Serving Community

From Manhattan to the Bronx, these six alums are changing New York City’s food scene — all while nourishing their local communities.

By Kira Goldenberg ’07

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Barnard may not officially offer a food-focused course of study, but the College consistently graduates its fair share of professionals in the culinary field.

“Food was not academic,” New York Times food writer Melissa Clark ’91 reminisced in a 2016 Reunion panel held at the College. Still, passionate alumnae, from Clark to chef and cookbook author Julia Turshen ’07, have applied their undergraduate education to building New York-based culinary careers, creating spaces that showcase not only how delicious food can be but also its crucial role in thriving communities and in social justice work.

“Food is another pillar of our urban life, like housing and access to healthcare and education,” says Liz Neumark ’77, owner of the catering company Great Performances and its extension café in the South Bronx, Mae Mae.

Neumark and five other Barnard food-industry entrepreneurs based in New York City demonstrate that while their work may differ in the details — genre, location, revenue model — they have commonalities that exceed, and perhaps result from, their college degree: Each has mentored employees, served their neighborhoods, forged partnerships, and taken inspiration from New York City’s unrivaled food culture.

“I think there’s something about the education at Barnard that leaves you [with] very clear thinking on how you can achieve your goals,” says chef and Food Network mainstay Alex Guarnaschelli ’91. “There’s nothing more valuable than that.

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Liz Neumark headshot in kitchen
Photo by Nina Wurtzel

Liz Neumark ’77 

In a sunny conference room in a large warehouse-style building in the South Bronx, Liz Neumark is conducting business ensconced in a Barnard hoodie. Neumark is the CEO of Great Performances, a catering company she founded in 1979. Though her prestigious clients range from the Plaza Hotel to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Neumark, who graduated from Barnard an aspiring photographer, first built the company so that she and fellow women artists would have flexible income streams while pursuing their passions.

“Within the first two years, we brought men onto the staff because we had clients who just couldn’t believe that there were going to be female bartenders,” she says.

Great Performances spent decades renting office space in downtown Manhattan’s Hudson Square but moved to Mott Haven in 2019. The move spanned about seven geographic miles, Neumark says, but the new headquarters — adjacent to multiple highways and seemingly endless construction zones — is “a million years away just in terms of demographics, amenities, social services, and people.”

So Neumark, who also serves on the board of the city-based food equity organization GrowNYC, is leading Great Performances’ efforts to build relationships in the company’s new home, from participating in community workforce development programs to opening a new incarnation of Mae Mae Café, whose first iteration was as a small, well-regarded farm-to-table bistro at the prior office site. The reimagined Mae Mae, partly a plant store, serves Latinx-influenced vegan food, nods to both the neighborhood’s culinary traditions and to Great Performances’ food education philosophy.

“It’s just the beginning of our outreach into the community,” Neumark says, though she admitted that area construction workers are occasionally taken aback to learn they can’t stop in for a bacon, egg, and cheese. “It’s a beachhead.”

Great Performances is also working to create jobs in the South Bronx and to forge community connections to Neumark’s sister enterprises. She owns Katchkie Farm in Kinderhook, N.Y., which grows some of the organic food used in the company’s catering and at Mae Mae. Katchkie is also the source of a seasonal CSA — weekly, prepaid farm-share boxes filled with the latest harvest — distributed out of the café and in partnership with other sites around the city. And the farm hosts the Sylvia Center, a nonprofit started by Neumark that educates New York youths about food and cooking through both farm- and city-based after-school programs.

“Being able to use the platform we’ve built and the world of food to storytell, to educate, to uplift, is what thrills me,” she says. 

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Barbara Sibley headshot in her restaurant
Photo by Nina Wurtzel

Barbara Sibley ’84 

When Barbara Sibley opened Mexican restaurant La Palapa a few months after 9/11, Manhattan’s food landscape looked very different than it does today.

“If I opened today, everybody would be like, ‘Oh, it’s so artisanal,’” she says. “But when I opened back then, I had to make all my own cheese. I had to make my own mole. I had to make my own chorizo. There wasn’t anywhere to get it. I would sometimes have to repurpose things from Chinese cuisine, or Thai.”

That cultural cross-pollination was already a concept Sibley had pondered at length: After growing up in Mexico City and then falling for New York City’s melting pot, she majored in anthropology at Barnard, where she studied how Western investment in developing nations can alter their societal structure.

She considered getting a master’s degree in anthropology but ended up enamored with restaurant life. After working in other people’s kitchens, she decided she wanted to open a restaurant to cook the food she missed eating. That idea ended up as a deep dive into Mexican food history, which, over two decades later, continues.

“There are very common dishes that are considered part of the canon in traditional Mexican cuisine that have really changed over the years,” Sibley says. One thing she did was source convent recipes from the 1400s. These were collaborations between Spanish nuns and the indigenous cooks hired to work with them. “So you start to have, in those convent kitchens, cross-pollination between the indigenous Mexican cuisine and the Spanish, which also has a lot of North African, a lot of Arabic influence.”

The result of Sibley’s research is a menu so beloved by her St. Mark’s Place community that she continued to offer all the dishes straight through the pandemic, when many other restaurants simplified their offerings in the frenzied pivot to takeout.

Customers “wanted what was really going to make them feel comforted,” she says. “In New York, our communities revolve so much around restaurants. When times are uncertain, people walk by and they’re so glad that you’re still there,” Sibley told Zagat.

La Palapa also began cooking for frontline medical responders, eventually teaming up with World Central Kitchen. “I ended up specializing in meals that were super delicious, super nutritious, in one bowl, and you could basically eat it with one hand if you needed to,” Sibley says.

It was an adaptation all too familiar to longtime La Palapa employees who did the same after 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy — a drumbeat of New York City crises reflected in one restaurant’s commitment to its broader community. 

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Akim Vann in her bakery
Photo by Nina Wurtzel

Akim Vann ’90

It’s impossible to enter The Bakery on Bergen in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, without being tempted by the cupcakes and cookies on offer. That’s partially because its interior was redesigned into a chic, eye-catching pastiche of pink, red, black, blue, and white on an episode of Get a Room With Carson & Thom, a 2018 Bravo show hosted by two members of the original Queer Eye, Carson Kressley and Thom Filicia.

And it’s partly because the baked goods look delicious — the perfect combination of moist cake and buttercream bouffant. But it’s mostly because owner Akim Vann’s presence makes the space feel like a welcoming community hangout, great for the taste buds and for the spirit and less great for glucose levels. Or as Vann terms it, a “sober Cheers.”

“We employ community,” she says. “We’re a safe space. We converge in here. And you will find every single walk of life in my bakery.”

The Bakery on Bergen is just the latest chapter in a captivating life. Vann’s father, Teddy Vann, was a Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer who featured his daughter on the album and single “Santa Claus Is a Black Man” when she was 5. Vann, whose mother is Chinese, was also a cast member on Sesame Street throughout her childhood.

At Barnard, despite a childhood penchant for math, Vann majored in political science and then matriculated to study for a public policy master’s degree at the New School. It wasn’t the right fit, she says, so she left a few credits early. In 1996, she married Reggie Ossé, an entertainment attorney, better known professionally as hip-hop podcaster Combat Jack. In the midst of raising their four children and tutoring math, Vann and a pastry-chef friend decided to open a bakery in 2014. Vann didn’t have baking experience, but she did not let that dissuade her.

   “Because I could cook and because baking is math, I took to it really easily,” she says. The friend’s subsequent illness forced her to step back, and The Bakery on Bergen became Vann’s solo venture. Since then, she has partnered with a local YMCA chapter to mentor high school interns, many of whom she ends up hiring at the bakery.

Other than a short closure at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Vann has kept The Bakery on Bergen open, seeing a surge in delivery demand as quarantining neighbors sought comfort food. And thanks to support from Brooklyn community members and organizations, as well as boosts like a profile in the Instagram account of Humans of New York, The Bakery on Bergen has remained afloat.

“We all have crazy lives,” Vann says. “But my life is a testimony to understanding that everybody has ups and downs and you can’t let them defeat you.”

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Yvette Leeper sitting with glass of wine
Photo by Nina Wurtzel

Yvette Leeper-Bueno ’90 

When the pandemic hit New York, the South Harlem restaurant Vinateria, a Mediterranean-inspired restaurant and wine bar, already had a large, inviting outdoor dining area. So owner Yvette Leeper-Bueno kept Vinateria open straight through 2020 to support her employees and serve her community.

“So many customers came to me later and said, ‘This place meant the world to me during pandemic isolation,’” she says. Like at Barbara Sibley’s La Palapa, Vinateria partnered with World Central Kitchen to make food for first responders and community members in need, sending a total of 20,000 meals to Harlem Hospital, Mount Sinai Morningside, and food-insecure residents.

Leeper-Bueno, a New York native, opened Vinateria in 2013 after a first career in children’s fashion and then a few years at home with her two sons.

During that time, she hosted an annual school fundraiser in her Harlem home, complete with a hired wine expert and homemade hors d’oeuvres.

“It was so much fun. I used to love to organize them and entertain,” she says.

The menu at the fundraisers was often reflective of the love of Mediterranean culture she acquired while studying at Barnard: She majored in foreign area studies with a focus on Italy, then took a post-college trip to study in Buenos Aires, which has a strong Italian influence, a result of a wave of immigration from Italy at the turn of the 20th century.

“When I got to college, I took an intro to Italian class and I loved it,” she says. “It just took me to a whole other world.”

Her husband and a close friend noticed how much she enjoyed serving Italian food and wine to a crowd. They suggested she try opening a restaurant. The idea clicked. “I figured, I’m a Barnard lady; I can figure it out,” Leeper-Bueno says. She originally conceptualized a small wine and tapas bar, but the plan changed as soon as she saw a larger space at Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 119th Street.

Today, the restaurant’s menu features housemade pastas and flavorful, seafood-forward small and entree-size dishes prepared with a Mediterranean flair. It’s accompanied by an extensive wine list focused around Italy, Spain, and France.

Despite, or because of, Vinateria’s global flavor, Leeper-Bueno creates a space where all Harlem denizens — longtime residents and newer ones alike — feel comfortable converging.

“It’s a neighborhood place. It’s a place to come, bring your family, let your hair down,” she says.

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Alex Guarnaschelli with elbow resting on cook books
Photo by Squire Fox

Alex Guarnaschelli ’91 

New York City native Alex Guarnaschelli started cooking professionally immediately after graduating from Barnard with an art history degree.

“My father always said, ‘Do what you like because, whatever it is, you’re going to be doing it a lot,’” she says.

She worked in New York City for a couple years, then attended culinary school in France, staying there for about seven years to work at Guy Savoy’s Michelin-starred restaurant. Upon returning to the U.S., she worked at Daniel Boulud’s Daniel in New York and at Patina in Los Angeles before opening Butter in 2002. It was initially located downtown on Lafayette Street and moved to its current midtown location in 2013.

Guarnaschelli connects the art of cooking directly back to her academic studies. “Learning to cook is also being a spectator and observer, and those powers are highly developed with education,” she told a group of Barnard students in a fall 2020 virtual Q&A for the annual Big Sub event, which invited students to share their own sandwich recipes. The conversation focused on sandwiches but covered far broader terrain around the connections between cooking and studying.

“If you want to be a good chef, you have to be ready for repetition like you can’t imagine,” she told the students. “I think the way you study for an exam and [how] you cull all the facts from your notes and your reading and you memorize them and you write them down over and over — you have to be ready to do that with chicken breasts and broccoli and really be able to get joy from that repetition.”

Her own career has become far less repetitive. Besides being chef and owner at Butter, where she oversees a menu featuring seasonal, elevated comfort food, Guarnaschelli is a cookbook author and a perpetual presence on the Food Network, where she hosts the shows Supermarket Stakeout and Alex Versus America. She also co-hosts The Kitchen and often judges on Chopped, Grocery Games, and Beat Bobby Flay, all with her trademark calm, wry demeanor.

In addition to everything else on her plate, Guarnaschelli is in the early stages of partnering with fellow alumna Liz Neumark on a new food venture. The two women are friends, but they’re also philosophically aligned on the role food plays in bringing people together.

“Food and community intersect in so many different ways,” Guarnaschelli says. “Our philanthropic endeavors match our common interests. We love helping people. We love feeding people.”

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Sohui Kim standing with arms crossed
Photo by Nina Wurtzel

Sohui Kim ’94 

Sohui Kim entered Barnard planning to become a lawyer at her father’s behest.

“He held onto those traditional beliefs that you pursue higher education to become professionals,” says Kim, whose family emigrated from South Korea to the Bronx when she was 10. “And to him, that was doctor, lawyer, a very straight and narrow path toward professionalism. By the time I was actually at Barnard, my father passed away, so I felt like I was carrying on the weight and the burden to live out his dream.”

Thankfully for Brooklyn’s restaurant scene, the plan changed. Kim started cooking for friends in her dorm and exploring the city’s cheap eats. After graduation, she took a job in architectural publishing, still planning to apply to law school. But she also continued hosting meals and exploring New York’s endless food options.

“I took the LSATs, and I had this sort of ‘aha moment’ while I was taking them” that practicing law wasn’t her passion, she says. “I found the whispering answer: It was food.” Kim quit her day job in 2000 to make the shift.

“I knew that the pay sucked and the hours were long, but there was something intriguing about the whole food world that I really wanted to explore,” she says. She embarked on a course of culinary study that included an externship at Blue Hill and a job working under Anita Lo at her former Michelin-starred joint, Annisa.

Then Kim and her husband, Ben Schneider, struck out on their own, opening The Good Fork in Red Hook in 2006, which featured Kim’s signature creative use of eclectic global flavors, followed by Korean restaurant and karaoke joint Insa in Gowanus in 2015. Those restaurants were both community mainstays and foodie destinations by the time the coronavirus pandemic upended the food world in 2020. Kim and Schneider closed The Good Fork, which remained shuttered until summer 2022, when it reopened as The Good Fork Pub. Insa pivoted to takeout and delivery before reopening later into the pandemic.

And in April 2021, the couple, joined by restaurateur St. John Frizell, opened their third restaurant: a restored and reimagined Gage & Tollner. A legendary downtown Brooklyn chophouse from 1879 to 2004, Gage & Tollner’s landmarked interior had been repurposed for other uses for nearly two decades. New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells wrote that the restaurant’s reincarnation “radiates confidence, capability and relevance.” It’s a dose of hip nostalgia at a moment when the present consistently feels tenuous. “It’s sort of a blur when I look back,” Kim says, “but it does make sense how I would go from a Barnard poli-sci major to becoming a chef in the City.” Her work, she says, is built on a sense of rootedness in Brooklyn, in her ongoing collaboration with colleagues and collaborators, and in the painstaking attention her team pays to histories, from personal to culinary to architectural. “This is home, and this is where we need to be."

Latest IssueFall 2022