Haven’s Kitchen Founder Alison Cayne


Alison Cayne had the unthinkable idea to open a community space for cooking, learning and eating. That she managed to do this, in the heart of Manhattan, is no small feat. Last Wednesday I attended an event with the Toklas Society to learn how, along with raising five children, Alie managed to pull this off. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s also working towards a Masters in Food Studies at NYU?

If I could fit that in a tweet, I would hashtag it with things like: #pshaw #nbd #areyoukidding #Five kids.

It’s an endless list.

In a hushed white room three flights up from street level, forty woman, and one child (Alie’s) sat and listened to Cayne share her story. Sue Chan, co-founder of the Toklas Society and also the brand director of the Momofuko Restaurant Group, kicked off the talk by asking Cayne how the seed for Haven’s Kitchen was planted.

Cayne knew what her mission was: More people needed to learn how to cook. Then she wisely reflected on her skills. “I love cheese and alcohol too much to go into nutrition,” she told the audience. She talked to her advisors in her Masters program about opening a center for home chefs. They told her she was nuts. She looked at spaces and fell in love with an old carriage house on West 17th Street, just a few blocks shy of Union Square. She read every book by Danny Meyer. She thought she was starting a school, not a business, which is probably a good thing. I didn’t ask if she had a business plan.

Her first lesson: Your first year you give everything away. 

If there’s a problem, she said, “Just throw cookies at them.” Also, don’t barter. And then she recounted all the time and money they spent throwing a free wedding for a photographer. Don’t do that, she said.

For the first three years Haven’s Kitchen lost money. And somewhere along the way her cooking school became an event space. She never saw that coming, but when you see the space you’ll understand. We chuckled when she told us she knew she was no longer needed when the toilet broke and she didn’t have to be there. Now she’s in the black, but Cayne made sure to mention it wasn’t deep in the black, more like a hint of black. I guess it’s not so silly anymore to her NYU professors.

In addition to hiring a GM, Cayne has built a strong team helping to continue her vision. Another lesson: Good leaders sit back and listen.

The talk ended with a discussion of the problem in the food economy. “There needs to be a sea change in what we value,” Cayne said. “Until people genuinely value labor, the world isn’t going to change.”

What’s next for Cayne? More food advocacy work, she currently works with both Edible Schoolyard and Just Food, and more writing. You can read many of her essays on the Huffington Post.

Cayne wrapped up the talk with a reading list, which she shared with me in greater detail over email:

1. Joan Gussow, This Organic Life
2. Wendell Berry, Bringing It To The Table
3. Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Mineral Vegetable
4.  Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire, and this.
5. Grist.org
6. Civileats.com
7. Huffington Post Food
8. Pema Chodrin, When Whings Fall Apart
9. Marion Nestle, Food Politics
10. Vandana Shiva, Soil not Oil

This article was first published on the Toklas Society site, where there is also a video from the talk.