In part one of my interview with Bear chef-owner Natasha Pogrebinsky, she talked about her life as a Ukrainian refugee and what she’s trying to accomplish at her Astoria restaurant. Here in part two, she divulges a guilty pleasure, talks about the best meal (and nap!) she’s ever had, and touches on a forthcoming book and her plans for a new TV show.
What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
I would like to see more restaurants that cook simple, real food and don’t over-complicate it. It just has to taste good. Nothing will ever taste or look better than natural ingredients that haven’t been over-processed or over-complicated.
What do you wish would go away?
The crazy DOH fines and unfair restrictions, regulations, and inspections. I know we need our food to be safe and sanitary. I’m all for pristine culinary environments and safe temps. But sometimes those inspections go too far. I taught Foodservice Management as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College for five years. I know the system, but we can do better than what we currently have.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
No guilt. But maybe Chef Boyardee. I know we are not supposed to love canned food, but
sometimes, it’s really all you need after putting out fine-dining fare from a hot kitchen for 12 hours. And Chef Boyardee is from Parma, Ohio, where I grew up.
What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
Fried large, thick perciatelli pasta with butter, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. My dad used to make it: boiled pasta pan-fried with butter, some really good sea salt … mmm, simple and satisfying.
What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten?
My father Alexander Pogrebinsky is an artist. So he used to take us to Paris with him for art shows. One year we were there for Thanksgiving, and we drove out to a little town called Chartres; there is a beautiful ancient cathedral in the center of town. It was cold, and the town was almost deserted, there were cobblestones everywhere. We ended up having dinner at this old little restaurant with big French windows and old wooden tables. I had a duck stew with mushrooms, potatoes, chestnuts, and some kind of magical sauce. You could tell it was meticulously prepped and cooked with love for hours. I just remember savoring every bite. On the ride back to Paris, I had the best nap of my life after that meal.
What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I feel like I’ve already put things on the menu that would be considered a hard sell. We have something we like to call our “secret menu.” It’s not written, it’s only verbal and you have to ask for it. Our regulars do it all the time. I love old Soviet delicacies like cod fish liver with toast, beef tongue aspic with horseradish, pig fat carpaccio a.k.a. Ukrainian salo. I put those things on our chef’s tasting menu all the time, and they are a huge hit. That’s what I love about the New York scene–people will try anything.
What music is best to cook to?
Up next, Pogrebinsky talks about hardships that come with the industry.
What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking?
Have patience, be humble, don’t talk, listen, and copy the best cooks around you. When you are in the kitchen, nothing else matters, so focus on your every move. If you think you are doing a good job, try to find a way to do a better job.
What do you wish you could tell your line cook self?
Don’t stress out so much.
What’s your favorite dish on your menu right now?
Roasted eggplant and tomato ragout, it reminds me of the kind of food my mom used to cook in the summer for us.
What are your favorite local purveyors?
Socrates Sculpture Park Farmer’s Market. Parisi Bakery: I love their pumpernickel, though anything there is good. Best of the Sea fish market: They have some rare finds sometimes that are hard to get anywhere else.
What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
It’s the best place to own a restaurant. We have so many resources, so much inspiration around us, a great chef community, and adventurous eaters. But it’s also the hardest place to survive and thrive. You can be the best restaurant on the planet, but how do you get noticed out of thousands of great restaurants in the city? Also the fines, the rents, the cost of licenses, and the cost of everything else is challenging. I know so many great places that had to close because of the expense. Restaurants bring culture and jobs and make our communities better in so many ways, it’s a shame when we lose that.
Describe your craziest night in the kitchen.
I don’t think there is such thing as a night in the kitchen that is crazy-free. For me, because I’m an owner on top of being a chef, I have to worry about the deliveries, the maintenance, the publicity, the licenses and permits, and the guests and customers while, oh, I supervise the kitchen and cook every night of the week. But no matter how bad a night or crazy, I love it all! When stuff starts to go down, that’s when the adrenaline kicks in and you feel like, “Bring it on!” The dish guy doesn’t show, ok … the freezer breaks down … what else? … the sink starts flooding … I’ll handle it … I’m slammed with orders … I got it! … here comes the inspection! Bring it!
What’s your proudest culinary moment?
Well, I hope it doesn’t end here, but so far, opening BEAR. It’s what I’ve been working towards for so many years. It’s been a dream for as long as I can remember.
On the next page, Pogrebinsky talks about her book and TV plans.
What’s your desert island food?
Pickled tomatoes. I’m obsessed. Bread, butter, salt. I can eat that everyday. Can I also have some prosciutto? Or Mortadella?
What’s the most pressing food issue today?
Fracking. It’s very straightforward: It destroys farms and land, and it will destroy the land forever. It’s not like you can buy the farm, do the fracking, and later it becomes a farm again. You pollute the water and the land. I have a personal relationship with my farmers, and I like going upstate: I used to go upstate to summer camp and live in the wild. So I’ve developed an appreciation for American country. A huge part of my cooking is that I go to the markets, and just the idea of losing access is very scary. Farmers struggle as it is: They’re bought out by oil companies and electric companies. I don’t want to lose access to beautiful radishes and fresh parsley.
What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Pickled tomatoes. Did I already say I’m obsessed?
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
I drank warm goat milk right after it came out of a goat. It was delicious.
Favorite food-related item to give as a gift?
Extra Virgin Sunflower Oil. It has to be made in Ukraine. It’s a very unique and beautiful flavor; it’s very versatile in use and also very healthy.
You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
My mom, Lena Pogrebinsky. Anything. She is an amazing cook, and she is so creative and innovative. I learned a lot from her. She’s influenced a lot of my style.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I’ll go to friends’ restaurants and talk about the restaurant. Or they come here and talk about their line-cooks or what’s in the market. I go find weird little theaters that show year-old movies. I like discovering a new bodega that sells weird hot sauce. I catch up on more business. I go to summer parties. Everything revolves around Bear and my kitchen. But this is fun for me. I don’t feel like I need to get away
What’s next for you?
Right now, I’m just working on Bear. It’s my baby, and I have to raise it right. But in the near future, I have a really exciting book coming out about my food memories growing up in Ukraine, my transition to American culture, my journey as a cook in New York restaurants, what I learned from working in food TV, and the stress of being a restaurant owner. We have a crazy and new TV show in the works, too. I love all aspects of this industry, so I hope there is a lot of “next” for me.