If you ask Kathleen O’Brien Price about filming “Real Life Cooking,” a weekly live-stream show where she cooks a full meal from start to finish out of her tiny Harlem kitchen, she rattles off a list of the challenges.
“Our stove is a miniature stove. A sheet pan can’t fit in our oven. We have to wait because only one of my burners works well. But if I can do this, so can you. I hope it’s inspiration.”
The former “Chopped” champion and graduate of Le Cordon Bleu, Ms. O’Brien Price, 31, also hosts “Lovers & Friends,” a ticketed R&B-themed dinner party prepared in her home and held at secret locations.
She’s part of a new breed of culinary entrepreneurs who are making a name for themselves right out of their New York City home kitchens, using social media to promote their events. At the last dinner party she threw, she only knew one person at the table. “One of the guests said to me, ‘You don’t know me, but I follow you on Instagram.’” (She has more than 11,000 followers.)
Home chefs operate in a variety of ways. Some use their home kitchens to test recipes for preparation and larger distribution from elsewhere or to develop meal plans that then get sent to subscribers. Others prepare meals for pop-up dinners or prepare items for home delivery.
Many home businesses in the city operate under the radar, and these new types of start-up food businesses often aren’t governed by existing regulations. “In New York City, if you are zoned residential, you can use your apartment for business if the business occupies only 25 percent of your available space, up to 500 feet, and you can’t have any employees on site,” said Jaime Lathrop, a lawyer in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who handles real estate litigation and transactions. (New Jersey is the only state that prohibits the sale of homemade foods for profit.)
For food preparation, most baking is allowed but anything that requires refrigeration is banned because of the difficulty in maintaining food at legal temperatures with consumer refrigeration units, Mr. Lathrop said.
New York State licensing requirements include a Home Processor License, Wholesale Business Registration, a Food Protection Certificate and Sales Tax Vendor Registration. “But most of the time the biggest obstacle to running a business out of your home is that the lack of space and limitations on food production generally discourage long-term use of your apartment as your business grows along with demand,” he said.
For Ms. O’Brien Price, a California native, the kitchen in the $3,200-a-month two-bedroom apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Christopher Coy, 31, president of Paramount Sports & Entertainment, had to make sense for her business ventures.
“I needed to find a kitchen where I could film. This kitchen is new and updated,” she said, explaining why she chose to live in a fifth-floor walk-up where she is constantly hauling groceries up the stairs. “My boyfriend is not from New York. He didn’t understand that you have to compromise.”
Nicknamed “Chefleen” by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith when she worked for them as a private chef, Ms. O’Brien Price says that her Harlem community is integral to her cooking. A neighbor across the hall in her building has even taste-tasted her recipes for her, trying out her vegan chicken. “I love the energy of the city,” she said. “Harlem has so much history. It’s not just the restaurants that are inspiring but also the people.”
Matt Davis, a co-founder of Mosaic, used his Brooklyn Heights kitchen to develop recipes for his home-delivered healthy frozen meals.
“The first step was to cook good food, freeze it, thaw it out and see how it was when we reheated it,” he said. “I was cooking stuff I liked, stuff that made us feel healthy. Roasted veggies, whole grains, ginger, miso sauce. Things you would find at a Sweetgreen.”
The former senior director of operations for Blue Apron, a meal kit service, Mr. Davis lives with his wife, Nikita Urval, 30, a neurologist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, in a co-op near Cadman Plaza in Downtown Brooklyn that they purchased three years ago for $560,000. “She had to give up half her apartment for a year,” he said of the time he and co-founder Sam McIntire were developing their recipes. “She’d be coming off a shift and come home to the counter covered in samples and the cat locked in the bedroom. The upside is she gets the food — I do all the cooking.”
Now that Mosaic has launched, their food is made in a commercial kitchen in upstate New York. “It has to be in a kitchen certified for food safety,” said Mr. Davis, 30. But he was surprised how much of the company truly developed in his home kitchen.
“From an R&D standpoint it was amazing how far we were able to go in our own kitchen,” he said. “The trick is mostly around scale — it sounds silly but things as technical as the amount of salt that needs to go in the dish became tricky. There’s a big difference when you’re making 12 portions — if we scaled it up you had to go back and adjust.”
Mosaic is currently sold direct-to-consumer, delivering to all five boroughs, some parts of Connecticut and Washington D.C. But Mr. Davis remembers how grass roots his initial delivery system was. “In the very beginning we would take the portions and I would deliver them by the subway, loading them into Trader Joe’s bags and bringing them to friends and family.”
Other ideas for home kitchen businesses are born out of years served in the restaurant business.
When José DeJesus, 37, returned from a stint as a contestant on season 18 of “Hell’s Kitchen,” he was inspired by the intensity of the experience to embark on his own culinary venture.
“My wife picked me up from the airport and as soon as I stepped foot in my house I said, ‘If I can go through that, I am definitely going to start these pop-up dinners. I literally started a week after that.”
While working as chef de cuisine at Eataly’s Il Pesce restaurant, Mr. DeJesus, who goes by the name Trill Cooker (meaning true/real cooker) began hosting Breaking Bread, a multicourse dining experience with a secret tasting menu from his home kitchen.
“I’m bringing urban fine dining to the Bronx,” said Mr. DeJesus, who was born in the South Bronx and is inspired by his Puerto Rican roots and a mother whom he calls “adventurous in the kitchen.” “She had Italian cookbooks, Asian cookbooks. That had my mind going.”
In 2016, Mr. DeJesus and his wife, Elizabeth, manager of the pediatric rehabilitation department at the Hospital for Special Surgery, went in with his in-laws on a three-family home in the Bronx that they purchased for $458,000. His mother-in-law and father-in-law live on the second floor. Mr. DeJesus and his wife and their daughter, Kaleigh, 13, and son, Jax, 6, take the third floor. The first floor is used as a common family area, which leads to the backyard. His mother-in-law helps with the pop-up dinners, curating everything from the glassware to the art that hangs on the walls.
The setup for Breaking Bread is intimate and homey. “This is not a restaurant. This is an evening-long celebration of food at a secret location,” according to the website.
“I have a picnic table in the dining area. I built out a center island between the living room and kitchen. Six guests sit at table and two guests are in front of me. The whole experience happens right in front of you. I’m using a home stove and oven. People are amazed — how is this guy creating this food with just that?”
From pork belly to roasted and marinated beets, Mr. DeJesus is interested in educating his Bronx neighbors on foods they might have been otherwise reluctant to eat.
“A friend told me to move to Indiana and take over out there. He’s right but he’s also wrong. Why can’t I do it in my own part of the Bronx? The food is really lacking up here,” he said. “Part of my movement is to bring people from the city and Brooklyn, to have them walk through the streets and see the Bronx is a beautiful place.”
These types of pop-up dinners are a relatively new development and represent a gray area in terms of city health department rules and licensing, according to Michael Lanza, an assistant press secretary in the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Food service establishments must operate out of a commercial kitchen and be inspected by the Health Department,” he said. “We do not recommend anyone set up a stand and start selling food without a license.”
But not all home kitchen businesses are centered around selling food. Talia Koren, 27, started a meal plan subscription service, Workweek Lunch, out of her Astoria apartment three years ago after she was laid off from her job as a staff writer at Elite Daily. The idea was born out of her own desire to eat healthy and not accrue debt.
“It’s expensive to eat here,” she said of New York. “I taught myself how to cook and meal prep because I didn’t want to cook every night. My millennial colleagues would look at my food and say, ‘How did you do that?’”
Ms. Koren tried other ventures including e-books and an accountability group before hitting on the meal plan program. “For eight dollars a month, you get a weekly meal plan with a grocery list. You can adjust everything, and the grocery list will update. I get you started, I give you the list, you shop, you cook and you eat.” She has 2,200 subscribers and began working on the business full-time last September.
“My audience is international,” she said, noting that her Instagram audience of more than 340,000 followers is less than 50 percent American.
The two-bedroom co-op she rents with her boyfriend for $2,350 a month presents its own set of challenges to running a business. The kitchen is small, so she asks her boyfriend to stay out of it when she’s “in the zone” doing “huge meal preps” every Saturday night — test cooking meals that will eventually go into her meal plans if they work out.
Then, on Sunday mornings, she carefully carries the food into what she dubs her “Instagram studio,” a home office with a “perfect square table” that gets good light so she can photograph the food.
Ms. Koren’s boyfriend, who is a full-time web developer and is studying for a master’s degree in computer science, takes her homemade lunches to work. “He sells my program constantly,” she said. The couple got a composter and put it in his parking spot behind his car. “That was his idea. He’s gotten me into being more sustainable.”
She is counting the days until her boyfriend finishes graduate school and they can move to somewhere like Colorado, where she once lived for a year. “My dream is to have big windows,” she said. “I can’t grow anything here. I want to grow my own herbs.”
Back uptown in Harlem, Irena Capris, 32, is busy making vegan wraps and raw vegan cheesecakes in the tiny kitchen of the first-floor studio in a brownstone that she rents for $1,700 a month with her husband. Her three-year-old daughter, Roksana (who also goes by “Roki”), is her constant companion as she works. She runs a catering business and also hosts dining events.
After moving to New York City from Russia 10 years ago, Ms. Capris became interested in eating a vegan diet, seeking out eco-friendly products and adopting a zero-waste mentality. She started Clean Plate NY in December 2018 and had her first big catering job this past spring, preparing and delivering vegan wraps for 20 people at a makeup school photo shoot. This summer, she hosted “Earth Side Picnics” in Central Park, where all of the materials used were eco-friendly and the menus featured items like gluten-free buckwheat avocado toast with shiitake bacon and tahini date oat cookies.
“I live uptown and people often throw parties outside to celebrate birthdays and other occasions,” she said, “It’s fun, but the outcome is not — plastic, trash, wasted food, so I had an idea of putting together food parties and showing that low-waste parties are possible, and at the same time showing my craft, making dishes from plants.”
Ms. Capris often finds herself running back and forth from her own kitchen to her mother-in-law’s upstairs (she lives in the apartment directly above), all the while with her toddler on her hip.
“I have a support system, my husband helps me a lot on weekends or after he gets off work, and my mother-in-law is an amazing woman who lives in the same brownstone as us and lets me use her dishwasher and laundry,” she said. “I also sometimes shoot my content on her porch, while Roki, my daughter, tries to help,” she said.
Despite the obstacles, Ms. Capris has thrived in her unique New York City setting and hopes other cooks will see that you don’t need a large, gourmet kitchen to make your dreams a reality.
“I’m so happy I had an idea and made it into a business. I work hard, it’s not easy; especially since I don’t have a restaurant-style kitchen or even time alone,” she said. “My profits are not huge right now. I’m just passionate about protecting my craft and my system.”