How chefs in public housing are launching their own businesses – Metro US

How chefs in public housing are launching their own businesses

Joann Poe of NYC's Best Dressed Cupcakes worked with USHG executive pastry chef Jessica Weiss for City Flavors.
Photos courtesy of Joann Poe; Liz Clayman

The ideas, skills and aspirations of up-and-coming chefs are never in short supply. But when they’re already struggling to make ends meet in New York City public housing, they need something more to make their small business dreams a reality. That’s where the free Food Business Pathways program comes in — and for the first time, you can taste the city’s next great food ideas at City Flavors on Monday, July 23.

In a glittering walk-around tasting on the High Line, more than 20 chefs will serve up their best bite-size sweet and savory dishes to raise funds for the 10-week training program that also helps entrepreneurs with marketing, equipment, insurance and more. Food Business Pathways started helping chefs in 2015 after Liz Neumark, founder and CEO of premier catering firm Great Performances, was looking for a way to help chefs just starting out through her work on the board of the Fund for Public Housing.

Her culinary world connections also meant the chefs taking part in City Flavors had some help from some of the New York food scene’s biggest hitters, among them Bill Telepan of Oceana, George Mendes of Aldea and Questlove’s personal chef Ardenia Brown, just to name a few. The chefs volunteered to mentor the participants, sharing their cooking and business knowledge, and many will also help their protegees serve up their food at City Flavors. 

From a dream to City Flavors

Among the Food Business Pathways graduates taking part is Joann Poe, who started her baking career making 3D cakes in the kitchen of her NYCHA apartment. “I’m self-taught,” she says. “I did a lot of Googling and Youtube” and even though she couldn’t afford culinary school, she bought the textbooks to practice recipes from the Bronx’s now-closed Barnes & Noble.

Initially, she was looking to open a food truck, but the ongoing lack of permits and the Food Business Pathways program led her to a Bronx incubator kitchen and cupcakes. Now, she caters events through her company, NYC’s Best Dressed Cupcakes.

Her partner for the event — and the source of the inspiration for the new vegan banana cupcakes she will present at City Flavors — is Jessica Weiss, executive pastry chef for Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. “That’s the first time I ever worked with someone professional,” Poe says. “It was an awesome experience. She also gave me input on my business and so many baking tips — things that most cooks and chefs would not share with you.”

City Flavors is a chance to build her clientele — and there’s something to be said for getting out of the lonely world of the kitchen and meeting the people who will enjoy her food: “It gives me the opportunity to meet different people and at the same time as I’m talking to them and telling them what I do, they can taste it.”

How the Fund for Public Housing is helping New Yorkers

There’s also a bigger hope for Neumark with City Flavors. She earned a degree in urban studies in the lae ’70s, when New York City was buckling under the weight of debt and crime. So she went to work in food, but got back to her original passion as a board member of the Fund for Public Housing. It’s an organization that touches the lives of the 1 in 14 New Yorkers who live in NYCHA apartments in many ways well beyond food.

“We know how powerful entrepreneurship is, and [the entrepreneurs] are mostly women, and we know from looking internationally through Kickstarter and Kiva that women are just phenomenal at lifting families out of poverty,” she says. About three-quarters of City Flavor’s participants are women, who make up the majority of the Food Business Pathways program graduates.

And just maybe, the City Flavors attendees will walk away with more than a few memorable bites. “I believe that without diversity, our city loses its creativity. What public housing does is it keeps neighborhoods diverse,” Neumark says. “Maybe people will look at public housing and the residents differently, not as ‘them’ and ‘us.’”

City Flavors — A Night of Local Bites is on July 23 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. at The High Line’s Chelsea Market Passage (16th St. & 10th Ave.) Tickets are $95-$1,000.

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