Defining Delicious: Ayala Donchin, Owner of Evelyn's Kitchen
by Leslie Gordon / LeslieWrites
Ayala Donchin is one of the finest chefs this side of Southern France. Try her red velvet cupcakes, blueberry morning cake, garlic rosemary rack of lamb, shrimp scampi, chili lime crab cakes, carrot cake sandwich cookies or fried chicken and you'll find yourself sitting outside of her kitchen before sunrise the next morning praying that she’ll feed you just one more time. And her signature blondies? Addictive.
I have known Ayala since we were in college more than 20 years ago. I liked her just fine back then but she grabbed my attention––and my respect––and never let go around 1995. As the executive director of a non-profit organization, Ayala was charged with raising substantial funds to take groups of economically-disadvantaged kids from New York to Israel to live and work on a kibbutz for three months at a time. The stories of personal growth that the kids shared from their time in Israel left me in awe. The fact that Ayala was so committed to these kids and worked tirelessly to provide a monumental experience for them may not be a big deal to some, but to me it was a game changer. It showed me something so profound about her character, her passion and her spirit. It showed me that Ayala Donchin wasn’t the average woman hustling to make a name for herself in New York.
As it turns out Ayala is a professional businesswoman who never sought the spotlight or worried about accolades for her courageous work in non-profit. She has recruited some of the most successful businessmen and women to sit on the boards of two non-profits. After her time in the not-for-profit arena, she juggled a ‘who’s who’ list of celebrity clients. Instead of seeking fame, she sought substance and passion. While some people spend years consumed with their ascension, be it real or imagined, to the top of their industry, Ayala has been quietly perfecting her craft, strategizing and building a team of loyal supporters who will do just about anything to be a part of her success. This is where the Evelyn’s Kitchen story begins but for the people who have watched her grow as an entrepreneur with longtime business partner and friend, Erica Stanley-Dottin, and now as sole owner of Evelyn’s Kitchen, we know how the story unfolds.
Word on the streets of New York is that Ayala’s cooking is par excellence. Judging from the legions of loyal followers who are in on the secret of Evelyn’s Kitchen, there must be some truth to this. Since opening the business in 2009, her list of clients has grown to include Madison Square Garden, Nike, VH1, Belvedere Vodka and Momentum Worldwide. Evelyn’s Kitchen manages personal gifting for several high profile athletes and executives at the NBA and the NFL. They also provide private cheffing services to a select clientele and Evelyn’s Kitchen goodies can be purchased at several high end cafes in NYC including Lily O’Briens Chocolate Café, Resette Restaurant and Little Brown.
Ayala’s culinary skills and fast growing food business aren’t just by happenstance. They are a combination of passion, preparation, a true gift, two amazingly supportive parents (Rina and Manny) and a divine angel named Evelyn Satinoff. Evelyn, you see, was a close family friend that Ayala remembers having in her life since she was a toddler growing up in Urbana, Illinois.
Evelyn taught Ayala a lot over the years about life, friendship, challenges and perseverance. Evelyn taught her a lot about patience as Ayala became her caregiver in the final year of her life.
Evelyn, Ayala’s Godmother, mentor and friend, was given her wings in 2008 after battling cancer. In 2009, Ayala spread her own wings and learned to fly as the owner of a new business venture, aptly named Evelyn’s Kitchen.
Read below to learn more about Ayala Donchin’s journey.
LeslieWrites: Ayala, talk about your life, your career and your interests prior to starting Evelyn’s Kitchen in 2009.
Ayala: It’s funny because I always say that I could never do what I was doing now without every step of the journey. I came to New York in 1994 to work in non-profit with kids in the city and alternative high schools. In 2000 I was headhunted by Steve Mills. Steve called and said he was moving from the NBA to be the executive vice president of the Knicks. He wanted me to join the Knicks to run their community relations department. I went from non-profit where you struggle daily to be creative in bringing resources to the table to being in this environment where the brand is one of the most recognizable in the world. It was amazing just understanding the opportunity and impact that those resources can have and our ability to impact kids and the community but I realized fairly early on that the corporate environment was not necessarily my cup of tea.
In 2002 I started my own business that basically did the same thing that I was doing at the Knicks, which was managing community impact programs for different athletes and celebrities and the brands that do business with them. I did this with my business partner, Erica, for almost nine years.
LeslieWrites: What made you leave the world of sports and entertainment and transition into the food industry?
Ayala: I guess a combination of the recession hitting and taking care of Evelyn for that last year, there was a point around 2008 going into 2009 where I just really wanted to follow my passion. I always said I wanted to do something in the food business. I worked my way through college and grad school waitressing and working in catering companies and I just literally have always loved to cook and entertain. My first business was at 11 years old, “ayala’s magnificent mousse and cheesecake," which I started when my mom and dad challenged me to raise half the money needed to go to sleep away camp.
I always tell people that if I didn’t live in New York City and I had a big house this would never have happened because I’d just be entertaining friends and family in my own home and I’d have a real job. [Laughter] You know, I kind of started putting it out there for a couple of years that I could cook for people. I did most of the food for a friend’s 10th anniversary vow renewal and catered another friend’s 39th birthday party in Chicago for about 60 people. I also did an annual summer cookout with one of my close friends in Brooklyn that grew from about ten people six or seven years ago to about 60 to 70 people. It was just always something I really liked to do.
LeslieWrites: How did you make the leap from cooking informally for friend’s events to developing a full-service business with a staff of ten?
Ayala: When I turned 40 I decided I wanted to spend my birthday at a beach house cooking for friends so I catered a big outdoor cookout for about 75 people in the Hamptons. A friend who attended was in production for VH1 and asked if I’d wanted to manage craft services for VH1’s Hip Hop Honors and I said yes. That was my first step into formally doing something as Evelyn’s Kitchen.
The response was great and I was offered more catering and craft services jobs. That’s how the business started. The interesting thing, if I look at the development of the business, is that social media helped create Evelyn’s Kitchen. Initially, I was one of those people who thought Facebook was kind of creepy then I realized it was a way to connect with people I had grown up with. Two of those people were in the food business. One, Sari Zernich Worsham, had gone to culinary school and after working for years as Charlie Trotter's executive director and co authoring all of the Charlie Trotter cookbooks, she became the general manager of The Art Smith Company (world reknowned chef perhaps best known as Oprah’s Private Chef and now restauranteur and owner of Table 5 in DC where President and Mrs. Obama had their inauguration night dinner). The other childhood friend, Adam Baird, was the executive chef of Mimi’s Café, which is a chain of family restaurants on the west coast. At the time I’m producing events for Magic Johnson and Carmelo Anthony and I had worked for the Knicks. I’m reconnecting with childhood friends on Facebook who would write on my wall, “Oh my God, you live in New York, work with professional athletes and your life is so exciting.” And my response was, “Oh my God, you get to cook for a living!” [Laughter] And I just remember consciously thinking, ‘I wish that I could do what they’re doing.’
LeslieWrites: Tell me about your relationship with Evelyn, for whom you named the business.
Ayala: Evelyn was in my life since I was two or three years old. Our families were really close growing up and every Sunday night we would do Sunday family dinner either at our house or theirs. This was in the 70s when the Internet didn’t exist so you couldn’t go to Food Network or Epicurious to find recipes. My mom, my dad and Evelyn would look at The New York Times food section each week or incorporate old family favorites, so I grew up in an environment where Evelyn’s kitchen and my mom’s kitchen as well were just these really warm, interesting places filled with a lot of good food, laughter, wine and great debates. When I got older, I’d spend weekends with Evelyn and there were always interesting people, interesting discussions, and there is just this conscious memory of Evelyn’s Kitchen always being warm, inviting, predictable and comforting. We always did Thanksgiving at her house every year and even when she moved to Delaware and then New York, Thanksgiving was always her holiday. Evelyn’s kitchen was not just a physical place, there was a spirit to it. You know, holiday weekends when everyone would come visit she would sit at the kitchen table, smoke a cigarette and do the Times crossword puzzle. Or she would eat chocolate cake at 2 o’clock in the morning with a quart of milk. It was like no holds barred. After eating the cake she would look up and say, “Oh My God, I can’t believe I did that.” [Laughter] This was life in Evelyn’s kitchen. Sit Long. Talk Much. Laugh Often.
I don’t think anyone plans to become someone’s caregiver. Before she got sick, I wasn’t like, “Okay when you get sick, I’ll be the one who’s there.” It just happened. First I started walking her dog Reggie, then I started taking her to doctor’s appointments, then I started taking her to the emergency room when her health really began to decline. And when she was in that space where she was still fully functional but not really able to go out and have total freedom of autonomy, we would do things like take 'road trips' at night down the West Side Highway to Magnolia Bakery.
Evelyn loved sweets and there was this parallel line because I loved to cook and entertain and I was really into food. One day, that last year she was sick, on one of our ‘road trips’ she told me she loved blondies and I said to her, “Oh I can make blondies.” I made the first batch and she was like, “Oh, it’s okay. Yeah, this wasn’t really what I was looking for.” [Laughter] So over a period of a couple of months, I was determined to make them perfect and this is how I am generally with all of my food and recipes. It bothers me when there isn’t a visceral response to my food. I think between Evelyn and Mike (Mike Campbell is Ayala’s “other half” for more than nine years and biggest supporter) I look for that visceral response. So the blondie recipe just kept developing and developing until finally Evelyn was like, “Oh my God, this is AMAZING!” And of course because I kept making them over and over again everybody else in my life was involved in the process. I think I started being invited to places so I would bring my blondies more so than because I was actually on the guest list.
So that’s how it really started. I started cooking for Evelyn and her friends when she got sick. We had dinner parties at her house and it was kind of my first experience cooking for an audience that wasn’t necessarily my friends. I also cooked a lot in Italy, Belgium, Israel and Portugal when Mike played basketball overseas. There were definitely a series of ongoing experiences of learning how to cook for a bigger crowd and how to develop recipes. As I said, I think your experiences all kind of move together to allow you to be successful or take next steps. For example, with the work I was doing in event production, I had to deal with all of these different people and organize large-scale events. Now I can produce an event with my eyes closed. As a result, the organizational part of catering or wholesale is like second nature to me because I did it for so long. I think its one thing to say, “Oh she can cook really well” but if you don’t have, A) the network to go along with it or B) the ability to make the best use of it, I would just be a good cook.
LeslieWrites: Describe your business. What kinds of food do you prepare and what kinds of clients do you serve?
Ayala: People ask me all the time about my specialty and I don’t necessarily think I have one. My mom always said, “If you can read, you can cook,” so I just kind of feel I can make anything. [Author’s note: I love Ayala's mom but I must respectfully disagree with her. Ayala and I can read the exact same recipe but trust me when I tell you that it would come out completely different if I attempted it.
What I’m finding now that I’m in a kitchen and we’re learning to streamline what we’re doing, streamline ingredients and get menus together is that there are certain dishes that I’m making a lot that will end up being on our permanent menu. I make really good chili lime crab cakes. People love the turkey lasagna. I do a garlic rosemary rack of lamb, jerk chicken, fried chicken. [Laughter] I think my specialty is just really, really enjoying the entire process of thinking of what I’m going to make, going to shop for it, finding the produce or the ingredients, finding unique sauces, creating spice mixes that just make things a little bit different, making it, packaging it and seeing people enjoy it. I think part of it is liking the challenge of making something better than anyone makes it.
On the wholesale side, Evelyn’s Kitchen is the exclusive vendor to Madison Square Garden for brownies and blondies, which are served throughout the Garden in suites, executive meetings and during events. Usually during the season we deliver about 30 cases of blondies and 30 cases of brownies every week.
About a year ago, Oded Brenner, a restaurateur with over 50 Max Brenner restaurants worldwide, tasted one of my red velvet cupcakes and loved it. He commissioned me to create the menu for his new café, Little Brown (ourlittlebrown.com). Little Brown is a high-end café on 85th & Lexington. It’s his first new venture outside of Max Brenner which he started ten or twelve years ago. Evelyn’s Kitchen does almost the entire menu for Little Brown and our food is getting rave reviews on Yelp.com. We make salads, sandwiches, cookies, muffins, scones, paninis, parfaits, cupcakes, brownies and our blondies are called ‘The Evelyn’ and I love this. We also do personal chefing for a select number of clients.
LeslieWrites: How has your life changed since starting Evelyn’s Kitchen?
Ayala: I had a lot more freedom and flexibility before I started my own business. I’ve never worked harder in my life and I’ve always been someone who has worked hard. I’m up early every morning doing deliveries. At this point in the business I want to make sure I’m involved in every aspect. I’m here at the kitchen usually until midnight or 1 am. My priorities have never been more focused. The nice thing is that I’ve had so much support. That’s how the café concept got started because if people wanted to see me and in any way support us, they had to come here. So we created this great space in East Harlem. The way we’re growing is very viral and through this network of support that’s been built over the last fifteen or sixteen years in New York. So we get support from folks in sports and entertainment and businesses related to that. One of my biggest supporters that I owe a lot of credit to is Dolores Concepcion, director of trade development for Belvedere Vodka. She is a friend who has really been my informal cheerleader and does so much to help build the EK brand, from using us for all of her gifting to tweeting about our food. She has helped the business tremendously. My support system, along with my Facebook & Twitter followers, have been building a buzz since we moved into the kitchen seven months ago. And the experience people have when they come is a very positive experience. The network grows and the opportunities grow. This was all built very organically, very grassroots and there’s an aspect to that I call brand integrity that I want to maintain. You know, I like the fact that the folks that are finding us are finding us through word of mouth. It’s being created with everyone involved.
LeslieWrites: Are there any mistakes you've made along the way in building your business that you can share? If so, what would you have done differently?
Ayala: Oh my God there are so many mistakes. [Laughter] Yeah, I make mistakes everyday. I don’t necessarily want to call them mistakes. I think they’re great lessons that I’ve learned like to really, really trust yourself. Know who your friends are, where your support comes from and be able to lean on the people who know you best and have your best interest in mind. At the end of the day, if it’s your business and your passion and what you like to do, you have to be confident and comfortable running with that.
Melanie Kittrell, another good friend of Evelyn’s who has supported the business in so many ways, gave me some great advice. I told her about some of my frustrations related to spending money and trusting certain people and she said, “Great education! You might have spent some money in the wrong places at first but that is a lot less expensive than tuition for business school.”
LeslieWrites: That is so true...
Ayala: So while I make them all the time, I don’t consider them mistakes. They are lessons learned and I would say as that long as you’re not making the same mistakes over and over again, it’s okay. That’s what I tell my staff. I would also tell people to get everything in writing. Don’t believe people just at face value even if they are friends. And don’t waste time on stuff you can’t control.
If you know me everything ties together. I’m a very focused, stubborn, persistent person. It wasn’t really an option for me that this wouldn’t work. You have to do what you have to do to get it done. It’s not for everybody. You’ve gotta work really, really, really hard.
LeslieWrites: And not give up. You’ve never given up.
Ayala: I am here at the kitchen literally 20 hours a day and sometimes I’m here 36 hours straight. I was telling somebody the other day it’s interesting that I haven’t had a steady income in a long time because all of my money is tied into the business and I stepped away from a pretty successful business to start Evelyn’s Kitchen. I don’t really have the discretionary money I used to have and so right now I’m not buying the new cute bag or the new shoes or the new outfit. I don’t have any idea what’s going on in fashion. I look crazy every single day, Leslie. I throw my hair up, throw on sweats and get to work. And I love it.
I also love the fact that Mike stepped up and has been so incredibly supportive and takes ownership of the company and of me and does what he needs to do to help. It just shows you what’s important. My life won’t always be like this but when things stabilize and settle down I’ll know that this relationship was instrumental in making it happen.
LeslieWrites: Where do you see Evelyn’s Kitchen going in the next five to ten years? Where are you planning to take the business?
Ayala: I think for me one of the most important things is brand integrity and consistency and quality. I think we’ve been able to grow over the last year and a half because the product is really, really good and the entire experience is good, whether people are coming here or dealing with us on the phone. We know how to take care of clients and meet people’s needs. I want to keep the same consistency and quality and not compromise just to have the business grow. I want to make sure I keep loving what I’m doing.
LeslieWrites: What do you want people to know about you?
Ayala: I think I’m really, really good at this. I’m not sure I’m really good at a whole lot of things. I’m in my element here. It’s my space, I’m comfortable. I love taking care of people. I’m not an extroverted person so I’m not out there selling Evelyn’s Kitchen. I love the fact that this whole thing has been built as a reflection of the original vision. I love that I’m getting the opportunity to do what I love to do on a daily basis and I’m getting such a positive response.
LeslieWrites: What do you think your staff would tell me about you?
Ayala: I think our team sees how hard I’m working and has respect for it. I’ve become a much better manager than I was ten years ago thanks to all of those experiences leading up to this. I’m a pretty calm person. In general they’d tell you that I’m very grounded even when I’m upset. My norm is just sort of even-keeled and I think the people that work here respect that because it helps me manage them better. I think they would say that I’m very upfront and that I do what I say I’m going to do. I work really hard and so my expectation is that everyone else works really hard too. I’m very fair in that and very honest about my expectations. And I’m flexible because I like other people to be flexible. As long as you’re doing your job and you’re working hard I don’t actually care that you make mistakes as long as you learn from them. Over the course of the seven months that we’ve been in the kitchen, we’ve built a great team and they really take ownership of the business and the vision. It’s just a cool place and I think that vibe translates to the people who stop in here.
LeslieWrites: It speaks to your brand integrity and all that you’ve put into building your business.
Ayala: I cannot believe people pay me to cook for them. It amazes me still on a daily basis that I get to do this for a living. It’s crazy. People come in here all the time and ask for a menu and I say, “Menu? I don’t have a menu. What do you want? I made crab cakes today. Want a crab cake?” [Laughter]
LeslieWrites: But the incredible thing is that people will eat whatever you put in front of them because your food is delicious, it’s made with love, it’s fresh.
Ayala: Thank you. And that’s the part to me that’s really fun and exciting and gratifying. I cannot believe people are calling and asking how they can get a reservation and now we’re doing private dinners. Every Sunday is Sunday Family Dinner at Evelyn’s Kitchen and it’s invite only. It’s for friends and people who have been around and supported me and friends of friends. I cook a family style dinner and people come in at like 5 or 6 o’clock and stay until 11 or 12 o’clock. We charge for it and they love coming here, seeing each other and meeting other people. We take reservations for private dinners on Tuesday’s, Thursday’s and Saturday’s. We can seat up to 8 people for a 4 course dinner and charge $49 plus tax and tip for a ‘chef’s choice’ menu or more if you want us to create a personalized menu for you and your guests. The other evenings, we get people popping in and asking,"What’s for dinner?" We have a pretty loyal following and I’ll put on Twitter what the $20 dinner special is and we pack it to go. And of course it always includes a ‘Yummy Box,’ of one of our 'dangerously delicious' goodies.
LeslieWrites: In the rare moments when you are not in the kitchen, how do you spend your time?
Ayala: In those rare moments when I’m not in the kitchen, I go to home to visit my parents but trust me I’m still working from Florida. I don’t think I’ve had a day off in a year and a half. I don’t remember a time that I wasn’t actively involved even when I wasn’t physically here. The other thing that having the business and staying this focused does is it helps put things in perspective and reminds me of how important my family is. So no matter how crazy things get I made the commitment to myself to visit my mom and dad once a month, even if it’s only for 48 hours. I go spend time with them and make sure they’re okay. For me in some ways it’s very, very grounding. The important thing that I learned in non-profit is that you can’t build a business that would fail if the founder got hit by a car. I want to make sure that Evelyn’s Kitchen can exist and has meaning outside of me. Ayala is not Evelyn’s Kitchen, Evelyn’s Kitchen is Evelyn’s Kitchen. I am driving that boat right now but the idea and the values and the food and the quality and the creativity are not exclusive to me. I have an incredible team here, folks that have found their way to be a part of what we’re doing and really see and believe in what this opportunity is. I get so much support and I know I’m not in it by myself. •