On Pastry-Making and the Punk Rock Appeal of Pop-ups
In the lead-up to their first culinary collab, Natasha Pickowicz and Doris Hồ-Kane sit down to talk about staying scrappy, championing better representation, and forging new paths in the industry.
When Doris Hồ-Kane and Natasha Pickowicz team up, the world gets a little more delicious.
Hồ-Kane is founder of Bạn Bè (New York City’s first Vietnamese American bakery) and 17.21 Women, an archive (with a book in the works) featuring remarkable Asian Pacific Islander women through history. Pickowicz is the Brooklyn-based culinary whiz behind the Never Ending Taste pop-up series and former executive pastry chef at Flora Bar and Altro Paradiso. The pair met four years ago, but they had been following each other’s work long before.
Fast-forward to their first culinary collab this weekend, May 22 and 23: N.E.T. x Bạn Bè, a pop-up at the Carroll Gardens bakery that sold out within hours of the pre-order link going live. We can only hope there is more Thạch Rau Câu (Vietnamese agar jellies), Sichuan peanut cookies, and coconut-adzuki-rhubarb-strawberry swirl sorbet (some of the menu highlights) in our future.
In advance of the event, we asked if Hồ-Kane and Pickowicz would record a conversation that ended up covering everything from managing the work/life balance and convincing immigrant moms of the merits of a creative career path, to amplifying diverse foodways and bringing some punk rock energy to the pastry world (with a side of The Simpsons).
And if you’re hankering for those pop-up treats, head to our recipes for Rhubarb and Rose Syrup and Thạch Rau Câu to get your sweet fix.
Natasha: It's so exciting to put the pop-up out into the world and have it be real. I think I told you this, I had another pop-up scheduled at Ursula in Crown Heights this month, but I felt so much care and thought had been put into how we were planning our pop-up that I hadn't been able to devote the time to also execute this other one. So I texted [owner] Eric See over the weekend and said, “I want this to be super special. I don't want to just throw something together.” And he wrote back, “Totally, let's have it be awesome and weird. Let's hold off.” As soon as he said that it was this weight being lifted off my shoulders. We were texting a second ago about this idea of “Yes” culture, where you want to make everybody happy and be inclusive. What's your perspective on that? How do you negotiate what your needs are and what people expect or want from you?
Doris: I've gotten a bump of requests from people and it's been hard saying no, but it's something I've learned to do in the past year having Bạn Bè blow up on this little corner. Most people understand, and they're like, “It's fine, when you have time, or when you have the bandwidth, I'll revisit,” but it's hard, because you do want to help everyone and to give people your energy. I just have a limited amount right now because of my kids and the book.
Natasha: Yeah, you kind of get hung up on these micro problems, where people are asking you for a special order here, an event there, a media request here, but it's this idea of also zooming out and looking at the bigger picture, like you say, which is getting your bakery open, taking care of your family, and these bigger things—which will probably set up a better structure for you to execute those other queries people have for you. And I live alone and don't have a family to take care of!
Doris: I keep my family in mind at all times with every decision I have to make. The bakery is two-and-a-half blocks from my apartment, so I can run back and forth. I’m still nursing my daughter. My kids come to the bakery and do Zoom school sometimes because that's how we can fit everything in. On top of mom duties, I want them to see me doing other things like writing my book, baking, helping other people. Doing this pop-up with you is really important because I feel like you set this example for everyone on how to expand beyond baked goods and look at the bigger picture and change the trajectory of the food industry from your corner of Greenpoint.
Natasha: I don't know about that. But thank you. Just to go back to what you were saying about setting that kind of example for your kids. I'm curious if you could speak a little bit about the relationship with your own mom, because the first thing I thought of when you said that was that both my parents worked full-time when I was growing up, but my mom converted our garage in our suburban San Diego house into her private art studio. And having that proximity to her creative process as an individual instead of just her responsibilities as a mom, I was so full of awe for that skill she had. It seemed like this mysterious thing that had nothing to do with me, but that she let me observe or participate in a little.
Doris: Right. For me growing up I barely saw my dad; he was constantly working. My mom was at home taking care of us, but at night, she was a piecemeal sewer. She was constantly making clothes or bed sheets or pillowcases, and that's how we survived. We helped her at night. She is a very creative person and very expressive, but it was always about our livelihood. So for my kids, I want them to see the struggle and the joy in everything. I saw a lot of that darkness because we were children of refugees starting over in a new country. It definitely planted a seed for me—hard work, but also the creative aspects of how my mom cooked food with so little. She had to improvise. She would use ketchup in place of this slow-simmered tomato kho (stew-y) sauce because it was cheaper and saved time that she could spend with us. I get that scrappiness from her.
Natasha: Do you ever feel pressure to have this picture-perfect model life for yourself, knowing what your parents had to endure or their personal sacrifices to make sure you're thriving now? The first 15 years of me being an adult were about having to really struggle with convincing my mom that working in restaurants or making food was a worthwhile profession.
I think that for her, being a Chinese immigrant and then coming to the United States, she has these more conservative ideas of what success was for me. I was five years into my cooking career and she would still be talking about me going to law school or becoming a doctor. And I said, “Mom, when have I ever expressed an interest in any of those things?” She was attracted to the so-called stability or the financial security of those careers, even though she is an artist and a creative person. It was almost this contradiction, because she didn't necessarily want that for me; she saw that I'm a creative person like her.
I seem to have crossed this threshold with her of beginning to accept my work—partially because of creating culinary experiences and moments for people that go beyond just making food and selling it to someone, but that tie in social justice or a DIY kind of punk culture, or, you know, community building in some way. My mom can finally see that working in food can also encapsulate chefs working with people in other fields and that’s what helped her accept the work that I do now. But it's been a journey.
Doris: I mean, my mom still doesn't understand what I do. She knows I do 17.21 Women, which is an AAPI archive of women's history. I talked to her about it and she gets it, but at the same time she doesn't understand the importance of it existing in this world right now. She's always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer or an investment banker.
Natasha: Oh my god that comes up all the time. I'm like, “finance, really?!”
Doris: I did give my mom false hope because I took all the AP classes and math. I took calculus AB, which is the second highest. She still struggles with the bakery, even though it's real. She hasn't been up here since it opened but once she's in the space she’ll understand what I'm trying to do. I mean, she totally loves that I'm exposing people to Vietnamese desserts up in the East Coast, because in California and Texas, those desserts are everywhere. She's excited. But she asked me if I considered going back to medical school, like, last year.
Natasha: So funny. In Dallas, are there brick-and-mortar bakeries, or is it that you go to a restaurant and there are things on the menu? Is your bakery here in Brooklyn going to be modeled after those places in any way, or are you trying to do something different?
Doris: It's my own take, but inspired by the bakeries in Dallas where there are lottery tickets being sold alongside DVDs of Vietnamese singers from the ’60s. I like that hodgepodge. But there are dedicated bakeries where you can go in and get banh mi, which is the Vietnamese baguette, and all the desserts I'm making, but with my own spin. I'm using seasonal ingredients versus only Southeast Asian ingredients, which aren't that easy to get here. Everything's pretty frozen.
Natasha: I was going to ask how you source for your space. Are you ordering anything overseas? How does that work when you're trying to get things that are authentic to you?
Doris: So right now I'm ordering from a group here in New York called Southeast; they provide ingredients for a lot of Vietnamese and Asian restaurants in the city. They'll have things but it's all frozen. If I want something fresh, I have to contact family or friends in California, who have kumquat trees or pandan, which I'm trying to grow again. I have friends here who work on farms, and I'm trying to get them to help me grow a few things as well.
Natasha: Oh, wow, cool. That's such a great idea. Can you explain what your vision is for the space? Are you going to have your version of the DVDs of ’60s singers? Are you going to bring in things outside of your own treats?
Doris: Yeah, definitely. I carry Nguyen Coffee Supply right now. It’s the first specialty Vietnamese coffee company in the U.S. run by Sahra Nguyen, a first-gen Vietnamese American. She brings beans over from a farm there and then roasts them in Brooklyn. And I guess my version of the DVDs is my archive. I'm hoping to get permission to reproduce things, whether it be music or paper ephemera.
Natasha: Which makes sense, because why wouldn't the space embody all of the things you're working on?
Doris: Right. I just want it to be easy and natural. I don't want to force anything. So I'm combining every aspect of my life (including my kids) into the space.
Natasha: A lot of people are describing your space as the first Vietnamese bakery, which I'm sure must be a little bit weird to hear, because no one's ever the first to do anything these days. But did you feel like there was a lack of representation in the city?
Doris: I did research and I don't know who was the first to have a Vietnamese bakery here. There are definitely places that have Vietnamese desserts, but I haven't heard of a dedicated bakery on the East Coast. I'm proud that people think I am the first but there is also pressure. There isn't representation here in the dessert realm because of immigration. Most Vietnamese refugees settled in the Midwest and then eventually into California, Texas, and Seattle. The East Coast was maybe a later movement in the ’90s or even in the early 2000s. I'm just now hearing my native tongue being spoken a lot in Chinatown. Moving here 20 years ago, it was a different story. I could not find a community. So I always had this idea in the back of my head to do a bakery. There are a lot of Vietnamese Americans that come to me and say, “I haven't had this in years,”or “My mom doesn't really make this.” It's a nostalgic thing. It's very comforting, especially during the pandemic. And then I have people who have no idea what I'm making, and they're like, “What is this booger-y cake?” It's not offensive in any way. It's just a texture that people aren't used to, like bouncy or chewy things.
Natasha: Where have you worked and done pastry prior to this? What's your pastry path?
Doris: Three or four years ago I reached out to Caren Tommasone at Poppy’s, who was the executive pastry chef there, asking if they would take on an apprentice. I was thinking about going to cooking school, but everyone said, “It's so expensive. Don't do it. Knock on doors and someone will take you.” Caren actually got back to me half a year later, when they were more open to having someone else help, because it's such a personal thing. And the space was so small at the time, the pastry kitchen. She took me on and I did an apprenticeship for about six months.
Natasha: And just to interject, what you're describing is exceedingly rare. A lot of restaurants, or a lot of pastry chefs, say, “I don't have time for this” and want to work with people who already kind of know what they're doing and can hit the ground running. What was your skill level working in a bakery at that point? Had you ever made batches of anything that big before? Were you working with equipment that was new to you?
Doris: This was definitely new to me. Growing up, my parents had a Vietnamese restaurant for a few years so I was used to restaurant life, but they never really baked anything. Going into the kitchen and seeing the big Hobart and the Blodgetts was intimidating, but Caren was very patient with me. I guess my baking background is the bake sales I did in high school. I was just a home baker and I wanted to go past that.
Natasha: This last year was obviously insanely challenging and hard in so many ways. But I think for some people it served to help articulate a more authentic direction for what to do next with our careers as we're seeing that these sort of restaurant environments are perhaps less and less aligned with our own values. I feel really inspired by seeing so many of our talented peers going off and diving in independently. Did COVID factor into how Bạn Bè has grown?
Doris: I feel like I popped up on a lot of people’s radars during the pandemic who weren't familiar with my work with 17.21 and think that I'm a product of the pandemic, when in actuality I'd been planning prior to that.
Natasha: So true. People don't realize the timeline behind these things is actually much greater than what the public gets to see. “Micro bakeries” became a term we never heard before and suddenly it’s in every think piece. When I came by the space and you were showing me around, you were fantasizing about what it could be. How do you envision the bakery once it's open to the public?
Doris: The front area that you saw would be the retail space. The little kitchen in the back I want to become a mini archive for 17.21, where people can read up on Asian American history or discover things they had never even heard about. It is a tiny apartment back there. It’s my chill zone. But I'm hoping to transform the space into somewhere that people can come for comfort and to talk.
Natasha: I love that. Especially these days, talking about food means to really stress the importance of contextualizing ingredients and cooking techniques. More than ever, people seem to want less of “Try our Asian-inspired menu” or “Come for our exotic dishes,” but a more nuanced, sensitive reading on these complicated food ways and the diaspora to the United States. I was just talking about this in the Never Ending Salon, which has been an incredible way for me to explore pastry in a more global sense and amplify diverse food ways. Michael Rakowitz’s shop in downtown Brooklyn, where he was selling Iraqi dates, was also an art space for people to learn about the political backstory behind the embargoes and why it's so hard to get Iraqi dates versus Lebanese or Egyptian dates.
Chef Jessica Quinn was on last week talking about her Latvian/Ukrainian upbringing and trips to Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay. These cuisines are not considered high-end, fine dining in New York—which is crazy, because we're in a so-called urban metropolis and yet representation for this vast swath of culinary tradition is not happening in a city that prioritizes French and an Italian-American-style cooking. So I love this idea of your bakery being a space where people are eating and enjoying delicious things, of course, but then there's also this chance to engage in conversation and the ideas that inform where all these things are coming from. I think we need that context when people are talking about a booger-textured dessert. On that note, we're still working on the final menu for the pop-up, but have you given any thought to things you want to include that we could talk about here?
Doris: Yeah, I was thinking of doing the mini version of my cookie tins, because the waitlist is now at 10,000. It's going to take forever to get through, so I want people to be able to pick that up. And I'm excited about the ice cream. I'm hoping to collaborate with you on that.
Natasha: Yes, definitely. I'm excited to make ice cream again. It’s the number one thing I miss making while working in a restaurant.
Doris: Can you actually tell me a little bit about how you started Never Ending Taste?
Natasha: Yeah, the short version is that last spring, I was put on furlough and eventually permanently terminated from Matter House, the restaurant group where I had worked for almost five years. Brooks Headley, who owns Superiority Burger, heard the news that I had lost my job and he reached out. Through this past year, you figure out who has your back in all the mess. I certainly learned a lot about the people who I trust and respect in the industry—once you're out of the inner circle, who is still interested in your work? That was really eye-opening for me, and Brooks is a great example of somebody who I find to be truly generous.
I did a pop-up there for seven weeks and had the idea for my mom to do the posters. I loved interacting with guests and having new regulars and playing around with stuff from the market. It gave me that jolt of energy and connection that I had really been missing. Since then, it's been about suddenly having total autonomy and agency over what work I do and who I collaborate with. You lose the structure and the connections of being in a restaurant that's hip, or whatever. But then you gain something else. Probably the biggest honor that I had so far was in my hometown last September at Chino Farm, which is a small organic farm in San Diego run by four generations of Japanese Americans who were displaced and sent to internment camps. They were able to get the farm back and they've run it ever since. Their story is incredible and it's a special place. The produce is flawless. At my pop-up, my dad was calling the names for the orders and got into it, my mom was saying hi to people in line. It was total chaos, but these events help reaffirm my relationship to pastry and food banking. I cultivate a real sense of joy and good energy that is divorced from the typical kinds of stress and anxiety that come with achieving clout—paying investors back and all those things that weighed on me very heavily. Suddenly I could focus on the essential stuff. That was why I'm here and doing this in the first place: getting closer to people and making things that taste delicious.
Doris: Yeah, definitely. And we both come from the same scrappy punk rock background. Our shared love of The Simpsons has been translated into something secret.
Natasha: I can't wait. I love the energy of the pop-ups. The adrenaline is crazy where it feels like you black-out the whole day because so many things are happening. I go back home and I don't leave my apartment for a full week.