“I grew up thinking that real families were at the kitchen table,” Alison Schneider explained to me. We were sipping tea and nibbling at the last of our lunches at a wood-plank table in Haven’s Kitchen, a year-old recreational cooking school, food boutique and event space in New York’s Greenwich Village. I glanced up. A group of cooks moved easily about the kitchen. They chatted and poked fun at one another, stopping to laugh. A handful of young women — employees every one — tapped away intently at laptops at the other end of the table. Staff hurried up and down a curved staircase, carrying bouquets of flowers and calling out to one another. It felt like we were, indeed, sitting at the nucleus of a cozy, bustling home. And that’s just the way Schneider wants it.
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Schneider grew up in New York, the only child of a mother who had adopted an anti-housework feminist ideology. But, enamored with television images of happy-go-lucky families who congregated for family meals, Schneider caught the cooking bug anyway. She taught herself by reading cookbooks (“I devour them like novels,” she told me), and by high school, she was cooking for anyone who would sit to her table.
Fast forward. Schneider, in her mid-20s, found herself working in urban development, and before long had racked up a couple of years of professional experience and become a mother of five, one who cooked dinner for her family every night.
After taking a handful of classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute, Schneider began to teach informally out of her home. “I wasn’t comfortable asking people for money. I didn’t feel qualified,” she explained. Her friends goaded her on, though, and Schneider began to contemplate pursuing a graduate degree. “I was interested in ingredients and techniques, and why people eat what they eat,” she said.
Culinary school didn’t seem right — a career as a chef didn’t seem possible with a passel of kids at home — and neither did the more policy-oriented fields of nutrition nor public health appeal to her. So in 2009, Schneider enrolled in the food studies program at New York University, taking one course at a time to accommodate her role as a parent. “I went back to school when my youngest was in nursery school, and back to work when he was in kindergarten,” she recalled, counting backward on her fingers.
The idea for Haven’s Kitchen is born
Work meant leading tours for GrowNYC, where Schneider came to intimately know the farmers and the market. She was struck by the disconnect most adults seemed to feel with the food available at the Union Square Greenmarket and began doling out her contact information to participants who wanted to learn more. She was soon overwhelmed by inquiries. “I became really interested in this gap between something that’s catching on — Michael Pollan and his call to buy local and organic— and something that’s not. Beans, grains,” Schneider explained. The need to bridge thinking about good food and cooking good food was one she didn’t see being met anywhere else.
That’s when the seed for Haven’s Kitchen was sown. “I began dreaming of a space near the market where I could have a recreational school, for people who were not going to be chefs or nutritionists, but who needed basic knife skills and the like in order to make them want to cook when they get home from work.”
In fall 2010, she began looking for a place to set up shop. At first, she only looked at kitchens, envisioning something with a “beautiful table for classes, parties and maybe a small retail space.” But when Schneider stumbled across an abandoned carriage house on West 17th Street, just a few blocks from Union Square, her vision of something that could “feel like a home” expanded to fill the space.
The building needed restructuring in addition to kitchen infrastructure. When I asked what gave her the courage to open in such a large space, in such a notoriously expensive area to boot, she chuckled. “I had to be naïve and guileless to take it on.”
Today, the space is a beautiful retreat from the city’s noise. Livable elegance was Schneider’s approach. Full of light, bright tile, framed artwork, and rustic accents, the three-story space feels more like a page out of Dwell than a sterile teaching kitchen, replete with “living rooms,” bars, cafe tables and two kitchens.
For Schneider, comfort is paramount. “There are so many people telling you what not to eat and do. Too many rules! It’s a big problem in the food movement. For me, sustainability is not a stamp, it’s about longevity. It’s about learning to shop with thought, keep your pantry stocked and use what you have.”
Today, Haven’s Kitchen is walking its walk through a number ventures. There are cooking classes taught by Schneider herself and the immensely well-credentialed kitchen staff; supper club events that feature an impressive array of guest chefs (think Michael Anthony of Gramercy Tavern, Mark Bittman, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and the Franny’s crew); a private event space that has been host to weddings, dinner parties and corporate events; and a bustling cafe and retail store.
Since Haven’s Kitchen opened its doors in January 2012, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And though continued success isn’t guaranteed, especially in a city whose celebrity chef worship and restaurant dining culture seems contrary to encouraging home cooking, Schneider has reason to have faith. “Class attendees write daily saying they’re cooking at home, and my kids can sit at the counter and do homework after school and help in the kitchen, too,” Schneider said, beaming. “Plus, Joan Gussow has been here twice. How lucky am I to be a human being who got to meet her idol? I realized that everything I was scared of was not having that kitchen table, and I made that happen. It’s pure joy.”
Top photo: The Haven’s Kitchen staff prepares for a dinner party in the main kitchen. Credit: Sara Franklin