Natasha Pogrebinsky: Executive Chef at The South Side | by Amanda Lloyd

Natasha Pogrebinsky wants you to try her made-from-scratch cuisine at The South Side and the Hi & Dry.
by Amanda Lloyd

The Tremonster team is excited to introduce a new food feature, “Chef in the Land,” which we are launching this summer as both a TremonsterTV web series and a regular print column. Natasha Pogrebinsky, executive chef at The South Side and The Hi & Dry and creator of “Chef in the Land,” will be partnering with The Tremonster to produce web and print segments focusing on her passion and mission: using locally sourced, fresh ingredients to create modern cuisine with connections to her life story and inspired by her past. Some upcoming segments of “Chef in the Land” will include Pogrebinsky procuring ingredients from vendors at The West Side Market, area farms, and local food purveyors.  Pogrebinsky, former owner and executive chef of the acclaimed Bear in New York City, is no stranger to the camera, appearing on Food Network programs such as Chopped and Beat Bobby Flay. To begin our partnership with Pogrebinsky, we sat down with her at The South Side to discuss her culinary philosophy, additions to the South Side menu, and fascinating immigration from Ukraine to Cleveland.

Pogrebinsky: What I’ve found that people don’t realize about The South Side is how much of our food is locally sourced, fresh, or made from scratch—from chicken wing sauces to pizza dough—nothing comes from a bottle, frozen, or pre-fab. The South Side, although by definition a gourmet restaurant because everything’s chef-inspired, made in-house, and from fresh ingredients, is not priced as a gourmet restaurant. To me, that’s how I love to cook.  That’s how I love to eat.

Tremonster: What can you tell us about your updates to The South Side menu? What dishes do you want people to come in and try?

Pogrebinsky: The Roasted Catfish.  The catfish is a take on my mom’s dish, and she got that from her grandparents because her grandparents would fish in the Dnieper River in Kiev. She fries it with just a little bit of flour, and she makes this roasted tomato stew—it’s almost like a fish casserole.  I’m doing it a little bit different—I thought we weren’t going to sell it, and we can’t stop selling it.  It’s amazing.

The Big Fat Greek Salad—I just personally love that.  It’s got a whole big chunk of watermelon, domestic feta cut from a block, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, radish, aged balsamic from Spain, extra-virgin olive oil from Italy…it’s one of the chefiest salads on the menu.

The Beets and Orange Salad is one of my personal favorites because of the Borscht Crema.  I eat the borscht crema as a soup.  It’s one of my favorite things in the world.  In the summertime, we would make the borscht crema as a soup, put a bunch of veggies in and just eat it like that.  That’s kind of the idea of the salad.  It’s a reversed chilled borscht.  I put a lot of dill on it; there are a lot of beets in it.

I come up with ideas and taste them out, and Sherman [DeLozier] is great to work with—he’s an owner who is a working person.  As a chef, he’s great to work with because we can talk, he can understand the economics of it, and he can also see things from my side.  He feels how hard it is, sometimes, to do this.  He appreciates it.  That’s one of the best things you could ask for: an owner that understands and appreciates what you’re doing—and vice-versa, having been an owner of a restaurant, I can see his side too and it makes us a great team.

I wanted to give you guys some updates on the [Sunday brunch] menu:

We have a jumbo Bloody Mary, which is a 32-ounce beer stein full of South Side award winning Bloody Mary and all this stuff in it—it’s one of the things we became known for in New York.  People would come and nobody would drink our regular Bloody Mary; it was just tables and tables and tables of jumbos.  So, Sherman comes out of storage one day with this giant beer stein, and I’m like, “Bloody Mary!”  We’re calling it “Mother Mary.”  It’s a giant beer stein with everything in it. [The South Side menu describes the Mother Mary as a “traditional Bloody Mary garnished with jalapeno-cheese popper, mozzarella moon and cherry tomato, thick-cut bacon, kielbasa kabab, deep-fried pickle, mini taco, celery, cucumber, blue cheese-stuffed olives, ¼ grilled cheese with bacon, and a Miller High Live pony beer.” Wow!]

Tremonster: I noticed you have a meatball stuffed with an egg and wrapped in pastry dough with sausage gravy [the Money Ball] on the Sunday brunch menu.

Pobrebinsky: It’s awesome. I love that thing.

Tremonster:  It sounds a little bit like a Scotch egg.

Pogrebinsky: Yes!  I love Scotch eggs, and I was like, “How do I put Scotch eggs on the menu, but make it for Cleveland?” You know, we’re in Tremont, so we have to represent all the nationalities that are here…and that’s fun.  It’s like the fun part of being at The South Side is that you don’t have to stick to a certain cuisine.  You can bring your own touches, you can bring your own personality, but you have the freedom to pull from everywhere, you know?  It’s amazing. All this is fresh.  The salmon does not come in frozen. The feta we get from Astoria Market on Detroit Ave. It’s really high-end, high-quality ingredients that the purveyors themselves take great pride in, and we want to put that on our menu.  People haven’t realized that about The South Side, so I put a little thing down here [points to menu].  It says where we get our stuff—and that’s just a short list.  It’s exciting.  It’s not an obvious place for a chef, but I wanted to send the message out to people:  “This is a chef restaurant.”  You don’t have to pay an extra $20 because I’m here, but I’m here because I love the food. I love the way we do things here.

Tremonster:  Your first appearance on Chopped really stuck with me—not just because of your food and what the judges thought about your food, but your immigration story was really moving.  Would you be willing to talk about that a little for The Tremonster?

Pogrebinsky:  Absolutely.  It’s the real story that defines who I am to this day, and Tremont was the original Ukrainian village, right?  In a nutshell, we lived in Kiev, where my father was a renowned artist; he still is, but he was on magazine covers; he was getting all the great commission work.  Mom was a programmer-engineer—she worked on the first personal computer (she was one of the first women to do that).  This was still the Soviet Union, and things weren’t going so well.  My dad wanted to leave, but the country didn’t want him to leave.  He was very valuable to the Soviet Union. He eventually had to come up with a plan on how to escape.  I was almost 10, so I remember a lot.  This plan was almost five years in the making, and eventually, after my parents received Refugee Status from the USA, we were able to come up with a strategy to “escape,” which was a long and very risky process. Over the course of five years, my father made contacts with [art] collectors from other countries.  He would have collectors come to his studio, and he would plan how he would somehow smuggle his work into their collection, and in return, instead of money, he would get plane tickets.  He couldn’t buy his own plane tickets because if he did it would be a huge red flag, like, “Why are you buying plane tickets to America?”  In the end, plane tickets to America were pennies compared to his collection that he worked on for 30 years, but to him, the value of getting to America was worth it. The way it was explained to me was very straightforward.  I think I was in second grade, maybe third, and they just sat me down one day and were like, “This is what’s going on: We are escaping; nobody can know; we’re telling you so that you understand.” I was still a kid.  Part of it was exciting to me, but it was obviously traumatic and sad to say goodbye to people.  We went to New York first because that’s where all the refugees go. We lived there for two weeks while they decided what community to send us to—some people went to Kentucky; they sent us to Cleveland.  That’s how we ended up in Cleveland.  It wasn’t really a choice [laughing], but it was definitely one of the better places they could have sent us to: the community was here, but also we’re city people; it resembled our lives.  It wasn’t the same, but it resembled it.  The cultural aspect—museums, there are libraries, it’s a city; it’s not a town.  Then I went to New York for a little while.  We were in New York City. It’s technically Astoria, but it was across the bridge from the United Nations.

Tremonster: Were you shocked at how much Cleveland has changed [upon moving back to the area from New York]?

Pogrebinsky: [Exhales sharply] Whoa.  I cannot believe it.  When I went to Cleveland State—talk about changes…they built…a city!  I graduated from Cleveland State in 2005, and none of that was there.  I went to CWRU before Cleveland State, and both campuses have totally changed.  I feel like they built their own mini-cities, which is great—I love seeing that. Downtown, The Flats, Ohio City—name any neighborhood and it’s crazy—just amazing.

Tremonster: You fit so well in this neighborhood because of your background and the kind of food that you like to cook.

Pogrebinsky: The cool thing is that I found the industry here to be very friendly, and it’s like a community.  The chefs are a community here in Cleveland.  Tremont, too, but in Cleveland, in general, everybody welcomed me. Chefs give me advice and ideas all the time, and they call me for advice and ideas; we all crave to work together.  It’s a network, and I can’t wait to see how much more it’ll grow and how much we all have to offer not just for Cleveland but for the culinary scene in America.

Tremonster:  I think that’s a microcosm for Cleveland as a whole.

Pogrebinsky:  It is.  I really hope it doesn’t change.  It’s amazing, and it’s one of the reasons I came back.  This is my career—I want to be happy doing it.

Tremonster:  What are your feelings about how the path of your life led you here to The South Side?

Pogrebinsky:  When I first came from New York, I was thinking of doing something on my own.  My brother [Alex Pogrebinsky, co-owner of Bear who moved back to Cleveland with Natasha—they were both named most interesting people of 2018 by Cleveland Magazine] has a consulting company where he does restaurant websites, development, photography, etc. I figured, I’ll do this. It was kind of the right time and right fit.  We had several interviews. I looked at the menu. I used to eat here all the time.  Really, what won me over was the quality of ingredients they are using—they are committed to it.  Sherman is super-committed to quality.

Tremonster:  There’s a reason they’ve been here so long and everyone still comes here all the time.

Pogrebinsky:  Absolutely.  After many meetings, it was clear to me that quality was really important to them, so my chef side was like, “This is great. This is where I want to be.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.