This Fresh Batch of New York Bakers Is Making Bread Interesting Again
"It’s funny, when people meet me, they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re not what I expected.’"
Composite iIllustration by Lia Kantrowitz
It was the wake of the 2016 presidential election and Natasha Pickowicz felt like nothing made sense anymore. As the executive pastry chef at Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar in the Met Breuer, she found herself discussing the political situation with her colleagues almost daily. Sick of feeling helpless, she decided to contribute in a way that played to her strengths and spoke to her values.
“We get asked all the time to be part of galas and fundraisers and silent auctions—things where it costs $5,000 to get in the door, where they’re not really for you and me and everyone that we know,” she says. While she acknowledges that there’s a time and a place for such flashy affairs, she felt the circumstances called for something more radical. “I was interested in doing something more inclusive and a little bit DIY.”
So she threw a bake sale. Only instead of box-mix brownies and Rice Krispie treats, this one included confections from pastry royalty like Dorie Greenspan. The 50 items each baker provided sold out in roughly 45 minutes, and the event had raked in $8,000, all of which went to benefit Planned Parenthood New York. It was such a hit that she repeated it again in 2018, this time telling everyone to bring 200 items. Restaurants like Le Coucou and Gramercy Tavern chipped in, while the addition of booze donated by Yolo Mezcal and Enlightened Wines gave the event a house party vibe. Within a few hours, not a crumb remained and the tally was over $22,000.
The money matters, of course, but what really interested Pickowicz were the lasting ripple effects the event triggered. Participants who had previously felt powerless signed up to volunteer for Planned Parenthood. Since the bake sale, friends and strangers have told Pickowicz about throwing similar events in Baltimore, Nashville, and other cities.
“Hearing people talk about planning bake sales across the country blows my mind,” Pickowicz says. “It’s not just about this one day, but also what that sparked and all the conversations that happened after.”
A bake sale may not be the conventional path to grassroots activism, but sticking to convention has never been Pickowicz’s style. Her culinary creations over the years have included everything from an ice cream sandwich made with brown butter-cricket flour cookies, smoked worm salt, dulce de leche, and sweet corn ice cream for a dinner at Flora Bar to cakes garnished with candied hemp leaves at Wifey, her Park Slope pop-up with artist Simone Shubuck in 2017.
While Pickowicz is now one of the most respected pastry chefs in New York, she followed one of the least conventional possible routes to get there. After graduating from Cornell University, she worked as a music journalist for an alt weekly. She was dead-set on a PhD in ethnomusicology and when skinny envelopes showed up from McGill, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, she figured her life was over at 25. Dejected and adrift, she started working illegally in Montreal to make ends meet.
“The service industry is notorious for sneaking people in through the backside, so I was able to get a job as a part-time baker in this sort of punk, queer luncheonette-bodega,” Pickowicz says. “They had this pastry counter that was kind of Betty Crocker-with-a-subversive-twist sweets. Everything was very abundant and Technicolor and a ton of fun.”
In the absence of supervision, Pickowicz resorted to reading books and watching YouTube tutorials to fill in the gaps in her skillset. After a year and a half of whipping up lemon bars and brownies, she moved to Lawrence, a fine-dining restaurant, where she found the guidance she needed to morph into a pastry powerhouse. By this time, she’d fallen hard for the hustle of the kitchen.
“It was completely intoxicating. I had never felt more connected to a group of people I had worked with,” Pickowicz says. “When I would write, a whole day would go by and I wouldn’t have spoken to anyone. I really felt like I was going crazy. Being in a restaurant gave me this charge from just being around all these humans.”
Fast forward a few years and several stints at high-profile New York kitchens, and Pickowicz is still pushing boundaries. As the bake sale continues to gain momentum, she’s already strategizing about how to work more effectively with Planned Parenthood New York, as well as fostering a relationship with Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a community-based nonprofit steps from Flora Bar on the Upper East Side.
“Activism, volunteer work, and protecting, supporting, and raising up women—more and more those seem to be a part of the work that I’m trying to accomplish within this group,” she says. Part of that work starts at home. As the food industry grapples with the fallout of #MeToo, she believes it is time to reexamine the fundamentals of restaurant culture. “You see these old-school kitchens where women think it’s part of the job to suffer quietly. That’s something people in my generation have experienced, especially in an industry that’s stigmatized and gendered like pastry. I think that’s fucking bogus and I’m over it.”
Above all else, Pickowicz knows that change begins in her own kitchen, in her own neighborhood, and in her own city.
“Some have said, ‘You’re a restaurant. You’re just here to feed me. You shouldn’t stand for anything,’” Pickowicz says. “Well, we’re not just a restaurant. We’re people. And we do think it’s important to stand for something.”
There is a scar the color of a fresh bruise just above Leah Morrow’s elbow. It’s a souvenir from a high school wrestling match that left her with a broken arm that never healed properly. When she reaches to lift a tray of sourdough loaves, years of built-up tissue coil protectively around the old wound.
“Sometimes I still feel it when I pick up heavy stuff, but I pick up heavy stuff all the time,” she says with a shrug. “I do know that there are times to ask for help, but I also like saying, ‘I got this.’”
Morrow may be just 27 years old, with a mop of strawberry-blonde curls and a hint of a studied drawl from a small town near the Adirondacks, but she carries herself with the authority befitting a veteran of multiple Michelin-starred kitchens. As the executive pastry chef at Brooklyn Bread Lab, she’s currently in charge of one of New York’s most ambitious baking programs. The warehouse space in Bushwick is one of the few in the city with its own mill, which churns out soft red wheat for laminated pastry dough and high-gluten hard red wheat for crusty artisan loaves, as well as more niche offerings like buckwheat and acorn flour.
Baking is finicky at best, but adding freshly milled grains to the mix alters the whole equation. Morrow’s flours absorb more water than conventional ones, allowing her to crank up the hydration levels in her breads for a spectacular crumb, but rendering most recipe books useless. Everything from the weather to the season of the grains has an impact. A slight miscalculation means having to start from scratch—not a pleasant prospect when you’re dealing with 24-hour fermentation periods.
“Bread is a science. You can really geek out,” she says. “You could be working on the same kind of bread for years making little teeny tweaks all the time.”
Some might find all of this maddening, but Morrow relishes the opportunity to indulge her perfectionist side. She’s been in and out of restaurant kitchens since she was five years old, when she started rolling silverware for dinner service at a lakeside eatery where her mother worked as general manager. Within a few years, she was working as a hostess, then as a runner, then a prep cook. By the time she was 15, she was the only female line cook in the kitchen. During the day, she went to an arts high school, where she gravitated towards physically demanding, precision-driven disciplines like blacksmithing, glassblowing, fiber arts, and large-scale muralism. “When they asked me in high school what I wanted to do for a living, I told them I wanted to be either a bodybuilder or a glassblower,” she says. “The counselor just laughed at me.”
Morrow didn’t care. After school several days a week, she would head to the kitchen and work the line. An older cook nicknamed Navy Dave took her under his wing and taught her to work on what she calls “military time.” She learned that she could accomplish a great deal in five minutes. Although her mother worried about the burn marks accumulating on her arms, Morrow would show them off like battle scars.
“I used to hear the ticket machine in my dreams. We were slammed all the time and so the only noise you heard for hours was CH-CH-CH, just tickets rolling out of the printer,” she says, unable to repress a small smile. “But I loved it.”
“When they asked me in high school what I wanted to do for a living, I told them I wanted to be either a bodybuilder or a glassblower. The counselor just laughed at me.”
Her growing confidence would ultimately lead her to the Culinary Institute of America, followed by Per Se at age 20. By the time she left Le Cirque at age 24, she refused to accept anything less than an executive pastry chef position.
Nowadays, Morrow is content to hone her craft at a slower, more deliberate pace. Her daily rhythms allow her to fully immerse herself in the task before her.
“I’ve always liked getting my hands dirty. When the machines break down, I try to fix them. If I can’t, we call the mechanic in and I watch him so that next time we don’t have to pay him to come in and I can fix it,” she says with a grin. “I feel like a lot of times, people look past me and ask, ‘Who’s your boss?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m their boss. Right here.’”
In 1976, a Hmong woman plunged into the murky waters of the Mekong River with her daughter in tow. Behind her lay the ruins of her homeland Laos, where she had been part of the CIA-backed military efforts against the communist Pathēt Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. Just over a kilometer to the other side lay Udon Thani, a rural province in northeastern Thailand, where she spent the next four years in a refugee camp. Shortly after her arrival, she met a Thai Buddhist monk, who later renounced his vows to be with her. The pair fled to the United States, ending up in Columbus, Ohio, where Dianna Daoheung was born two years later.
“That’s probably where I get my driving force from: having immigrant parents,” says Daoheung. “I don’t ever want to take the reasons why they came to America for granted.”
Daoheung’s story is rooted in the sort of cross-cultural melding and ballsy entrepreneurship that is etched into the mythos of New York. English was her second language as a child and she started learning to pound curry pastes from the moment she was able to hold a toy. Although she started her career working in corporate marketing, Daoheung left it behind to take a chance on a pivot into the culinary sphere. Now, as the executive chef at Black Seed Bagels, this woman from the Midwest is one of the city’s most formidable bagel bakers. An overnight rise gives her work a dense, yeasty crumb and a blistered crust that crackles against your teeth. While a blast of heat from a wood-fired oven and a kiss of honey in her recipe nod to Montreal, the dough’s DNA is pure New York. Since opening in 2014, Black Seed has garnered praise from everyone from Julia Moskin of the Times to Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker, who declared Daoheung one of the“few courageous people in New York [who] are valiantly struggling to make real bagels.”
“It’s funny, when people meet me, they’re like, ‘Wait, you’re not what I expected.’ You don’t have to be Italian to cook Italian food. You don’t have to be Chinese to cook Chinese food. So I think it’s cool to be the child of a Thai Buddhist monk making Jewish pastries in New York,” Daoheung says. “I’m sure that there’s people that are gonna hate on it, but I hope the world becomes more open about different people cooking from different cultures.”
Daoheung has faced her share of skeptics. When Noah Bernamoff, with whom she had worked at Mile End Deli, and Matt Kliegman drafted her to develop all the recipes for the launch of Black Seed, “gluten” and “carbs” had become dirty words and bakeries were fighting for survival. Bagels are labor-intensive, but customers balk at paying more than a few bucks for them, making profit margins whisper-thin.
“Bagel places were closing down left and right. And Matt and Noah were like, ‘Screw it, let’s be crazy. Let’s open a bagel shop,’” says Daoheung, who was working at Isa in Williamsburg at the time. Setting up in a town where locals remain fiercely devoted to the generations-old shops they grew up with didn’t exactly lower the pressure. “When we first opened the doors, we were really nervous. Like, ‘Are people going to dig what we do?’ Especially with something like bagels. It’s one thing that everybody has an opinion about, especially old-school New Yorkers.”
The gamble paid off, in part because of Daoheung’s respect for the baking traditions of those who came before her. She’s obsessed with the history of Jewish baked goods and spends much of her spare time reading up on everything from the symbolism braided into a loaf of challah to the history of the Bagel Bakers Local 338, the powerful bakers’ union that ruled the industry in New York during the 1930s.
Though Daoheung has nothing against newfangled twists elsewhere, in her kitchen even cinnamon-raisin would be sacrilegious.
“As long as I’m running Black Seed, we will never have an effing rainbow bagel,” she says. “I don’t mean to say that in an eye-rolling-snotty sort of way, but we’re trying to keep it classic.”
Her one major departure from tradition comes in the form of monthly chef sandwich collaborations with the likes of Danny Bowien, who paired a jet-black squid ink bagel with Iberico ham, and Daniel Humm, who piled truffled cream cheese, pickled celery, and smoked sturgeon on a celery bagel.
“Every time I shoot one of these chefs an email, I’m sure they’re not gonna waste their time. Then they say yes with a double exclamation point,” she says, visibly awed to work with someone like Humm. With a laugh, she adds, “You know, I’ve still never eaten at Eleven Madison Square Park. Once I win a James Beard, then I’ll treat myself to a trip there.”
At the rate she’s going, Daoheung may not have long to wait. She’s already picked up two consecutive Beard nominations. Attending the ceremony gave her a sense of where the industry as a whole is moving, as well as a great deal of hope.
“I went to the awards show—it was one of the most inspiring things. It felt like there was a stronger message of how we as chefs can really be the frontrunners of putting action into place,” she says. “That extends from choosing really solid local food sources to immigration policies, which have a huge impact on the restaurant industry.”
Karen Bornarth had already been working as a baker for years when her focus started shifting from the loaves coming out of the ovens to the people who were making them. Her interest in bread started at an early age, when she would watch her grandmother and aunt combine flour and water in greased coffee cans. To her, the process seemed like magic, like conjuring up something from nothing. That fascination would later lead her to the Culinary Institute of America, followed by years in commercial kitchens including Amy’s Bread and Le Pain Quotidien. As she enjoyed the places she worked, there were systemic issues within the industry as a whole that troubled her.
“I became very interested in the people I was working alongside and the conditions in which they were working,” Bornarth says. “Hot Bread Kitchen seemed to me to be a way that I might be able to affect some change in the industry while impacting people’s lives for the better.”
Since making the leap four years ago, Bornarth has spent her time over steaming ovens, but the stories of those around her and the nature of her mission have changed drastically. Hot Bread Kitchen, an East Harlem-based social enterprise, provides fair wages and job training for women in New York facing economic insecurity, many of whom are recent immigrants. As program director for the bakers in training, Bornarth works side by side with the women in the kitchen, and has witnessed firsthand how big a difference it can make. Some, like Hawa, a West African mother of two, have been able to bring their families to the United States, while others like Barbara, a native New Yorker who battled substance abuse issues for years and has spent time in prison, have gotten a second shot at life.
“I saw [Barbara] recently and she’d just celebrated her her two-year anniversary of sobriety. She says a lot of what’s kept her sober is having a regular job to go to. That’s not easy for someone like Barbara, when you have so many strikes against you. You’re a woman, you’re in your fifties, you’ve been incarcerated,” Bornarth says. Having Hot Bread Kitchen’s seal of approval and connections makes finding stable employment a whole lot more possible.
The project has grown in scope since 2007, when Jessamyn Rodriguez first launched a more modest version out of her home kitchen in Brooklyn. Rodriguez hails from the nonprofit sector rather than the culinary one, but a minor misunderstanding seven years earlier had given her an idea she couldn’t get out of her head. When explaining that Rodriguez was applying for a position at Women’s World Banking, a microfinance organization, a friend thought she had said “Women’s World Baking.”
“It planted this seed in her mind of a baking collective run by women from all around the world,” Bornarth says. “In many parts of the world women are the ones who are baking at home, but are underrepresented in the professional sector. So it was the idea that given the right training, women could access value from that.”
When Rodriguez reached out to Bornarth, it felt like the right time to help build on what was already set in motion. Since then, Hot Bread Kitchen has grown rapidly. Most of the participants are women living in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx, many of whom stopped by Hot Bread Kitchen’s stand at La Marqueta, where they offer pay-what-you-can bread in the afternoons. The organization doubled the number of women it helps over the past year and hopes to double it again within the next one. They’ve also expanded their program to include training in to other culinary disciplines and launched an incubator space for food entrepreneurs in East Harlem, which currently hosts around 80 small businesses. Members have access to a certified commercial kitchen and professional advice for some of the lowest available rates in the city.
“If you’re the woman in East Harlem selling tamales on the corner, but you can’t manage demand anymore from your small home kitchen, then the incubator is for you,” Bornarth says.
Although Rodriguez recently announced that she would step down from the venture, Hot Bread Kitchen is still building momentum and has set the stage for national expansion in the near future. Part of the strength of the program lies in the fact that it generates more than half of its own funding from the breads the participants make. Many of their top sellers are family recipes from the baker’s home countries.
“Our tortillas come from Nancy, who brought this knowledge learned from her own mother and her own grandmother while growing up in Mexico,” Bornarth says. “Our best-selling bread is our m’smen, which came years ago from a woman named Bouchra from Morocco. It’s funny, we had to convince her to share the recipe with us, because she was so sure that Americans would never want to eat it. But people love it.”
The fact that immigrants lie at the core of Hot Bread Kitchen has only made the endeavor feel more vital since 2016.
“There’s a lot more fear among the immigrant women since 2016. We’ve added efforts to our programming to make sure that people understand their rights,” Bornarth says. “We’re honestly so lucky to be in a place like New York, where so many people are galvanizing against the forces that be.”