How This Pastry Pro Made Herself Invaluable to a Demanding Chef

“It was intimidating to figure out how to feel vital to him and necessary for the restaurant.” Photo: Melissa Hom

Ignacio Mattos — the chef and co-owner of New York’s Estela, Cafe Altro Paradiso, Flora Bar, and Flora Coffee — never felt the need for a pastry chef, preferring to instead handle desserts himself. He once told Grub, “From my perspective, savory cooks have a much more elegant and accurate way of handling sugar,” adding, “If you have a pastry chef who’s trained in many kitchens, it’s difficult and frustrating for them to follow someone else’s vision of how things should be. In a place like this [Estela], there’s not really room for that. I’m not willing to compromise at all.” Then he met Natasha Pickowicz.

The 32-year-old San Diego native is actually a former academic and music journalist, who studied English literature at Cornell and classical music at Columbia. When she moved to Montreal to be with her then-boyfriend, she got a job at a bakery and started writing about food on the side, working as the “Canadian pizza correspondent” for Serious Eats. “I found it to be a lot more rigorous and exciting,” she says. “And I was super obsessed with Montreal-style pizza, which is disgusting but comforting and a total mess but also sort of endearing.”

The Flora Coffee menu is small, reflecting the attention and care put into each bite. Photo: Melissa Hom

Pickowicz took a weekend off to visit New York and stage at She Wolf, Andrew Tarlow’s bread bakery, and bonded with the pastry chef at Marlow & Sons. When a job at the latter opened up, in the summer of 2013, she promptly moved to New York two weeks later. It was one year ago that a mutual friend introduced her to Mattos, just as he was forming his team for three imminent openings: Cafe Altro Paradiso, Flora Bar, and the accompanying coffee shop inside the Met Breuer. Because of the volume of the desserts, he needed to find someone to take the lead, manage a team, and, as Pickowicz puts it, “think about pastries all the time.”

Pickowicz knew that winning over Mattos posed a challenge. “It was intimidating to figure out how to feel vital to him and necessary for the restaurant,” she says. “I believed that about myself, but I needed them to see it. I did a big tasting at Estela, and showed how I could constantly collaborate with the savory side of the kitchen. To have Ignacio involved with pastry, I only see that as a benefit.” His co-owner, Thomas Carter, now calls her “Queen of the Crust.”

The walnut shortbread. Photo: Melissa Hom

What makes Pickowicz’s pastries so compelling is that they manage to land in the zone where comfort and familiarity are balanced with a slight novel twist. There’s black cardamom in her sticky buns, sesame seeds in her vanilla-bean pound cake, buckwheat flour in her chocolate-chip cookies, and granola in her shortbread. All of this she bakes fresh each morning at 7 a.m. (She’s also constantly testing new recipes for plated desserts, and many nights, even stays and works service.) Nothing is overpoweringly sweet. “Sugar’s not a flavor,” she says. “So how can we build on the character of a pastry without having the sugar blow out your palate? If it’s not balanced, if it doesn’t feel right when you eat it, and you’re just going to have a stomachache.”

Mattos is a tough boss — landing on a tiramisu recipe took them eight weeks — but the former journalist describes him as a “great editor.” She explains: “I think that he knows how to analyze a dish and strip it away to its truest self,” she says. “You know, I’m a woman. I love things to feel like lush and voluptuous and beautiful, and can really look through all the bullshit and make it more minimalist. His aesthetic creates a sense of mystery.”

The greens pie — one of a few savory items for sale. Photo: Melissa Hom

But Pickowicz openly embraces her femininity, which serves as a good foil to Mattos and Carter’s bromance: “Part of what appeals to me about pastry is that it’s a field dominated by women. I don’t want to generalize, but in my experiences in kitchens, I tend to get a feeling of support and inclusivity and generosity from women that I don’t always see from men, because they’re so wrapped up in their heads and egos. I find women to be more aware and open and organized. The energy at Flora, where there are tons of women not just in pastry but on the line, is very special and sacred and balanced. We’re just here to help the restaurant be amazing.”

This Pastry Pro Made Herself Invaluable to a Demanding Chef