How Alison Cayne Is Changing the Way We Feel About Cooking


(Image credit: Winnie Au)

Welcome to Second Life, a podcast spotlighting successful women who've made major career changes—and fearlessly mastered the pivot. Hosted by Hillary Kerr, co-founder and chief content officer at Who What Wear, each episode will give you a direct line to women who are game changers in their fields. Subscribe to Second Life on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to stay tuned.

Alison Cayne wants you to do your homework. After having five kids in eight years, going back to school to get a master’s degree in food studies, and founding Haven’s Kitchen (a multi-vertical culinary business—cooking school, café, and event space plus a line of all-natural refrigerated sauces), you could say she knows how to get shit done. And while hearing her life story will no doubt leave you questioning any personal narrative that’s been stunting your own professional growth, her realistic advice is equally as refreshing. "I’ve sort of leaned into my 48-year-old female self, and I think that we approach things just a little differently… as opposed to, you know, I’ve got a dream, and I’m going for a $10 million valuation,” she tells Hillary Kerr in this week’s episode of Second Life. 

Growing up as an only child in New York, Cayne craved a togetherness that seemed to be lacking. By the age of eight, she discovered the power cooking had in creating a sense of community, and by the time she had her first child at 22, cooking was part of the gig she found comfort and familiarity in. Looking around at her friends, however, she couldn’t necessarily say the same. She realized how much "fear and loathing around the kitchen” there seemed to be, and so Cayne took it upon herself to demystify cooking, teaching classes from her home. "I taught all the way through having one and then two and then five kids,” she says. Though she wasn't comfortable charging for the classes (imposter syndrome, is it you?), through hosting them, Cayne gained an understanding of the roadblocks that made cooking intimidating for so many—knowledge that would prove invaluable in her career to come. 


(Image credit: @havenskitchen)

At 38, with her youngest off to nursery school, Cayne decided to enroll in NYU's Food Studies program. She was ready to get rid of an old idea she had of herself—that she wasn't a professional go-getter. During her first semester, she was advised to get an internship, "which I just sort of guffawed at," she admits, but found an open position as the head of the education station at the Union Square Green Market, giving school tours about farming practices, agriculture, and sustainability. 

By the time she received her master’s degree, Cayne had created a professional mission to change the way people feel about cooking, and she set out to find a space where she could bring the home cooking classes and sustainability education she had been teaching at the Green Market together under one roof. When she found a carriage house two blocks from the farmers market, her vision immediately expanded as she pictured a café in front, classes in the back, and a bar on the second floor. "I figured if there was ever a time to invest in myself, this was it,” she says. And so, in 2012, the first iteration of Haven’s Kitchen was born.


(Image credit: @havenskitchen)

After tinkering with the business model—adjusting the number of cooking classes offered, rethinking the retail assortment in the café, and realizing the immense potential as an event space—Haven’s Kitchen has become a well-oiled machine. Since opening their doors in 2012, the team has taught over 10,000 classes, planned over 300 unique weddings, and hosted over one million guests and students. Still, in 2018, Cayne went back to the mission of changing the way people feel about cooking, and felt she could do more to fulfill it, "and that's why we started, you know, the CPG part,” she says casually.


(Image credit: @havenskitchen)

Cayne laughs when she uses jargony words like "scalable,” but scale was what she needed if she was going to continue working toward her lofty mission. With a focus group of cooking students to consult every night, she came to the hypothesis that by creating high-quality, all-natural condiments—think peppery romesco and bright chimichurri—she could provide more home cooks with a sense of excitement and confidence in the kitchen. To test the idea, she brought her initial assortment of sauces to New York’s Fancy Food Show. Within the hour, the Whole Foods and Fresh Direct buyer were at her table asking about case count and distribution. Today, Haven’s Kitchen Sauces are in close to 1000 retailers.


(Image credit: @havenskitchen)

Tune in to this week's episode of Second Life to hear how Cayne is building an impressive culinary brand and powerhouse career with skills she learned from her first life as a mom of five. And to shop your new favorite condiments, keep scrolling.

Next up, hear how Shelley Gibbs Sanders created a new kind of fine-jewelry experience.