Down the Aisle:Natasha Pickowicz and Paul Wetzel

Natasha: Head Pastry Chef at Altro Paradiso; Paul: Sous Chef at Gramercy Tavern, Butcher at Marlow and Daughters Interview and Images by Aimee Brodeur

I first learned of Natasha when I stumbled across her Instagram, which is full of images of mouth-watering desserts, and I was instantly hooked, thanks to her knack for witty life musings and her love of food. (I later learned that Paul’s Instagram is equally impressive, especially if you love good meat.) We rose bright and early to meet the talented couple at Union Square Farmer’s Market, during one of their many early morning grocery runs. These two had me laughing the entire time- I was completely charmed and inspired by their wit and energy, even in the face of a long and busy day ahead; and also by the resourcefulness of their shopping habits.

Do you two have a regular routine around buying food for your meals?

P: We shop at Union Square most of the time. I’d say we are here 3-4 times a week. I shop here first thing in the mornings- usually a quick run around to see what looks really good, and to pick up stuff from the farmers before they start selling.  I come by again for the deals when the market is winding down; when farmers are trying to get rid of the stuff they didn’t sell- A 2-for-1 kind of thing.

N: 9am to noon are like the nightmare hours here.

P: Yeah it’s good to get greens first thing in the morning because they haven’t been picked over and aren’t wilted, and then at night I’ll grab melons, squash, and potatoes.  We get our trout here too.  Max Creek Hatchery- best trout in the city.

So it’s safe to say you guys take grocery shopping seriously. Do you love the act of grocery shopping?

P & N simultaneously: Oh yeah we love it. Definitely.

N: We shop for a day or two at a time. I like shopping per meal, if I can. I think that so much of grocery shopping is about necessity. You only buy what you can eat as it will stay fresh, or what you can carry back with you. There is a curatorial element to all of it. Sometimes we will fantasize about what we can make for dinner. It’s fun for us.

Are all of your dinners like that? Do you guys ever show up at home too tired to cook and…

N: Eat popcorn for dinner? Yes. It happens.

P: Yeah, we will order pizza, or get take out, but not too often.  I’d say we are cooking dinner at least 5 nights a week.

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“…People think that if you work at a restaurant all day you wouldn’t want to cook when you get home, but for me it’s unwinding.  It’s a totally different way of cooking.”

 

What does breakfast and lunch look like for you guys? It sounds like the bulk of your grocery shopping is mainly for dinner.

P: Well we both get up super early…

N: I eat breakfast at work, standing over a garbage can.

P: We have to get up so early that it’s just not appealing enough to wake up at 4 am and have this big elaborate breakfast. For us it seems more economical to have a nice dinner together because then we have more time.

N: And the rest of the time you’re just eating to get on with your day.  I was just talking about this at work the other day because we made family meal, and one of our line cooks was eating out of a pint container standing over the mixer while learning how to make sausage. She wasn’t even sitting down and eating.

Because you are so busy?

N: I am eating on my way to the garbage can, finish in the garbage can, and I’m still chewing and swallowing while I’m turning back around to work. It’s like you just need to get calories so you can continue doing what you were doing. But when you’re at home it’s so much more relaxed because we listen to music and we’re in a totally different context.  Sometimes I feel like people think that if you work at a restaurant all day you wouldn’t want to cook when you get home, but for me it’s unwinding.  It’s a totally different way of cooking.

J: When we cook for ourselves, we just have a few fresh ingredients, and we cook as simply as possible because we don’t want to have 20 steps to go through.  In the restaurant, everything has to be cut perfectly and presented beautifully, which isn’t the case at home.

So it’s a different type of cooking, it’s creatively different.

N: I work with pastries, so cooking for me is getting to use a different part of my brain. It’s driven by the pleasure of doing it rather than making it look perfect, you know?  At work you have to be so focused and present.

P: Home cooking is more about making it tasty, and not so precious.

So what’s on the menu for you both tonight, what are you looking for today?

P: Corn, tomatoes…

N: First we do a walk through just to see what’s available and then we double back to where all the good things were.

P: We also don’t make a ton of money, so a big part of grocery shopping for us is about being economical. It would be great to come in here with $300 dollars and say, “Oh I want that, and that looks great”… but to be honest I can get my shopping done with $20 dollars.  If you keep your eyes open to the prices and be smart about it, you can do it on a budget.  The other day there was this huge head of cauliflower- way more than we needed- and it was $5.  You can get 4-5 meals out of that. We pickled half of it, then roasted the other half, and made an awesome pasta. I think there is still a chunk left in the fridge.

N: I’m more of a frivolous shopper than he is. I buy fruit that looks adorable…and flowers…and small cookies. I definitely buy off the list. Part of the fun of shopping is seeing what speaks to you. That’s the only kind of shopping I like to do.

What are some of your favorite places to get specialty food items?

N: Bedford Cheese Shop, Dandelion Wine or Uva Wine Shop.  Also Foragers. I spend way too much money there- it’s a bit bourgeois. They have White Moustache yogurt from Red Hook and fancy potato chips… basically everything I love. Fancy hummus.  Every good cheese. Nice bacon- stuff that you feel good about buying but costs a fortune. I also love Buon Italia. I get most of my dry goods from there. It’s a specialty Italian market in Chelsea market. All of their pastas, dried beans, and honeys are great.

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“The other day there was this huge head of cauliflower- way more than we needed- and it was $5.  You can get 4-5 meals out of that. We pickled half of it, then roasted the other half, and made an awesome pasta. I think there is still a chunk left in the fridge.”

 

What was the last thing you splurged on at the marker?

P: There is this guy that used to come to the market on Saturdays- though I haven’t seen him in a while.  He raises these beautiful little white shrimp up in the Hudson. They’re really expensive- I’m not gonna lie. He takes them out of the water and brings them down the morning of the market. He has them in 3-5 different sizes, and they’re about $30/ pound.

What did you make with it?

P: We made Thai noodles with it. They were really small and we cooked them with the head on in some garlic and chilies, and then added some noodles and veggies. Definitely a splurge, but they were so delicious.

How about you Natasha?

N: I’d say I impulsively buy whatever looks and beautiful at the market. Then when I get home I have to make sense out of it and put together a meal with items I already have. Paul is much more organized and he will have a plan on what he wants to make when he heads to the market.

It sounds like the way you two cook is actually totally complimentary in the kitchen- that worked out well.

N: Totally. I have dated guys before where in the kitchen they are like this is MY space… and I’m like, “I wanna help! This is supposed to be fun!” Why does it have to be so stressful?

 

Have you always dated chefs?

N: Paul is the first. I actually have only ever dated musicians.

Okay I wasn’t expecting that from your last comment.

N: Well when you work in kitchens, you HAVE to collaborate. You have to learn how to delegate. As in, “Wash those greens, I’m going to get the fish in the pan.” I think the other guys just never really learned how to collaborate in a productive way. They can get very territorial, and there is a lot of ego.  I mean… Look. It’s just nourishment and food and you eat it and move on with your life. I feel like a lot of my anxiety around making food to impress a guy has subsided.  Just let the food do its thing.

Over the years have you created any special rituals around serving dinner at your house, either with friends or your significant other?

N: I am a dinner party queen. It’s my absolute favorite way to hang out with friends.  I love having people over and making them food. I think the most important thing for a dinner party is to give a sense of bounty and abundance.

Do you like the pot luck concept?

N: Personally I’m not that into pot lucks if I’m the one hosting. I’m controlling in a way when it comes to concepts, and I’m like, “don’t bring dessert, I got this.” I love the whole story of a meal- the narrative. It should be super simple, and it should all make sense from start to finish.

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“I love the whole story of a meal- the narrative.  It should be super simple, and it should all make sense from start to finish.”

 

Are you in the kitchen a lot the night before?

N: Often I won’t do any cooking before, and I’ll cook when my friends are here. We end up eating at 11pm… (laughing). But I definitely try not to put in too much time.  It should feel easy and simple. I like to do a good cheese, some sardines, good bread, big salads, and a protein.  I usually end it with a sorbet or something.  And NEVER run out of wine.

Never run out of wine. It’s my motto in life.

N: Right? And if you do that’s what Dandelion Wine delivery is for.

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Switching gears a bit- being the pastry chef at Altro Paradiso- how has that changed or affected your cooking compared to when you worked at Marlow and Daughters?

N: I think that Ignacio (Co-Owner and Head Chef at Altro Paradiso) is like a great editor. He is like, “Do you need this sentence here? Why is this paragraph here..?  Condense this- make it tighter.  Let there be a bigger impact with less going on…” He is very good at pushing for simplicity, which is actually the most challenging thing to do. There are no bells and whistles to hide behind.  Marlow was great in a different way too.  It was more relaxed.

If you could have any one person show up in your kitchen- living or dead, who would it be?

N: Richard Olney.  He was this gay intellectual from Iowa who expatriated to Provence. He wrote cookbooks, lived on this crazy estate in an amazing wine region, would cook over open fires, and would have dinner parties with Julia Child and all the greats. He was a legend. He would have weekend-long debaucherous dinner parties all centered around rustic country French cooking. To me, he wrote some of the most iconic cookbooks from the 70’s. I’ve read them all. My favorites are French Food and French Menus. He really cared about food and tradition, and sharing food with people in a way that was totally driven by the simple pleasures of eating.

 

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Take-aways:

  1. Bedford Cheese ShopBedford Cheese Shop
  2. Dandelion WineDandelion Wine
  3. ForagersForagers
  4. White Moustache YogurtWhite Moustache Yogurt
  5. Cafe Altro ParadisoCafe Altro Paradiso
  6. Marlow and DaughtersMarlow and Daughters
  7. Richard Olney’s CookbooksRichard Olney’s Cookbooks
Recipe Recipe

Recipe:

Late Summer Tisane by Natasha Pickowicz

Fat, leafy bouquets of herbs are typically the first to seduce me at the farmer’s market. Making tisanes — a light, fragrant tea brewed with herbal infusions — helps me process herbs before they turn to slime in the fridge. Tisanes look gorgeous, preserve the feeling of summer and freshness, and happen to be insanely healthy. At the market, I usually pick up a mix of leafy herbs (lemon balm, mint, lemon verbena, sage, anise hyssop), edible flowers (chamomile, lavender, rose hips), and roots (ginger, chicory, sassafras).

Ingredients:

  • 3 ounces- Any combination of fresh herbs, edible flowers, roots, or seeds
  • 1L water

Serves

6-8 people

I like to make small amounts of tisane concentrate, and then dilute them with bubbly water when I’m ready to enjoy them.  They are surely one of the loveliest and most refreshing ways to enjoy a late summer farmer’s market bounty.
  • Stuff a large jar with trimmed and clean herbs.
  • Bring a liter of water just up to a boil.
  • Pour hot water over tea and let steep for at least 30 minutes.
  • Strain and refrigerate. Serve over ice and with a splash of sparkling water.
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