Bear's Natasha Pogrebinsky on Life as a Ukrainian Refugee and How That Informs Her Food
Many chefs can recall how they first became hooked on the food industry, but few can point to a juxtaposition of culinary experiences like Bear's Natasha Pogrebinsky can. The chef grew up in Soviet Ukraine, where she remembers "going to all the different shops in the city and picking out bread in one place and butter and milk in a different place," she says. "We would go get butter, and there was a slab of butter, and they'd give you a piece. You'd go to a dairy store or a bakery, and the bread was hot in your hands ... I wanted to taste everything."
On holidays, her family would go to the country, where they'd pick tomatoes off the vine and dig potatoes out of the field. "We had this juxtaposition of growing up in the city and shopping in the supermarkets and then going to the village and drinking milk just out of the cow," she remembers. "Now, when I think about the dishes and where I want to go as a chef, those are the food memories I draw on."
When she was 10, her family decided to flee Kiev on money her father, who was an artist, earned from selling a few paintings. Pretending to be headed on vacation, they left on a train on New Year's Eve with just a few suitcases in tow and, as refugees, headed for America. "I still have this image of my cousin running after the train," she recalls. "My dad was like, 'Don't cry, don't make a scene.' If there was any hint that something was up, we might have been put in jail."
Once stateside, the family cleared customs with documents Pogrebinsky remembers were hidden deep within their luggage and were housed briefly at a hotel in Queens. "That's when I was first exposed to American food," she says. "They would bring us lunch every day: Roy Rogers and fried chicken. I remember just loving it. There were these totally foreign smells and textures. It was completely different, down to the oil it was cooked in."
It was around that time that Pogrebinsky visited an American supermarket for the first time and marveled at how stocked the shelves were. "My parents were in shock," she remembers. "They had to walk out. There was an overabundance of everything. We weren't starving in Ukraine, but here was all the tropical food you can imagine, and you can have it in January, and it goes on for aisles. And then there were cereals and instant noodles and miles and miles of what we know is food, but we have no idea what it is."
The family soon settled in Cleveland, where Pogrebinsky learned about white bread, American cheese, cartons of chocolate milk, school lunch, and McDonald's. "I was like, 'What is this, it's weird.' But now I love it," she says. Her parents had to start from scratch, bussing tables and taking out trash despite their advanced degrees, which instilled in their daughter tenacity to propel a business along despite hardships.
When she graduated from high school, Pogrebinsky went to college for pre-med and then spent a year as a nurse in Ohio before becoming a high school history teacher for four years. When she moved to New York, she spent some time doing translation for the FBI, listening in on wiretaps.
But she was always cooking, and finally, her brother goaded her to follow her passion. "Two weeks later, I was in culinary school," she says, and she loved it. She bounced around New York City kitchens for a bit, doing small gigs with Cesare Casella, working with Cesar Ramirez before he launched Brooklyn Fare, and eventually working in the kitchen at the Food Network.
It wasn't long, though, before she and her brother Sasha (Alex) decided to open their own spot, Bear, in Astoria. "It was a calling," she explains. "Once I started planning it, nothing was going to stand in our way. You don't know what you're going into when it's your first place. You have this blind faith and love for the business that gets you in the door. The second time around, I'll do a lot of things differently."
In this interview, she weighs in on dill, her hatred of truffle flavoring, and why you're missing the point of a chef's work if you ask for substitutions.
Describe your culinary style. I call my culinary style "New European Cuisine." We source our ingredients from local farms and use fine imported products, which allows us to design a menu that is both refined and comforting. My inspiration comes from my very old Russian and Ukrainian heritage. I was always inspired by the natural ingredients of that region: dill, sunflower oil, and various sour creams and milks
Describe how you run your kitchen. I like to teach. I feel like I became a much better chef when I worked under chefs who took the time to teach and to show the purpose and reason of a process. Chefs who took the time to explain the steps of how to arrive at the desired outcome instead of just barking orders.
I have a variety of staff, interns, seasoned cooks, experienced chefs, and dish guys, and everybody participates in the learning process. I like to take my cooks to the market with me and to culinary events. I believe if everybody in my kitchen cooks with dignity and dedication to every step of our process, it will produce better food. Discipline is extremely important, and I feel I achieve that with my staff through patient and meticulous training. I want them to care as much as I do about each drop of sauce that goes on the plate.
How do you develop your recipes and menu? Our menu is seasonal, so we base everything on what is available in the local markets. In the summer, we change it up almost daily. I'm in the market at Union Square or in Long Island City almost every day; sometimes just a simple little pint of young potatoes will catch my eye, and I will build an entire menu around that with some herbs and sea salt and oil. I try not to over-complicate my dishes. To me, nothing beats the taste of a freshly poached baby potato, rich dark sunflower oil, sea salt, a sprig of beautiful dill, a piece of young zesty garlic, and a few thin slices of Salo--Ukrainian lardo. It's simple peasant food that farmers used to eat in the fields at lunch time sitting in the hay looking at the sun. It's a beautiful combination of pure ingredients. That is what I try to do.
My recipes are derived from old Russian and Ukrainian dishes, some that I grew up with, and some that I've researched. Lately I've discovered some really old-school pre-Soviet recipes, and I've been doing a lot of research on the ingredients and preparations to modernize them. But we are not a "Russian" or "ethnic" restaurant; I love my cheeseburgers and Indian curries, I love Japanese cuisine. So I will incorporate elements of those cultures into my recipes as well. I think that is the benefit of being a chef in New York and being exposed to so many inspirational cuisines.
Who or what inspires you? People who are honest. People who work hard, who don't give up, who stand behind their principles. In the culinary industry, I am inspired by people who exhibit patience, who remain confident and focused under intense pressure, and who remain faithful and dedicated to high quality. I am inspired by my father and mother, who, despite intense pressure and risk, left everything they knew behind and fled from the Soviet Union with two babies, three suitcases, and $200. I watched them struggle to build a new life from scratch, and that truly instilled a sense of pride, strength, and dedication.
What chefs or food people do you most admire? I look up to chefs like Alex Guarnaschelli, Maneet Chauhan, and Gabrielle Hamilton. I admire Craig Koketsu (who I worked with at Park Avenue Summer), Cesare Casella (the dean at French Culinary Institute and chef at Salumeria Rosi), Cesar Ramirez (Brooklyn Fare), and Candice Argondizza (French Culinary Institute), who are my mentors. And I admire my friends who have achieved success in this business, because I know how hard it is to get there. Matt Fisher at Fletcher's Brooklyn Barbecue is so passionate about what he does, it's inspiring. My friend Jasmine Shimoda at Degustation was a line cook with me coming up in the city and has now become a very talented and creative chef with a big future. Chef Jose Diaz Vales in Greenpoint. Our circle of Long Island City and Astoria chefs and restaurateurs at places like Queens Kickshaw and Casa Enrique among many others.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes? Sasha Pogrebinsky, my sibling and business partner, is my go-to person. Sasha is super critical, and I know I'll get an honest and well-balanced critique. We've worked together for many years on a variety of projects, and I can always trust Sasha to round out my flavors or balance my composition.
What brand of knife do you use and why? I've used the same Mercer knife for years. It is durable and practical. I remember one time when I was in culinary school I brought in a beautiful, very expensive knife to show off, and my chef was not impressed. He just said in his French accent, "Oui, is not ze knife, is how good you are wiz your knife." That really stuck with me. You can have the best knife in the world, but if your skills suck, it's useless. But I also love my Masanobu Seki-Japan VG-10 from Korin, my Shun Edo chef's knife, and my Zwilling J.A. Henckels Twin Cuisine Hollow Edge Santoku chef's knive, which chef Franklin Becker gave me a few years ago. I learned a lot from him, and he is one of the chef's in New York that I most admire.
Are you partial to any of your spoons? Yes, my Gray Kunz sauce spoon; I've had it since one of my first jobs in NYC with Chef Craig Koketsu, I learned a lot from him about detail and patience.
What's the most underrated kitchen tool? I love my tweezer tongs. You can get really precise action out of them with small or large items, frying, salads, or plating; they are like giant chopsticks. They are not as bulky or heavy as tongs, and you can get really fast accurate movement with them. Mine are attached to my hand.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in? Sharp Russian mustard for sauces.
What's the most underrated ingredient? Fresh dill. It's my signature herb; I put it everywhere. It's refreshing in sauces, it has a balance of bitterness and tartness, and it complements so many ingredients so well. Sasha made our famous St. Dill martini based on this amazing herb.
Is there a food you won't eat? No. I'll eat anything, and I'll try anything--more than once.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won't accommodate? Not really. I like a challenge. Like most chefs, I think, I do not like it when guests attempt to create their own dish by asking for substitutions, other sauces, etc. A dish by a professional chef is a work of art: It has a story, and it is meant to be experienced as-is. It's like a book or a movie. You can't read a great book and say, "Gee, I would like this character to come into the scene a bit later." A composed dish by a chef is a story, you have to follow the plot from the beginning to the end, or you will miss the whole point!
Is there an ingredient you won't work with? I'm not a big fan of foie gras. I think happy, healthy, and natural animals taste best.
What do you hate seeing on menus? Truffle anything. Unless you are using real truffles or Da Rosario brand truffle oils. Otherwise it's some form of fake truffle flavoring. It tastes totally fake.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen? I love this tradition. There is no better thank-you than a plate licked clean, a happy, satisfied customer who comes back again and again, and a simple "thank you, you're a genius, I worship you" at the end. But I will also take cash, fine scotch, and a day at the spa. The spa should be mandatory and subsidized if you work in food.
What's next for New York restaurants? A return to smaller, simpler, more intimate cooking. And I'm hoping this catches on--new European and modern Russian. Russian food was always about making the best of what you have. We only ate seasonally because that was available. We didn't eat meat every day because we had to drive out to the village and get a pig and bring it home and butcher it. That was normal. Growing up here in America and falling in love with these different cultures--that is what modern Russian is. I use dill, sunflower oil, sour cream, and root vegetables. But I'll walk down the street in Astoria, and the smell coming out of Indian buffet is curry, and it's amazing. So I pickle my onions in curry. I'm using things that are available and around, but I'm incorporating them into Russian cooking. New York is over-saturated with amazing innovative chefs and crazy ethnic cuisine. So I constantly think about how can I bring something I love and am obsessed with to the scene.
At what local bar or restaurant do you spend a lot of time? Bushwick Country Club in Williamsburg, I've been going there for years, since I was a culinary student. John Roberts, the owner, is a great guy to have a beer with.
What's the most underrated restaurant in New York City? Right now I'm addicted to this little pizza shop called S & S Calabro in Astoria on 14th Street. It's around the block from Bear. He's been there for over 30 years, and he still makes all the dough by hand. It's so simple and perfect.
Who's the most underrated culinary figure in New York City? The real underrated chefs are the ones who don't cook for fame and fortune but because they love it and because they love the joy it brings to others. You can sense that love in the food, and sadly, those people will never be superstars, but in so many ways they don't need that anyway.
At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out? I like to go to my friend's places. The last place I celebrated was at the Saint Austere in Williamsburg.
Check back tomorrow for part two of my interview with Bear's Natasha Pogrebinsky.
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