A wise man once said: Be the change you want to see in the world. After interviewing Natalia Bushyager, the chef and the co-owner of Picnic on Third, those words of wisdom popped up to me, because Natalia and her team are changing every day. No, it’s not “them” who are changing; rather, it’s their menu that changes every day.
Since their opening in November 2014, Natalia and her partner Leigh Loper, and all the staff at Picnic on Third have been the daily change in San Francisco. When they say the daily changing menu, they mean a complete change.
One day, they have Braised Brisket with Prunes, Potato, Thyme & Olive Oil Gratin, Carrots with Horseradish & Honey, and the next day, they have Rainbow Carrot Tart Tatin with Goat Cheese, Israeli Cous Cous “Tabbouli” with Lots of Herbs, Green Garlic Hummus, Roasted Rapini with Romesco.
I grew up in Japan eating lunches at Teishoku Restaurant, whose menu changes every day, so what Natalia told me made perfect sense. However, that was not the case with many of the city’s clients, at least in the beginning.
"It was confusing to the people because we are changing the menu every day, not just a little bit but a lot of it. We had one of the front staff stands and say, this is our menu and this is how our plate works.
You don’t just have to get the same composition – you can mix and match. It’s not something people are used to," Natalia said. She made sure people are welcomed by plating the sample plate.
People only see that in the Cafeteria and people weren’t used to the quality of the food, so they didn’t know how to engage.
There is nothing like that in the City, at least a restaurant that serves in the same style as Picnic on Third. Besides, Picnic on Third has no sandwiches (and no soup in the beginning.) Yes, that is right. No sandwiches for lunch.
"What we do here is similar to Google and Air B&B cafeteria, where they change the menu every day. I haven’t seen restaurants that do it. I’ve worked for a restaurant that changes the menu, but not drastically."
Natalia has an impressive resume, working at Bay Area’s well-respected establishments like Chez Panisse, Foreign Cinema, and Quince. So does her chef partner, Leigh.
When asked why she decided to change the menu every day, Natalia said, jokingly, "Just to make it hard for me."
Seriously, she said this: "We had to make up something that was interesting enough, within the reasonable price point. So, that’s what we came up with. We also wanted our clients to eat here multiple times a week. That was our initial goal, so if we had the same menu, they won’t.
We had to keep them enticed. The city demands so much creativity. You have to make it all – bread, butter, everything. We made everything from scratch and we love doing all that, but we had to balance all that.
So, changing the menu every day was our way of doing that. We know it’s fresh, we make it every morning, and it may not be your favorite thing. But you can eat here every day."
Her brings influenced her cooking style. Natalia grew up in South Carolina and everyone in her family cooked. "My grandparents both cooked. My Dad’s side is German and Mom side is Hungarian and Italian, so they did all the pasta and at Christmas time, we ate pasta and fish.
Soul food from different regions. Our parents both liked to cook. My father always picked the most difficult recipe from a book and we always had to get ingredients. We always cooked as a family, and sat down and eat. It was hard then, but now, I appreciate that we worked together through cooking."
Though Natalia never dreamed of becoming a chef, her family always knew she would become one. After graduating from college, she became an intern at Chez Panisse with no prior professional experience, and she has been sticking to it ever since. "I like chopping vegetables for eight hours. I have no problem with that," Natalia says.
The idea of opening the restaurant came to her through some unexpected business advice. So, Natalia asked herself: “What can I do now?” She always wanted to open a Bed & Breakfast place, but Hotel taxes are too expensive, but she realized she could open a café. So, Natalia decided to open Picnic on Third with Leigh.
The restaurant ended up being a lot bigger than she expected. “I thought it was just Leigh and me, and we ended up 14 staff, so I never expected any of that and that is fine, I will take it."
Since its opening, the restaurant has been busy; people lined up to grab their daily lunch menu.
"Lots of the challenges we handled well. Staffing has never been a problem, which is nice. After three months or so, people waiting in the line started to explain to those behind the line. Now we have enough people who bring in their friends and explain to them, becoming advocates. That is nice."
When asked if Natalia has any plans for the next project, a BBQ place.
"People say that there is No good BBQ here. It’s just an idea now. I have a dream to open a BBQ place named Cackalacky.”
Maybe one day, we see an authentic Southern BBQ place in San Francisco. Maybe.
493 3rd St, San Francisco, CA 94107
Monday – Friday