Homeland Cooking

Strife and Resilience Influence Natasha Pogrebinsky’s Cooking

A bouquet of brined vegetables is passed around family-style on a delicate china platter at the inaugural brewmaster’s collaboration at Sterle’s Country House. Coils of pristine white salo, fatback cured in salt, rest atop chocolate-brown pieces of pumpernickel toast. A delicate pumpkin purée serves as a pillowy pedestal for presenting the dense, hand-rolled halushki, chewy pasta dumplings simmered for hours in broth.

The matriarch of Chef Natasha Pogrebinsky’s family attests to the authenticity of each course, albeit enhanced by her daughter’s interpretation and attentive presentation. “Scallops?” I remark in surprise, taking in the three seared mollusks perched atop a mound of beefy barley. “We ate plenty of seafood with lots of buckwheat,” said Lena, noting Natasha’s variance in grain.

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For the finale, Natasha presents panna cotta in a teacup, topped with baked apples she had picked the day before, with a dollop of whipped buckwheat honey. From the first spoonful, the bitter bite of goat’s milk cued memories of an earlier conversation I had with Natasha. I envisioned a child on a farm, waisthigh with a milk-mustache grin, washing down strawberries and warm bread just baked over hay in a mud hut.

“Goat milk. Natasha’s favorite,” her mother remarked.

As a city kid from Kiev, Ukraine, drinking a glass of milk straight from the goat on a family trip to the countryside made an impression on young Natasha. “My great-great-grandmother served it to me,” she said. “I mean, how many people we know can say they’ve had that experience? For a kid, that was life-changing. As a chef, I draw on how organic, simple, and pure that taste experience was. It also impacted me because that is how my ancestors got milk for generations.”

Just a few years later—in a stretch of history sandwiched between Chernobyl and the fall of the USSR—she’d be uprooted and warehoused for weeks in a government-run refugee motel outside of Manhattan, then transplanted to Parma, a hotbed of Eastern European immigration since the late 1800s. Her nationality was the driving force that funneled her to the Northeast Ohio suburb, where the state’s largest concentration of Ukrainians had settled. Fleeing economic and political upheaval in droves, as many as 35,000 individuals of Ukrainian heritage called Cleveland home by the time she arrived with her parents and younger brother Sasha in the early 1990s.

Abandoning an affluent life in the Soviet Union, and yet to learn the native language, Lena, one of the first women in her field developing PCs for IBM, and Natasha’s father, Alex, an accomplished oil painter, initially juggled various jobs to make ends meet. “Dad painted bathroom stalls and set up tables for bingo. Mom was a cocktail waitress and cleaned homes,” Natasha recalled. “They had a typical immigrant story as political refugees, but worked hard and did it with pride.”

The family found a community in their local church. Through the years, Lena—now a high school math teacher in the Cleveland public schools—championed One World Day and was instrumental in resuscitating the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. “My parents made sure we spoke Russian and Ukrainian at home and made sure we knew our roots, culture, and languages,” Natasha said. “At the same time, they instilled in us that America was our home, so today fried chicken tastes as much like home to me as schnitzel.”

Forming New Roots

Natasha started working in a kitchen at age 12 at a Russian summer camp in New York, and spent her spare time in high school helping with community events in Parma, such as pierogi nights. By college, she earned money working at catering halls and fast food restaurants.

“I was cooking all the time and my brother, who became my business partner, said, ‘Go to culinary school,’” she chuckled at the recollection. “A week later, I was enrolled. When I walked into a kitchen with a purpose, that it was my career, I think I saw it in a completely different light. Something inside of me said I could carry this all the way, and to not be afraid. Just go for it.”

She and her brother opened Bear in Queens, located less than a mile away from the refugee motel they stayed at after arriving in the U.S. Her initial approach was apprehensive, although she earned praise from media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and appeared on various cooking shows, as Bear’s modern American menu evolved into contemporary Russian. “I was lucky. I guess I was doing something different that people really weren’t expecting,” Natasha said. “Nobody knew what to expect from a modern Russian restaurant.

“There are a lot of racial and historical tendencies that influence what we think of as high-end or worthy of a trend, and Russian food very much fits that profile,” she said. “Similar to how we’ll eat Japanese food and pay $15 for a sushi roll, but we don’t want to pay more than nine bucks for a plate of Chinese roast duck.”

When she initially immigrated to the U.S., she experienced discrimination, with some people assuming her native Russian language meant she and her family were spies or communists. “As a kid, there was an element of being embarrassed of who you are, and even when we opened Bear, we were very careful to not press the threshold of being an ‘ethnic’ restaurant,” she said. “As a chef, I thought it was the dumbest thing, but from a PR perspective, it made sense. Once you’re pegged as an ethnic restaurant, you’re in that box.”

She attributes her Cleveland grit for inspiring her to elevate home-style standards like pierogies, stroganoff, and borscht, transforming each classic dish into an upscale delicacy that garnered respect and recognition in the culinary community. “I felt I finished what I came to New York to do, and it was time for the next steps, which started with coming home,” she said.

Natasha connected with Rick Semersky—restaurateur and developer of the Hub 55 complex in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood—who invited her to join his team. Between chef dinners and private events at the landmark Sterle’s Country House, she’s at the helm of Rick’s kitchens: Cafe 55 and Goldhorn Brewery in Cleveland, and Leaking Boot Brewery in Sandusky.

“Food is universal and a vehicle you can use to make cultural connections,” said Natasha, who is executive director of culinary and innovation at Hub 55.

Sterle’s is where Natasha showcases Eastern European cuisine in a way she feels Clevelanders have yet to experience. “There’s so much more than dumplings, paprikash, stroganoff, or cabbage and stew,” she said. “It’s fresh. There are vegetables and fish. It’s true, we do serve a lot of pierogi, but not always with heavy, thick dough and dense fillings. South of Ukraine and in eastern Poland, dough is much thinner and the stuffing is lighter.”

She says calling a cuisine “Eastern European” is a broad generalization that’s about as accurate as Asian or American. “Russia has hundreds of culinary regions,” she said. “Ukraine has dozens . . . that borscht will be different in the north than it is in the south. My mom grew up in Hungary, and the paprikash I grew up eating is nothing like the paprikash I’m making here.”

Her challenge is tempering a sense of duty to stay true to the roots, flavors, methods, and style of service in today’s modern economy and cutting-edge trends.

“I worked hard for a decade to develop my brand of ‘New European’ cookery,” Natasha said. “To me, heritage is not just my grandparents’ recipes, and what I learned from my parents. It’s also being part of a chain in a long line of cooks, building the next one, linking the past and the future and never forgetting you wouldn’t be who you are as a chef, and wouldn’t be able to cook, without the past. Heritage is my inspiration, it is both the past and the future, and a treasure chest of culinary knowledge that never stops giving.”