Con Poulos
Beef Bourguignon, from ‘The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School’ book by Alison Cayne.Con Poulos
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Cook Like Your Bubbe

Haven’s Kitchen in Manhattan employs an old-world pedagogy: cooking with intuition. The school’s methodology—and recipes—are now collected in a cookbook.

Leah Koenig
April 19, 2017
Con Poulos
Beef Bourguignon, from 'The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School' book by Alison Cayne.Con Poulos

Unlike most cooking schools, classes at Haven’s Kitchen—a 5-year-old school, cafe, and event space in a beautiful former carriage house in the middle of Manhattan—do not use recipes. Instead, instructors walk students through a game plan for the evening (a collection of Thai street food dishes, say, or a series of vegan cakes) then encourage students to look, smell, and touch the food while they cook it. “That way, they don’t spend half of the class craning their heads toward a piece of paper,” said founder Alison Cayne. “Cooking is an intuitive process. When students feel and taste something first-hand, they remember it.”

This educational philosophy, which is akin to the way generations of Jewish grandmothers taught their children and grandchildren the secrets of making perfect matzo balls and lokshen kugel, translates to the pages of Cayne’s new cookbook, out this month: The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen.

Cayne’s original pitch to create a “cookbook without recipes” to match Haven’s Kitchen style didn’t fly with her publisher. So she and her team scrutinized every one of the book’s recipes to ensure they provided the greatest possible benefit to readers. “We’d ask, ‘Why is this recipe important? What skill will students get out of it that will help them with cooking forever?’” Each chapter, be it focused on soup or fritters or sweets, is guided by an overarching lesson—balancing flavors, say, or finding the playfulness within a dish.

The dishes that made it into the collection—toasted farro with roasted winter vegetables and tahini dressing, beef bourguignon, a “flourless chocolate cake to commit to memory”—are elemental, pared down, without being dumbed down. While ultimately adhering to the format typical to most cookbooks (an ingredient list followed by method), the recipes have a distinctly friendly, conversational tone. The book is also full of the priceless cooking tidbits one usually only gleans from cooking alongside another person. There’s a tip about salting pasta water heavily—enough that it tastes like the sea. And that old bubbe-meise about adding oil so the noodles don’t stick? “Skip it,” the book says. “It’s a waste of oil and it doesn’t benefit the pasta in any way.”

Cayne grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the 1970s and ’80s, an era when New York City’s women were more likely to use their ovens for storing extra pairs of shoes, rather than cooking. “My mom was very much part of the working women generation. To her the kitchen was a place to be relegated to,” she said. But for Cayne, the kitchen was always a place of creativity and connectedness. Starting at age 7, she began making dinner for her family and inviting friends over for dinner parties featuring mustard salmon and spaghetti pancakes, and other classics of the era.

Growing up in a family that was not particularly connected to Jewish tradition (“We were a menorah-and-Christmas-tree, 6th-generation-New-Yorkers kind of Jewish family,” Cayne said), her repertoire did not include many traditional Jewish dishes. So when she started having children and wanted to bring some of her heritage into her cooking, she found bubbes-by-proxy to teach her. “One woman taught me to make the best kugel, another brisket, and another challah,” she said. “If you are willing to listen and be a bit of a sleuth, people are usually so eager to share what they do and how they do it.” Cayne knew she was on the right track when she began to regularly win the latke competitions held at her kids’ nursery school.

These days, several of Cayne’s five children (who span in age from 11 to 19) are into cooking or baking themselves. And they all know that on a Friday evening, whatever else they have going on, they will be home for Shabbat dinner first. “They can invite as many friends as they want, and now their friends have come to expect it,” she said. “I usually have more kids at my Shabbat table than one should, but it’s great.”

At Haven’s Kitchen, Jewish food is also part of the conversation, with a Middle Eastern Shabbat dinner class taught by NY Shuk co-founders Ron and Leetal Arazi and a Mexican-Jewish Seder class taught by La Newyorkina owner Fany Gerson joining the schedule.

With The Haven’s Kitchen Cooking School book, Cayne hopes to make the next generation of cooks feel at home in the kitchen. “We only have 12 seats in our classroom, and there are only so many days in the week,” she said. “The book is our attempt to translate what goes on at our stoves to the broadest possible audience.”

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