An interview with Haven’s Kitchen owner Alison Schneider by Nell Alk.
Meet Alison Schneider—the glowing, self-effacing brainchild behind Haven’s Kitchen in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Haven is a multi-purpose culinary space on a mission of sustainability, located in le plus chic carriage house we’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling upon. (Literally. When it initially opened a few months back, I twisted my ankle doing a double take while walking past. No joke!)
Haven’s quaint entry quarter is attractive on its own, with a walk-up cafe counter (try the almond milk latte and vegan salted chocolate chip cookie) plus tempting, handpicked home wares dotting shelves and cheerful installations. But curious wanderers will learn there’s much more to appreciate beyond a charming first look. Between the stainless steel teaching kitchen straight back on the first floor, the modern dining room up the winding metal staircase, and the intimate lounge down the botanical-postered hall, second (and third and fourth) impressions show just how much thought has gone into creating a physically and functionally integrated space for classes, events, supper clubs, and, you know, hanging out. That’s not even counting the forthcoming rooftop garden, which, in addition to hosting gardening classes and fabulous-sounding garden parties, will be a seriously local source of ingredients for their kitchen.
An NYC native, mother of five (one of which is vegan, another vegetarian), and degree holder in food studies, Schneider seems to “get it” more than most. Though her establishment is not as firmly plant-based as we’d like, Schneider says it’s in part a strategic move to get the message out, to position Haven as a liaison between conventional food culture and a food revolution that’s healthier and more fulfilling for everyone (animals included). Read on to find out more about what Schneider and Haven’s Kitchen are doing to help us get there.
What inspired you to start Haven’s Kitchen?
About three years ago, I went back to grad school for food studies and, learning about our agricultural system and the problems with the industrial food system, I thought, ‘How am I going to get this out to people?’ I had been teaching cooking classes in my house for a long time and decided to take it out of my home and push the sustainability piece—not just teach cooking but also food studies and food systems.
Once it became an actual business plan, it didn’t make sense to just have a kitchen. So, the retail piece grew out of that. Then, when I found this carriage house, the private event space seemed perfect. There are several individual business units here that all work really well together and are also a good model of waste management and resource sharing.
Speaking of which, do you compost?
Absolutely. Composting is important. In every class, we’re explaining what it is and where it goes. We’ve been pushing vermicomposting, but we don’t do it here because the Health Department didn’t understand. [Rolling eyes.] Really. But, we do talk about it in our classes and try to get people jazzed about it. Managing and reducing waste is a huge piece of achieving sustainability.
Little red wigglers! Vermicomposters are really easy to use at home. Or you can just bring your food waste to Union Square. On the flip side, we also teach people to buy less and, for example, if you have a carrot, how to use the whole carrot. How to get the most out of your kale. You want to do the right thing with what’s leftover, but ideally you would have nothing leftover. That’s something we’re trying to teach. If we don’t create the waste, then we won’t have to worry about what to do with it. We have virtually no waste in our kitchen. A little, but not a lot.
Livestock give rise to a whole host of inefficiencies. Can you speak to this? Given that you work with animal products, how do you reconcile this with your mission?
Originally, I wanted this to be a vegetarian business. But, for business and social reasons, it would be really hard for us to do what we’re doing without offering what people consider a traditional protein. That said, we can serve much less meat. Our perspective is, while we are contributing to the problem by using, cooking, and serving meat, we’re also contributing to the solution by doing so alongside alternatives. We can reach the people who are in a position to change the market by changing their conventional habits. And the market does move things. We’re saying, ‘Maybe you’re going to have one dish that [contains] meat, but the majority of your dishes should be whole grains, legumes, lots of greens and lots of fresh produce. Look at how happy and content you feel with this kind of meal. It’s the way people have eaten for a really long time over a lot of different cultures and it’s delicious.’
Is this what prompted the inclusion of vegan cooking and baking classes on the calendar?
Our purpose is about shifting the way people think about our food system. Not from a guilt perspective, but from an empowerment perspective. ‘I can make this impact. I can change the food system.’
I want to applaud you on your yummy vegan salted chocolate chip cookie, by the way, as well as offering both soy and almond milks.
I’m very proud of our almond milk! And you can make a really great cookie that’s vegan, so why not? I think people are starting to understand.
Any other vegan offerings on the horizon?
Other sweets. We’re also working on grain salads and our version of Hot Pockets, but not gross. Stuffed with mushrooms and kale and all sorts of good stuff. We want to have more lunch, more grab-and-go.
So many establishments miss out on a lucrative and crowd-pleasing opportunity by neglecting to offer vegan versions.
Many people don’t know that they have a choice. They don’t know that they can choose an alternative that will be better for everyone and just as good if not better taste-wise. We’re making that choice more visible.