Remember Natalie Zarzour? A few years ago, she was owner, chef and face of Pasticceria Natalina, the Andersonville bakery both lauded and pilloried for her uncompromising standards. You can read more about Zarzour in this 2010 profile I wrote, but her philosophy in short: Americans are poisoning themselves with industrial, additives-laden food, and providing them with pastries made from wholesome ingredients — even if it costs three times what the store next door charges — is a public service.
When the story came out, Zarzour seemed worn out from the long hours, disappearing customers and working in what she now calls "my self-made prison." By May 2011, she closed her store, and spent the next 18 months traveling with her husband in Lebanon, Italy and America’s West Coast, a process she described as a “spiritual purging.”
But now she’s returned to her native Chicago, upbeat and curious. She’s spent the last few months making cookies for the pastry case at Taxim, the Wicker Park Greek restaurant. Zarzour volunteered her services (in restaurant parlance, staging) at Boka and Bavette’s Bar & Boeuf, learning how to bake bread and cook savory foods.
Now comes Zarzour’s most high-profiled position since Pasticceria Natalina: She’ll be heading the kitchen at Black Dog Gelato while owner Jessica Oloroso is on maternity leave. Zarzour won’t call the position permanent; she’s committed through the summer, but plans on teaming with Oloroso when she returns to expand Black Dog’s operations.
“While she’s on leave with her baby, I’ll be responsible for being her,” Zarzour said.
Oloroso’s baby, her first, is due in mid-June. "Right at the start of gelato season," Oloroso said, a sigh in her voice. So Zarzour started last week, quickly picking up on the system and process at Black Dog’s Lakeview kitchen. (The store also has a Wicker Park location on Damen.)
"That she understands how to run a business and a kitchen is comforting for me," Oloroso said. "It’s making the transition a bit easier."
Oloroso, a former pastry chef under Stephanie Izard at Scylla, said her focus on gelatos the last few years means having to neglect on other baked goods. She’ll keep the business gelato-centric, though she’d like to package it beyond cups and cones. That’s where Zarzour comes in.
"When she comes back after maternity leave, we’ll work together," Zarzour said. "We’re already developing pies to do pie a la mode, and cakey cookies for ice cream sandwiches."