At the Cafe Altro Paradiso Bake Sale, Activism is a Piece of Cake
Pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz on the fundraiser that's grown into a star-studded culinary eventGabriella Gershenson
June 13, 2019
When we say the James Beard Foundation is about good food for good, it’s not limited to sustainable agriculture, the Farm Bill, or reducing food waste. Another important aspect of our mission is highlighting the myriad hands that are helping to shape American cuisine. Below, Gabriella Gershenson digs into the origins of the Cafe Altro Paradiso Bake Sale, founded by the restaurant's pastry chef Natasha Pickowicz (a 2019 James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef Award semifinalist). Over the course of its three years, the annual bake sale has grown exponentially, drawing top culinary talent from across the country, and raising tens of thousands of dollars each year in support of Planned Parenthood New York City.
The scene that played out in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood on May 19, the day of the third annual Café Altro Paradiso Bake Sale, seems antithetical to the stereotypes around pro-choice activism. While some might expect a dour affair, this was a veritable Candyland. For starters, it was a bake sale, one of the most wholesome, all-American activities out there. The sun was shining, and handmade signs hinted at the promise of cookies and cakes. A plaza between the restaurant and a neighboring hotel was packed with tents, young families, dogs, and babies. Balloons bobbed, flowers fluttered. It’s a wonder the pigeons didn’t break into song.
There were crullers, cakes, unsubtle vagina-shaped cookies, ice cream sandwiches, submarine sandwiches, pizzas, morning buns, s’mores, and other delights, courtesy of nearly 60 of the country’s top baking talents. The list of participants reads like a who’s who—in addition to Café Altro Paradiso, there were representatives from Roberta’s, Simon & the Whale, Tandem Bakery in Portland, Maine, the soon-to-open K’Far in Philadelphia—the list goes on.
The line to get in spanned blocks, and hardly waned. By all accounts, the people—an estimated 1,800 of them—waited with good cheer. All of the vendors sold out, clearing out 200 pastries at nearly 60 stations for $5 apiece. Add to that 200 gift bags stuffed with swag that went for $150 each. Meanwhile, the Planned Parenthood table collected $6,500 in donations, and now, even after the bake sale ended, money continues to pour in through the website. The funds raised have reached $100,000, and will provide 9 days of care to Planned Parenthood of New York City patients who are unable to pay, or who utilize sliding scale, for services that include birth control, pap smears, HIV testing, hormone therapy, vasectomies, abortions, and much more.
Seeing as bake sale founder Natasha Pickowicz, the pastry chef at Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar, set her goal at $40,000, this result kind of blew her away. It’s a far cry from the $8,000 raised at the first sale in 2017. “I remember thinking that was an astronomical sum,” says Pickowicz. “I remember thinking ‘holy shit, we raised almost $10,000 in $5 pastries.’”
Pickowicz started the bake sale in response to President Trump’s election in 2016. His sensibilities violated the morals of both Pickowicz and of her co-workers, and they felt they had to act. “I remember we sat around the dining room table at Flora talking about ideas. We were trying to think of ways that we could share our values with the world so that there would be no confusion as to where we stood about the election,” says Pickowicz. The next day, the idea for the bake sale came to her. “I was trying to think of how to marry my values with what I know how to do, which is bake cookies.”
Planned Parenthood of New York City was the clear beneficiary—Pickowicz had used their services throughout her twenties, including when she was an uninsured restaurant worker in earning minimum wage. Supporting the organization would be an antidote to the Trump administration’s hostility toward women’s health. Abigail DeAtley, Vice President of Individual Giving and Events of Planned Parenthood in New York City, has collaborated with Pickowicz on the sale each year. “Quite a few of my friends happen to be vendors at the bake sale, and they felt compelled to participate because they have their own Planned Parenthood story,” says DeAtley, adding that one out of every five women in the United States will visit a Planned Parenthood. “It goes to show, if everybody can give back a little, look what they can create.”
At this year’s event, feelings were running especially high. “The timing of the Alabama resolution passing days before the bake sale created a spark,” says Pickowicz, referring to the state’s recent abortion ban. “I felt fortunate that we could provide a venue where people could come together in solidarity.” One of them was Erin McDowell, author of The Fearless Baker and a vendor at the sale, who was caught off guard by the response. “When I saw the crowd, I teared up. I couldn’t believe there was a line almost a block long of people waiting to get in.”
Miro Uskokovicz, the pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York City and a native of Serbia, hadn’t encountered bake sales until he attended high school in Indiana as an exchange student. But he has participated in this one since its inception. “In Serbia, it’s totally acceptable to have an abortion. It is a women’s right to choose and there is no taboo. I was quite shocked to see America so obsessed about it,” says Uskokovicz.
Sasha Piligian, pastry chef at Sqirl in Los Angeles, is one of several vendors who traveled to be part of the sale and was one of the first to sell out. “It was such an emotional thing,” says Piligian. “It didn’t really hit me until after the bake sale, when Natasha announced the amount of money we had raised. Everybody kind of started crying.”
Though the sale has passed, the momentum continues. On May 27, a Stand with Planned Parenthood Bake Sale in Somerville, MA, attracted top talent, including Maura Kilpatrick of Sofra Bakery & Cafe and Joanne Chang of Flour Bakery. On June 2, a bake sale at the Denver restaurant The Populist raised $25,000 for Planned Parenthood. It seems that a new one is being announced each day. That, says Pickowicz, is the point. “The bake sale doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s the beginning of something.”
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.