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.
Up next, Pogrebinsky talks about the chefs who inspire her.