Outside The Kitchen With Chef Caryn Stabinsky

If we were lucky in childhood, we heard parents say, “follow your dreams.” Caryn Stabinsky was luckier; she saw it. Her parents, a teacher and a lawyer, decided to abandon their careers for medical school. She was 4 years old when they packed up and left suburban Hartsdale for the wilds of Tampico, Mexico. For the next three years, Stabinsky dwelt with chickens, lime trees, and roadside tortilla stands. “My grandparents told them, ‘Do what you need to do; we’ll be by your side.’ The experience taught me that everything is possible, that you’re never too old to make a change. My family is based on supporting each others’ dreams.” 

Stabinsky had her own dreams, which were literary. At 10, back home in Yonkers, she was writing stories, and went on to study literature and psychology at SUNY Purchase College and New York University, with graduate work at City College. She has, she says, three unpublished novels in the proverbial drawer. “My writing was introspective. I think it’s very important to understand who you are, the mistakes you make, and how you fit into the world. To understand other people’s mistakes, you have to understand your own. It makes you a better teacher.” 

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To find where she fit into the world took a few years. A stint in children’s book publishing and work with the developmentally disabled were unfulfilling. Propelled by the family mantra of change and possibility, she enrolled in a cooking class at Manhattan’s Peter Kump’s (the forerunner to the Institute of Culinary Education), loved it, and signed on for its work-study program. “I delivered food, mopped floors, cleaned dishes…I learned every aspect of how a restaurant and bakery business works. Cooking and baking became a way for me to be creative, to use my hands. It’s intellectual.” She learned a crucial personal lesson as well. “I function better when I’m constantly moving, not sitting at a desk. I can think of a million ideas when I’m touching bread.” 

Her future hovered, and a meal at Manhattan’s Oceana clasped it. Seduced by a huckleberry caramel crème brûlée and chocolate pistachio pastry, she externed there and soon joined the staff. Within two years, the cutting-edge restaurant WD-50 supplied another revelatory meal and her next job under maverick pastry chef Sam Mason. “I was floored by the creativity, the attention to detail, the palates,” she says. It also supplied a husband, the fish-station cook. Stints at Manhattan hot spots followed: Monkey Bar, Jefferson, Urena. “I feel so lucky in this industry,” she says. “To have worked in these restaurants, to have been honored with awards by my culinary school.” She smiles and shrugs. “I keep thinking my luck’s going to run out.”

In 2011, it sort of did. Married with one child, pregnant with a second, and buoyed by that family mantra, she and her husband leapt. “My parents said, ‘Our dreams were met, let’s work on yours.’” They moved from Manhattan into her parents’ Armonk home and opened a bakery/café, called Loaf, in town. But they found they had jumped too far. “There wasn’t enough foot traffic, and we made some bad financial decisions,” she concedes. Loaf closed within a year, but family dogma prevailed. “It was a great growth experience. I’ve realized that life is more than society’s definition of success, it’s about learning, giving, growing, which to me is a huge part of what being a chef is.” She went on to help open Tarrytown’s RiverMarket as consultant and New Canaan’s Elm as pastry chef. And in 2013 she took another leap, into Zested, her on-the-side restaurant-management consultancy. “I love implementing structure, organizing kit-chens, improving time
management and functionality,” she states. “I realized, with RiverMarket and Elm, that I loved building other people’s dreams.”

Now again, with Zested, she’s continuing to build her own. 

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