With a recent appearance on Food Network’s “Chopped” (she placed second), Natasha Pogrebinsky, founder and chef at the Long Island City restaurant Bear, is putting her borough on the New York food map. By showcasing for American audiences with experimental dishes, like her modern day take on Stroganoff and drinks featuring vodka and pickles, the Ukraine-born chef is showing that it’s not just Manhattan chefs who have new and interesting experiences to offer on the culinary front.
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Why did you decide to open your restaurant in Queens?
I have always wanted my own restaurant and I have worked in different restaurants since I was 16 years old. So in 2011 I felt it was the time to actually do it and it was a great opportunity to open one in Queens. Astoria is completely changing. It’s becoming this kind of new undiscovered land. [It’s like] Disneyland.
How you did decide on the name Bear?
Our parents still live in Cleveland, Ohio, where me and my brother Sasha (the restaurant's co-founder) grew up. There are little wooden statues on I-80 at rest areas all through Pennsylvania. We used to stop there and pet the bear for good luck when we would drive to visit them. When we were deciding on the name two years ago, we were traveling to Ohio and decided these little bear statues always brought us luck. Bears are a symbol of Russian culture, bears are good eaters, it's easy to remember and it's a fun and intriguing name for a restaurant.
What’s the response been from the community after hearing about your appearance on “Chopped”?
When the show was announced three weeks ago we were booked in, like, the first 20 minutes. People are calling from all over — not just New York but all over the country, booking chef tastings. And I really hope that this will help put Queens on the food map. It is what I have been trying to do ever since we opened. I was one of the first Queens restaurants to be on the heat map (an index of hot new restaurants) and I was one of the first restaurants to bring fine dining to the neighborhood. Still, I hold on to the ethnic roots of Russia and (mix that with) the relaxed and homely atmosphere that is so typical for Queens’ restaurants.
What was it like to shoot the program?
It’s a very long day and it is actually as stressful as it looks. They have picked out the best chefs in the whole nation, so you are not up against (just) anybody. By the time you get to the actual show, your “chef mode” takes over. You forget that the cameras are there and you just want to make the best dish. I wanted to show people my passion for cooking — that I’m not afraid to do something different.
Would you do it again?
It was a great experience and I would totally do it again. I think there were about 80 and 90 people in the restaurant yesterday (for a viewing party), cheering at me and yelling my name. A lot of people from the community stopped by. It was important for them like it was for me to show a restaurant in the community that was doing something different and exciting. They feel like it is a little part of them too.