When we visit Harlem, one of our favorite NYC neighborhoods, we have trouble deciding where to eat because there are so many hidden (and not so hidden gems!). From Red Rooster to Patsy’s to Amy Ruth’s, there’s something for every palate. Evelyn’s Kitchen, on 1st Ave. close to Kristina’s former apartment, has quickly become a favorite of ours for their homestyle cooking, decadent desserts and friendly vibe. We’ve had the opportunity to meet Owner and Executive Chef Ayala Donchin a few times and recently got her insight on what’s behind Evelyn’s Kitchen.
FP: How did you get your start with cooking?
AD: Cooking and baking have always been a passion. I used to read cookbooks for fun when I was in grade school. My parents, Rina and Manny, saw this passion and encouraged creativity. I clearly remember my mom refusing to buy me an easy bake oven…she said just use the real oven, that’s how you will learn.
Food was always part of family gatherings. We ate as a family every evening and had Sunday dinner with Evelyn’s family every week as well. I got a job with a catering company when I was 12, and then waitressed my way through college, always working at great restaurants and learning both front and back of the house.
FP: We LOVE visiting Evelyn’s Kitchen. How did the concept of the cafe come about?
AD: Mostly from my real enjoyment of entertaining. I wanted to create a place that was about great food and family. We have a sign perched up high at the cafe that says ‘Sit Long, Talk Much, Laugh Often’ and that is really at the heart of what we created. I loved the idea of a family table and when I first moved into our East Harlem location and wasn’t open to the public (we were only doing catering and wholesale at that time) my friends would come and help me out with orders. I’d feed them and they’d roll cookie dough and pack boxes. We had such a good time that we wanted to extend that experience to others. By that point, I’d already fallen in love with our East Harlem community and felt strongly that our first retail location should open in the neighborhood that had been so supportive of our growing business and very protective of our team.
FP: We’re glad that you decided to open up the cafe. We know East Harlem is happy too!
In addition to the cafe, you keep busy with catering, craft services, wholesale baking and other food services. What are some of the biggest differences between running the storefront and outside ventures?
AD: While there are definite differences in operations for our various business divisions, the one thing that connects all areas of the business is an emphasis on personalized service and excellence. We have an amazing team with 16 full time employees who ensure that there is a consistent “EK” experience, whether you are at the Cafe or enjoying EK at a catering event. We care about our clients and I think that comes through in everything we do.
FP: The times we’ve had dinner at Evelyn’s, we always feel like we’re eating inside your home!
What are some of your favorite things to cook for family and friends?
AD: Anything that makes them say mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm! Most of my long time favorites are on our menu at the Cafe. 🙂
FP: We could eat everything on the menu!
When you go out to eat, name some of your favorite places in Harlem or other parts of NYC.
AD: I love Silvana, on 116th…amazing Mediterranean food. Love the vibe at Park 112 and Melba’s of course because I love Melba. She’s been a wonderful mentor and a friend. Seafood is my favorite and The Boil on the Lower East is the absolute best for their food and service. Mermaid Inn for their $1 oysters at Happy Hour. Lastly, Macao in TriBeca has been my go to late night dining spot for about 5 years.
FP: All these places sound delicious…we’ll add them to our ever growing list!
What are some of your guilty pleasures? We like to call them foodie pleasures, hence the name. 🙂
AD: Pralines from Southern Candy Makers in New Orleans, Ample Hills Ice Cream in Brooklyn, The Parma Mussels and Truffle Fries at Flex Mussels, Haribo Gummy Bears, Peppermint Patties and my beach day must have: Pringles!
FP: We agree with you…gummy bears from Haribo are a must!
What do you like to do on your days off ? What are your non-cooking hobbies?
AD: For the most part days off are few and far between since I started the business. Love cookouts and family gatherings, the beach, huge fan of HBO, Showtime and AMC TV series and I can binge watch like nobody’s business. My better half and I have a standing Friday night movie date.
FP: Binge watching TV is a great way to unwind from work for sure!
In three words, how would your friends and family describe you?
AD: Loyal, Determined, Funny.
FP: Thank you Ayala, for your time. We wish you continued success with Evelyn’s Kitchen and your business ventures. Next time we visit the neighborhood, we’ll make sure stop by!