Zibby Owens: I’m here today with Alison Cayne who’s the founder of Haven’s Kitchen, a cooking school, café, and event space in New York. She’s the author of The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen. She’s also the creator of podcast “In the Sauce” on the Heritage Radio Network and recently launched a line of fresh-made sauces. She has a master’s in food studies from NYU. A mother of five, Alison currently lives in New York.

Welcome, Alison. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alison Cayne: Thank you for having me.

Zibby: I am particularly excited because you have five kids. I have four kids. Now I feel like I’m a slacker compared to you.

Alison: Yes, I was just thinking that.

Zibby: Not only that, you started Haven’s Kitchen. I want to know about how you started it. I know you went to school for nutrition. You have this whole amazing background. You stumbled upon a carriage house. Tell me how you founded Haven’s Kitchen and turned it into a cooking school and an event space and now a cookbook and all the rest. I’ll sit back now. You can just go.

Alison: I’ll talk for the next forty minutes. Basically, I was a stay-at-home mom. When I was thirty-eight, I decided to go back to school. I did not get a degree in nutrition. I got a degree in food systems and food studies and sustainability. I really love food.

Zibby: Did I say nutrition? Sorry, I had it down here correctly. I’m sorry.

Alison: No, it’s fine. People usually say I either went to culinary school or I’m a nutritionist, and I’m neither a chef nor am I a nutritionist. I’m a really good home cook. I did get a degree in sustainability and food systems. Basically all that means, from production through postconsumer usage, what are the things that affect what we eat and how we eat and how it’s grown and everything? What I learned in that program over and over again was the importance of home cooking. People who cook from scratch tend to be more engaged with the environment, tend to care more about the way that farm labor is treated. They’re definitely more careful about their personal health. They’re impacting the larger system from a lot of different places positively.

In 2010, I was teaching people how to cook in my kitchen just because I liked it so much. Friends of mine didn’t really feel comfortable in the kitchen, or they were having kids and they didn’t know how to make food for themselves and their partners. There was a lot of confusion, fear, and loathing around the kitchen. I thought I would start an actual school where I could take people to the farmers market and then teach them how to cook. I could find a little space near the market and bring them and lock up after I was done. It wasn’t a novel concept. People have these little schools all over the world, just not in New York. Then I fell in love with this carriage house on 17th Street. It was way too big for what I wanted to do. It had ground-level retail which was ridiculous. Everyone said, “Don’t do that. It’s a nightmare.” Of course, I did it. I didn’t really know that it was going to be an event space. Month one, a couple came to us and wanted to have their rehearsal dinner there. We figured it out. Now we do about three hundred events a year. We do forty weddings. We do a ton of corporate dinners and brand activations. We have an in-house catering team and design team and everything. It’s still a cooking school very much at the heart of it. We have an all-day café. The events are really what drives the business and pays the rent.

Zibby: Which part of it is most exciting to you still?

Alison: I’m going to keep using the word system, probably, because that’s how I think of things. What’s exciting to me is that it all works together. I wouldn’t want to just own an event venue. I couldn’t, in Manhattan with rent and labor the way it is, just own a recreational cooking school or a café. The way that they all work together and the way that they create an atmosphere for people that’s about food but it’s also about education and community and confidence — now we’ve expanded into a line of sauces in grocery stores.

Zibby: I saw them. You can order them on Amazon. They’re all over.

Alison: You can order them on FreshDirect, buy them at Whole Foods. We just moved into the new Wegmans in Brooklyn.

Zibby: I just heard about that opening. That’s exciting.

Alison: It’s really fun. I’m excited about the way it all works together and the way each piece of it you can learn from. It influences another piece of it. You can come to Haven’s Kitchen and sit and use our Wi-Fi and drink water and actually cost us money, or you can come and have a fifty-thousand-dollar wedding. There’s a place for every single person in that line to engage with what we’ve built. That makes me feel very happy.

Zibby: Tell me about the cookbook.

Alison: This is funny. I was just actually talking to my friend who made me write the cookbook. I’ve been a cookbook collector for a long time and moved about half of my collection to Haven’s Kitchen just to have in the café for people to read if they want to.

Zibby: What do you mean by collection? How many cookbooks do you have?

Alison: I probably have 300 to 500 cookbooks.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh.

Alison: I read them like novels. They are, to me, history books and anthropology books and comedies. They’re everything. If you find really good food writers, there’s nothing more fun to read. Once I fall in love with one, I can’t let it go. It’s kind of a hoarder thing of cookbooks.

Zibby: That’s awesome. I love that. I’ll just start sending mine to you.

Alison: It’s good. You’ve got to clean some out every once in a while. I have a book on Southern Indian cooking because I wrote a paper one semester in school about Kerala and the cuisine of Kerala. It has to do with trade routes and different religions. It’s completely cross-disciplinary. I had all these cookbooks at Havens Kitchen. This woman comes into the shop and she’s like, “Whose cookbooks are all of these?” I said, “Mine.” She said, “It’s kind of weird because I was the art designer on the majority of these even though they were from different publishers.” This one woman had moved from Fayden to Abrams to whatever. She was then, I think, at Abrams or at Artisan. She had been the art designer of all of these books that were my favorite books. We became really close friends very quickly because I thought she was a creative genius. She kept saying, “You should write a cookbook. This is perfect. You need to have a cookbook.” I kept saying, “The world doesn’t need another just vanity cookbook, like another shop or thing that’s making a cookbook. If I can think of something that’s really going to help people and teach people things they need to know and contribute something, I’m happy to write a book.” We opened in 2012. It really took me three or four years to come to what I wanted to teach.

Zibby: What did you want to teach?

Alison: I didn’t want to teach recipes. I feel like the number one reason why people don’t cook is intimidation. They say that “My kitchen’s too small. I don’t have time. I don’t know what to make.” The reality is that behind that is a discomfort and an intimidation factor. These gorgeous, beautiful books with these complicated recipes that have all these ingredients that you have to go on a hunt for and spend a half a day trying to find, that’s not going to make you feel more confident. That’s going to make you feel more intimidated. I wanted to write something that broke it down and went a little bit behind the scenes of what is in a dish. How do you make it your own? How do you get to the point where you understand what’s happening enough, either in the process of making it or when the ingredients come together, that you then feel like you get it? You grew up in Manhattan, right?

Zibby: I did.

Alison: I did too. I did not learn how to ride a bike.

Zibby: I learned how to ride a bike, but in the summers.

Alison: My parents never taught me. They were city kids themselves. Everyone says, “It’s as easy as riding a bike.” For someone like me, that’s not a nice thing to say. People assume that cooking should be intuitive, that somehow as a human, especially as a female human, somehow it’s supposed to be in your bones that you know how to make this stuff. It’s just like riding a bike. If you aren’t taught at least the fundamentals, you’re going to figure it out. You’re going to hack it together. You might be able to stay up, but you’re never going to be good at it. You’re never going to feel confident doing it. You’re never going to be like, “Look, I have no hands.” My goal is to create something that gets people to that feeling. I feel like we did when we wrote it. It took two years. It was very much a group effort. I sat at the kitchen table in the middle of Haven’s Kitchen and just shot out questions at everyone. I organized it the way that I wish other cookbooks had been organized for me. I tried to make it cross-referencing so you can take something from the meat chapter and put it with something from the sauce chapter and something from the grains chapter, and even though there are three hundred recipes, have it be like a thousand recipes.

Zibby: I like that the recipes aren’t so obscure. They’re things that I would actually want to eat, some of my favorite foods. You have chicken paillard and ratatouille and a great chocolate cake. That’s a whole meal, if I could deep dive into this and get in my kitchen and take the time and just do it. Not to say I don’t love looking at beautiful pictures of amazing food that I’ll never cook myself or sculpted desserts that are impossible for a home cook. I enjoy that. This, it’s the same way as the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. They’re things I’d want to actually eat.

Alison: She’s amazing. I don’t make dessert. I don’t like baking. I don’t like measurements. I forget about dessert most of the time. I’ll just put a chocolate bar on the table and call it a day. Even with the dessert chapter, they have to be things that are not fussy. I can’t stand fussy.

Zibby: That’s a good word.

Alison: Poaching a pear, candidly, is one of the easiest things you can do. It makes you feel like a goddess because your house smells like pear and vanilla and cinnamon. You’re padding around in a mumu and bare feet. Then you serve these beautiful pears. All you need to do is put a little glob of ice cream. Everyone’s like, “Oh, my gosh.” Those are the things that I really want. I people, ultimately, to feel confident. That’s what it all comes down to.

Zibby: Do you think everybody can be confident? There’s no such thing as “I’m just not a good cook”?

Alison: A thousand percent. I believe that so wholeheartedly. Again like anything else, some people might have a little bit of a natural proclivity to it. There’s nobody that can’t make a good meal. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to.

Zibby: To your point about intimidation, recipes give me a sense of comfort in a way. I used to love to cook when I had more time and I could make these beautiful dinner parties and whatever. I love to bake. I feel really good about baking, unlike you.

Alison: That’s why you like recipes.

Zibby: My husband on the other hand, he’ll just, “This, this, whatever.” He’ll just throw stuff in it. It’s amazing, but that makes me nervous.

Alison: The world is kind of divided into two. There are people that like the comfort and security of the list and the recipe next to them versus the people like me. I feel kind of rage when I have a sheet of paper with measurements next to me. I’m always second-guessing. Wait, did it say two tablespoons or two teaspoons? Did I do this out of order? It gives me agita. What I’m hoping is that in there, there’s a mix of both.

Zibby: Yes, there is.

Alison: You can take this and wing it, or you can follow these simple steps. We’ll try to lay it out for you so that it’s comfortable and you don’t have to be craning your neck every three second back and forth to make sure that you’re on track. I don’t think that someone like your husband is necessarily a better cook.

Zibby: Oh, he is.

Alison: He’s just a more intuitive cook. He’s probably gotten confident because he does it more often. Like anything else, the more often you do something, the more confident you are. The more fun you have doing something, the more often you do it. You’re more comfortable.

Zibby: He loves it.

Alison: Right. It only follows. If he loves it, he’s going to be better and better and better at it. He’s not going to have that emotional block between him and — he’s going to take risks. He’s going to wing it. He’s probably going to enjoy the process more which I think comes out in the food a little more.

Zibby: It’s funny. Before I was even dating him, we were chitchatting. He was saying how much he loved to cook. I was thinking, I don’t really love to cook, but I love to bake. It’s so funny. Then I realized when I was younger, I was always looking for a partner who liked the same things I liked. “You like to cook? I love to cook too. Great.” Then I realized he likes to cook and I like to bake, so now we have a whole meal. That’s so much better than the two cooks in the kitchen.

Alison: There’s actually a lot of research done on why cooking classes are the best things for corporate team-building activities and bridal showers where Aunt Marge doesn’t know the best friend from college. Instead of putting them all in a luncheon together, you do some sort of cooking class. It’s parallel play to some extent. Cooking brings out introverts. Extroverts might be more dominant at a party. There are all these different skills. My guess is that personality types tend to follow a little bit along who likes to bake with recipes, who likes to measure and weigh. I have five kids. Two of them are measure/weigh people. Three of them are throw in some things and toss it around kind of people.

Zibby: Your kids are so lucky. Just to grow up with someone who’s cooking all the time — no?

Alison: In a way, yes. In a way, no. I’m lucky that my mother hated the kitchen because I had complete full rein. It was my domain. I started playing in there when I was eight. I started making them dinner right around that time. Had my mother been the owner of that room, I don’t know that I would’ve developed my love and confidence in there. It can work both ways. I do think my kids have been exposed to great food and to simple great food for their whole lives. I think they’re happy about that. They eat very well, which they’re happy about. My sixteen-year-old in particular, if she were on the podcast right now she’d be like, “Yeah, but then I don’t get to be as creative because Mom’s in charge.”

Zibby: The sixteen-year-old could find something negative with anything. Everything is a negative.

Alison: She does. It used to be my mother’s voice that was that criticism in my head. Now it’s my daughter’s.

Zibby: Isn’t that nice how that works?

Alison: It’s great.

Zibby: You can never be free.

Alison: Never.

Zibby: With five kids — I hate these questions, like, how do you do it all? It’s like, I don’t know. Every day is different. You get just through. How do you balance for you at least? When are you dealing with the kids? When they’re at school, are you full-on business? Do you do emails at night? How are you dealing with your time at least?

Alison: The kid question I think about in technical time management. Then I think of it as emotional brain space management. I’ll go to the first one first. My kids are all in high school and college. A few are in boarding school. I have one living at home right now. She’s in college living at home. My time is very much my own. I started the business when they were all at home and they were under fourteen. That was a little more challenging. I don’t need to say how privileged I am to be able to own my own business, make my hours, have the help that I needed. There were times when I got called out of a meeting to go to fill-in-the-blank: doctor, library, school conference, whatever. That, I was very acutely aware that I was in a great position that I was able to do which many women aren’t.

For me, the emotional management is what took the big adjustment, especially with five teenagers. There’s always something going on. They can text you in a way that they didn’t used to be able to. “I’m having the worst day of my life. I’m going to fail everything. I hate everyone.” Then I’m left with a text message like, “What am I supposed to do?” I want to do something. I want to help. She’s in class. I don’t even know where she is. Then I’m thinking about it all day. It’s just there weighing. Then that night I’ll check in. I’ll be like, “Are you okay?” She’ll be like, “Yeah, totally. What do you mean?” You just threw a bag of doody at me. I’m holding it. You just went off and you’re fine. On some level, that is kind of my job. I feel like the holder of the bags of doody. To some extent, that’s my job as a mother. The thing that I learned early on, and I applied it from children to work, is if you’re measuring every day or even week, your graph, if you picture a graph, is going to look very jagged. The downs are going to be like good news, bad news, scary news, especially with a lot of kids. No one’s ever okay at the same time. Usually, one of them is having some sort of situation.

If you go to the monthly or you take yourself ten thousand, thirty thousand feet up and you look at that graph, it starts to smooth out. What looks like a little jagged-y climb starts to look like a pretty straight nice line going up in the right direction. As long as that line is going in the right direction, they’re growing, they’re learning, they’re healthy, they’re making good choices, you’re doing pretty good parenting most of the time, then you can not be as attached to the little ups and downs. It’s the same thing with work, especially in the sauces. There’s distributors. There’s salespeople. There’s buyers. There are consumers. There’s trucks. There’s warehouses. There’s all these things that can go wrong all the time, and they do. Yet is the business moving in the right direction generally from month to month? Do I see growth? Do I see my team developing? Am I learning? If all of that is generally yes, then I’ve learned not to sweat the small stuff as much.

Zibby: Wow. I want that. I want that attitude. I have to steal that.

Alison: You have to cultivate it.

Zibby: I have to drop it into my head. I am not as good.

Alison: It’s a simple question. I’m in this moment. This feels awful. My kid is fill-in-the-blank, whether it’s suffering or making others suffer, whatever it is. Is this a permanent situation? Is this something that will pass? If it will pass, then I’m in a position to extract good out of it. How can I use this to either teach them or learn something or test myself or help them grow? If it’s permanent, then that’s a different story. Most of the stuff that gets us crazy, you won’t even remember in three months.

Zibby: How did you cultivate this? Is this a yoga/meditation thing? Is this a therapy thing?

Alison: It’s everything. I’m a New Yorker. I’ve been in therapy for twenty years now. That’s part of it. Also, when I got divorced, someone, I don’t know who, dropped a book by Pema Chödrön on my desk and left it there for me. It’s called When Things Fall Apart. She’s a Buddhist nun/teacher. It’s very much about the difference between human pain and human suffering. I fall the down the stairs and it hurts, versus I fall down the stairs, why does that always happen to me? Why am I always falling down the stairs? I’m probably going to keep falling down the stairs. No one understands that I fall down the stairs. That’s suffering. Trying to get yourself off of that and into, “This is what it is,” and not turning it into something, not fighting it, not trying to distract yourself from it, not creating more of a problem by adding to the problem. We’re all in pain a lot of the time. It’s just a function of, do we medicate ourselves? Do we take it out on other people? Do we numb ourselves? Are we like, I’m going to feel my feelings and learn from it?

Zibby: Now you have to write a book about this.

Alison: I think this book has been written. I don’t know that I would be — but thanks.

Zibby: Everybody has their own take on everything.

Alison: That’s true.

Zibby: You don’t have to be a Buddhist nun. I would rather take advice from someone who understands what it’s like. What is coming next for you? You’re doing a zillion things.

Alison: The sauces are a really big, exciting thing for us.

Zibby: The sauces are branded Haven’s Kitchen.

Alison: Yes, they are Haven’s Kitchen sauces.

Zibby: If people want to order them, Haven’s Kitchen. Go online.

Alison: Go on FreshDirest, FoodKit, any Whole Foods. We’re going to be in all five hundred Whole Foods nationally in April. We’re in about three hundred stores. About 2017, I really took a look at this business. I didn’t intend to build a scalable business. I really just wanted a place that made people happy and that taught people how to cook. Then being in New York having a business like that, it’s nice, but at the end of the day it’s more expensive every year. You want to grow your team. You want to keep learning yourself. I decided I wanted to grow. I wanted to grow with the mission. The mission is really creating confident home cooks and supporting them however we can. The events business, as good as it has been and as much as it pays the rent and drives the business, it’s not exactly aligned with the mission.

I wanted to do something that grew the company but also expanded the mission. At the end of the day, it was very easy. Every night in class we say to our students, “Do you like cooking? If not, why not? What do you like? What would help you cook more? What gets in the way?” all those questions. Most of the time people were saying, “I just need a good sauce. I don’t want to make lemongrass sauce in my Cuisinart. I don’t know how to mince garlic so that it’s not chunky and gross.” The sauce really makes the meal. Yet all the options out there are shelf stable. They’re filled with preservatives and sodium and extra sugar. You have to commit to curry night if you want to do something a little bit global. It was a very easy segue for us to create a product that worked for our students. Learning how to make a million pouches a year, that took some learning. It’s been so much fun because now I’m learning an entirely new business. It’s been a blast, challenging, but a blast.

Zibby: Do you have any advice either for people writing a cookbook — take your pick — or cooking?

Alison: My advice in general is if there’s something that in your brain you think you want to do or you want to understand but there’s something blocking you from it, it’s worth sitting down with yourself and trying to figure out what is causing the block. Procrastination is just another word for, “I’m trying to avoid something because it’s triggering something in me that I don’t want to feel.” If you can get to the heart of why you’re not doing something, then it’s better than continuing to chastise yourself for not doing it. You can apply that to anything. Not everyone has to cook. I will say that there’s a lot of joy that comes from creating a meal for yourself and for your family or your friends. You will be taking care of your personal health. You will be actually doing something positive for the environment, but not everyone has to do that. If you feel like you want to do it and there’s something that’s getting in the way of you doing it, it’s worth sitting yourself down and figuring out what that is. I would say that’s the same with starting a business, writing a cookbook, making a meal, riding a bike, whatever it is. I think people don’t spend enough time just locking themselves in a room and asking them what do they really want, and who do they want to be, and what is it that they want to do that they’re not doing, and maybe get to the why. That’s my overwhelming umbrella of advice.

Zibby: Again, into your next book.

Alison: Thanks. You can write it. Then I’ll just sit here and talk.

Zibby: Okay, I’ll write it. Perfect. Great. I could do this all day. This is great. Thanks for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Alison: Thanks for having me.