"I didn’t go to culinary school—I went to Cornell and majored in English Literature. I wrote for my college paper for many years, edited the arts section of an alt-weekly paper there called the Ithaca Times, and then started to transition to freelance work. I mostly wrote about music and the arts—I was not at all interested in the food side of things yet. I wanted originally to get my PhD in Ethnomusicology and applied to a bunch of PhD programs, but was rejected everywhere. I needed a job, so I got a part-time job as a baker at this place called Dépanneur le Pick Up. They asked me if I had worked in a restaurant before, and I lied and said that I had. I think they were just in a pinch—a lot of the time they’re also just looking for good qualities in a person, because you can just teach them later. It was sort of like this Betty Crocker All-American style luncheonette inverted with this queer punk-rock sort of attitude—it tied in my love of music and culture and art, and I really fell in love with making things with my hands and being on my feet.
Usually I get up around 6—I currently run the pastry programs at Café Altro Paradiso in Soho and Flora Bar in the Met Breuer on the Upper East Side. I try to get to Altro first, by like 7 or 8 in the morning. I like getting there really early in the morning while it’s still quiet. I’ll spend 5 or 6 hours at Altro baking, getting ready for service, and working on new dishes. Then I take the C uptown to head to Flora—I always get off at 72nd and walk across the park. That is a really important transitional moment for me. The two places are different, and sometimes I need a moment to swap out of that space and get into a new space. Then, I’ll be there until 8 or 9. It’s a long day, and my job is not glamorous, but I appreciate that. I love getting dirty—I have burns all over my arms, I have cuts and scrapes all day long, my hair gets dry, my skin gets irritated, my feet get sore. There’s a physicality to the work where you feel the effects of what you put into it. I don’t wear perfume, I don’t wear fingernail polish, and I don’t wear jewelry. I work in a restaurant! I’m in the back of house, behind the scenes. We have front of house staff that’s perfectly coiffed and groomed, but I like that the work that we do is sort of invisible.
As a cook, I don’t have time to be sick. I sleep more than anybody I know. Sometimes I’ll do oregano oil, zinc, Echinacea, and vitamin C before I leave for work, and I pretty much have a probiotic every day. I work in an Italian restaurant—there’s a lot of dairy. I didn’t really grow up eating cheese, or drinking milk—my mom is Chinese, and you don’t see consumption of dairy at all in Chinese cuisine. I’m tasting sugar, and fat, and dairy, all things that inflame your gut, all day long. For me, living well and beauty is about eating really well. I’m really mindful of making sure that my body is getting the things it needs, and not just that. I love going to the markets—especially in New York, the green markets are really remarkable. I personally love the McGolrick market—it isn’t part of the GrowNYC program, but they have a lot of great vendors, like Brooklyn Grange and Vulto Creamery. I do a lot cooking, and think a lot of people are surprised by that. I love being able to present vegetables and savory things in a pastry context, but for me, cooking and baking are two different practices. I cook for myself all the time, but I don’t bake for myself. I come home and make big pots of beans, I’m having soup, I’m cooking vegetables. I always have my quick breakfast, which is that I’ll toast corn tortillas over my gas stove and get them really charred, and then I’ll have half an avocado and a fried egg—easy, but nourishing. My friends always joke like, ‘You hate dessert.’ I want raw, crunchy things; I want olive oil. I need to know that I can come home and have hummus and cucumber sticks and carrots.
My mother has 100% been my guiding force in terms of what beauty is and how to take care of ourselves—she’s very practical. I love taking super long showers before I go to work, and I do everything in the shower, even brush my teeth. First I wash my face with Cetaphil—I like the lack of scent, and that it’s reliable. I’ve been using it my whole life—it’s just about buying things and not having to think about it. Or I use Burt’s Bees Facial Cleanser with Daisy Extract, which is also just super gentle. I have this olive oil scrub that I really love using in the shower called Olivella. It’s definitely a little aggressive, but I like that it feels like it strips away things, and I can moisturize when I get out. I have a Dr. Bronner’s bar soap that smells like lavender that I use on my body. I love floral scents, like lavender and rose.
After I get out of the shower, I put on sunscreen every single day. EltaMD UV Facial Broad-Spectrum SPF 30 is my all-time fave. Then I’ll finish with the Weleda Wild Rose—I have their night one and their day one. My hands get really, really dry from being in front of hot ovens, storing pots, washing dishes all day long in really hot water—and in the winter, especially. I usually keep the Kiehl’s Ultimate Strength Hand Salve in my bag, and it’s incredible because it feels like you’re putting on a glove. Like, I feel like it absorbs into my skin, but also sits on top of my skin in this way that’s really healing. If I ever have any burns or scratches, I always have Neosporin, which helps the scarring. And I wear Carmex every day, in the pods.
I love this Aztec mask, because I can buy it at Whole Foods. I mix it with water, make the paste and then just let it hang out. That usually helps if my skin feels dry. I like to go to Great Jones Spa—they have day passes, so it’s like $45. They have saunas, hot tubs—for me, it’s just the act of sitting, and being, and relaxing that really helps. I live in this tiny studio—I don’t have Wifi, or a computer, or a TV. I need to be able to come home and have this be a space where I can focus on the things I really care about—I really work hard to protect it, and make sure it feels nourishing, and simple.
The way that I treat makeup is that I just don’t give myself choices. I definitely was more into playing around with that stuff [when I was younger], but now I find it just to be noise. I’ll put on La Mer Illuminating Eye Gel as a primer before I put on eyeliner. Then the eye makeup I wear is all L’Oréal. I’m at work for so long that I need to be able to do it before work and have it be fine. I wear eyeliner and mascara every day—it’s just part of what I do before I leave the house. I like the idea of having a signature look—there’s something about that that I feel is comforting, and ritualistic. First I put on the Extra Intense Liquid Pencil Eyeliner. I just do one even line across, and then stop when I get to the corner of my eye. I just don’t mess around with anything else—it goes on so smooth, almost like gel. I’ll buy doubles if I see it in pharmacies. The pencil doesn’t get sharp enough to do the wing that I like at the end, so I switch to a liquid eyeliner—that’s also L’Oréal, the Intense Eyeliner. I like the brush with the bristles that are flexible, not a pen, because I like the feeling that it blends when I apply pressure. Then I just put a coat of mascara on the top lashes. I’m like my mom—she has really short, fine, straight eyelashes, Eastern-style. I need a little mascara. This is just a sample that my mom gave me—it’s Estée Lauder Sumptuous Extreme Black. Usually I have L’Oréal Voluminous Mascara, which is this fat gold tube that I really like, but I’m out. My eye makeup lasts all day—it’s incredible. 12 hours, I don’t think about it at all. During the day, I like Bobbi Brown Lip Color in Rose Berry, which is just a mauve-y pink. I will sometimes wear this Nars matte orange-y red color at night that looks really good with black eyeliner. I take off my makeup with Beauty Without Cruelty remover. [Usually] I’m too tired to wash my face before I go to bed—if I remember, I’ll use the Weleda night lotion, which feels dense.
My hair is so dry that if I wash it too much, it gets really fluffy. I probably only shampoo my hair every two weeks—if it smells restaurant-y, I’ll just get it wet. I recently saw this Herbal Essences shampoo in Hudson Street Pharmacy in Soho, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this smell.’ It made me so nostalgic, but I only used it like once. Usually I use this one from Avalon Organics, because I like anything with tea tree oil in it. I see Kristen at Little Axe Salon in Williamsburg—I feel like she really understands what I’m looking for. I used to only get my hair cut maybe once a year—I was cutting my own bangs, and doing all this janky shit—but now I see her every six months. My hair grows really fast, so she’ll cut off five or six inches every time I go in, and put in layers, and help me with my bangs. She gave me this Oribe thing, Supershine Cream, which I can put in my hair wet or dry. It’s the most low-maintenance product ever. After I shower, I brush my hair at night with this Mason Pearson brush that I just bought—it’s incredible because it sort of drags down the oils in your scalp to the rest of your hair. I feel like it really does make it softer. But that’s it—I don’t even have a blow dryer. When I’m at work, I put my hair up into a bun or a braid every single day, tied up into a bandana. I get crazy headaches. But this is my hair—I see women with beautiful hair, but I’m also like, that’s not my life. I know what my work is, and I’m not gonna pretend it’s a different texture, or that it looks a different way. I just want it to look natural."
—as told to ITG
Natasha Pickowicz photographed in New York City by Tom Newton on April 8, 2018.