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Alison Cayne of Haven’s Kitchen

Video of the event, courtesy Ali Rosen of Potluck Video

Alison Cayne had the ambitious 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. In early May Cayne hosted the Toklas Society and explained how, along with raising five children, she managed to pull this off while also working towards a Masters in Food Studies at NYU.

In a hushed white room three flights up from street level, forty women, and one child (Cayne’s) sat and listened to Cayne share her story. Toklas’ Sue Chan 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.

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, a lesson she learned after spending excessive time and money throwing a free wedding for a photographer.

For the first three years, Haven’s Kitchen lost money. And somewhere along the way her cooking school became an event space. 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.

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 wrapped up 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 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, Food Politics

10. Vandana Shiva, Soil not Oil!

 — Larissa Zimberoff

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