 at Cafe Altro Paradiso. We caught up with her — and more importantly, baked — in her Brooklyn apartment.

I thought I was going to go into journalism or music; I thought I was going to be an academic. Both of my parents are academics, and I studied English at Cornell. I applied to grad school for my PhD, but I was rejected from everywhere I applied. It was devastating.

I was living in Montreal — this was seven years ago — and I had never really baked ever. But I needed a job, and my partner at the time set me up with a friend of his who ran a small kind of luncheonette — a punk, queer kitchen. I started baking there, and it was something so oppositional from working alone in my apartment behind a computer, which I found really alienating.

I love being around people. I love the energy of a kitchen — being on my feet, feeling tired after a day at work, making something with my hands. It’s my art. You make things that you can see. And that’s something that really feeds me, no pun intended. There’s something about the process that is so visceral and gratifying. 

For me, it was kind of the revelation, and I became addicted to learning more, wanting to see more, and wanting to work more in restaurants. I think that people enter kitchens with this idea that they can “become a chef” and that will be a sustainable way of life and a career. I never went into it with that idea. I thought, Okay, this is something I’m going to try out.

In 2013, I started working as a pastry cook at a restaurant called Lawrence in Montreal and was really happy there. The owners would close the restaurant for two weeks every summer. Most cooks just took the time off, but I wanted to stage at She Wolf Bakery in Brooklyn. I had just learned how to make sourdough bread and was pretty obsessed with the process. The head baker there, Austin, recommended that I also meet with the head pastry chef at Marlow & Sons and Diner. Even though I never thought I would leave Montreal, she ended up offering me a job in her kitchen anyway. I accepted and moved to New York two weeks later! It was one of the craziest and fastest and most profound transitions in my entire life.

I still wanted to be a writer. I moved to New York, I worked at Marlow & Sons; I was a 27-year-old making $11 an hour in a kitchen as a pastry cook. My take-home was less than $400 a week, and that freaked me out because I was coming from Montreal, where the quality of living was way higher because it’s cheap to live there. I had this moment of thinking, How is this going to be sustainable?

I had this moment of thinking, How is this going to be sustainable?

What it means to work at a restaurant, how it affects other people, this feeling of New York being so competitive and people all striving to be “at the top” — it really almost feels like you’re never doing enough, or you could be doing something better or changing the menu more often. It can feel really overwhelming.

A friend of mine had heard that Ignacio [Mattos] was planning on opening an Italian restaurant in Soho — and that he wanted a pastry chef. I didn't feel at all that I was worthy or qualified or even knew that much about Italian dessert. Like, I had never made tiramisu before! Or spun custards on an Italian-made gelato machine. Or even been to Italy outside of Rome. But Estela was basically my favorite restaurant in the entire city, and I wanted to know how Ignacio made food taste that insane. I wanted to know everything he knew.

I didn't feel at all that I was worthy or qualified.

He scheduled a tasting for me at Estela. I was so eager to make an impression I completely went overboard. There were something like seven different "courses." Ice creams and sorbets, plated desserts, breakfast pastries, candies, giant piles of cookies. In hindsight, it was totally ridiculous and excessive. My friends still tease me about it. Now that I have more experience, I can see the importance of self-editing.

Now I’m the executive pastry chef for Café Altro Paradiso, Flora Bar, and Flora Coffee, and it really feels like I have this fresh. I test and write new menus, train and work with my pastry team, manage our stagiaire and externship programs, brainstorm and schedule pastry field trips (like excursions to Syrian bakeries in Brooklyn), develop our nonprofit events and programming, and do plenty of off-site and special events, too. It's a crazy, nonstop mix. No two days are similar.

A lot of core values in my home kitchen are the same as in the restaurant kitchens. Obviously, in a place like Flora Bar, we’re blessed with so much space and all these resources. I also work at Café Altro Paradiso, which is a smaller and more challenging kitchen to navigate. I live in this teeny studio apartment, so there’s an idea of really editing everything that we have both here and at home. I have one of each thing, but only the absolute necessary thing — I like to keep things really simple. And I think that’s pretty similar with work. You want the best version of everything and not too much of anything. A really big cutting board, a good knife, a great can opener, a wine key, a good pepper grinder, a vegetable peeler. I have one of all those things in my home.

If you don’t have that many items in your home, you want them to mean something. I love that the walls of Saucy are a little shallow, so my sticky buns can proof, but when I bake them, they aren’t so deep that the sticky buns can’t brown. The heat transfer is also really great — I could make the caramel sauce in Saucy, and you could even use it as a bowl and mix ingredients in there. There’s so much versatility. And if I leave something out in my kitchen, I want it to be beautiful.

If I leave something out in my kitchen, I want it to be beautiful.

The sticky bun at Flora was the first recipe I developed when we were opening. Then Florence Fabricant came in and later wrote in the New York Times that it was her favorite pastry in the city, which blew my mind. I developed sticky buns for both Altro and Flora, but they each have their own little identity. The process is pretty straightforward, but it requires a little time and planning. We make the brioche the day before we shape the buns, so the enriched dough has a chance to rest and cool. Because there's so much butter, eggs, and honey in the bread, it gets pretty sticky. The brioche is a lot easier to handle if it's chilled and relaxed. Then we roll the brioche out into a big rectangle and smear the surface with a pint of tempered "bun nuts." You want the filling to be nice and fine so the spirals of the bun can proof and bake evenly.

Then we twist the brioche up into a jelly roll and slice them into individual buns. When I'm at home, I love shaping my sticky buns in Saucy because the not-too-tall height on the sides of the pan allows for the fat swirls of brioche to proof generously and stay supported — no need to pull out muffin tins or baking sheets or casserole dishes. Honestly, I don't own any speciality baking equipment in my teeny apartment, so it's great to be able to use a pan that I would use for cooking for baking pastries as well. Plus, I love that I can just fit the lid right on top while the buns do their final proof!

The buns get baked off fresh, and after they come out of the oven, when they're still hot, we dunk the buns in warmed "bun goo," a salted caramel sauce mounded with tons of butter and heavy cream. The final touch is a generous pinch of crushed gray salt.

I always figure out a way to get a second life out of leftovers. At Altro, I'll dice up the old buns and toast them until super golden. Those "bun bits" get folded into hazelnut gelato alongside ribbons of cocoa sauce. At Flora, we'll make sticky-bun pudding. But it's pretty rare that extras make their way back into the kitchen.

Photos by Liz Clayman

I think there’s an idea about pastry that it’s fun or frivolous or carefree, but people don’t realize that my life isn’t just making cakes and tasting them; it’s looking at food and labor costs and hiring — all of the stuff that actually makes restaurants viable, and I do that times two, while I’m managing other things. In general, with pastry, you’re always coming up against this misconception that it’s not as rigorous or demanding as working on the savory side, or that the ingredients aren’t as valued or sexy. That’s absolutely a misconception. The women on my pastry team work harder than anybody else in that kitchen.