Contributor Jake Safane has been profiling neighborhood restaurants and food shops for The Lo-Down. In the latest edition of his ongoing series, Jake explores the history of Neuman’s Kitchen, a successful catering business on Chrystie Street.
As the fourth generation of his family to run a food business in New York, caterer Paul Neuman grew up working at his father’s store, the Rosedale Fish Market on the Upper East Side.
While his college years led him to pursue his passion for art upon returning to New York after graduating in 1977, he also remained in the family business. He taught himself how to cook, selling some dishes at the market, while at the same time teaching classes about handling fish and cooking seafood at the New School. Today, he operates Neuman’s Kitchen at 203 Chrystie St., a thriving corporate and events catering business that has called the Lower East Side home since 1996.
Thirty-four years ago, though, Neuman’s catering career got off to a bit of a rocky start. For his first official gig in 1980, his father had connected him to a media mogul who was hosting an apartment dinner party. When the client asked if he knew how to make lamb chops, Neuman fibbed. At the party, Neuman pulled the lamb chops out of the oven only to find them dead raw. Panicked, he cranked the oven temperature up, knowing that the time between the courses was growing too long.
“Her housekeeper is standing there with folded arms, watching me just melt down. I looked up and said ‘Get me through this and I will never, ever cater again,’” he recalls. After waiting as long as he reasonably could, he served the lamb chops, which he describes as rare at best. “Let’s just say I never got a call back for another gig [from that client]…Unfortunately, I didn’t keep my promise to never cater again. Fortunately, I did keep my promise to never do it that badly again.”
Neuman’s cooking skills continued to grow. He started dating a fellow employee at the New School, Stacy Bogdonoff, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, who joined him at the fish market. In 1981, they launched a retail and catering shop on the Upper East Side called Neuman & Bogdonoff. Business went well for the first decade, but by 1996, they were in a tough economic spot, so they decided to close the retail store and focus on catering to survive.
“Looking back, truth be told, I probably wasn’t that good a retailer, even though I grew up in it. I didn’t love it the way my father loved the fish business,” Neuman said.
So what made Neuman choose to open a kitchen on Chrystie Street?
“Complete desperation,” he said. His biggest client found an ad for space on the Lower East Side, where Neuman has worked ever since—and enjoyed the most success of his career. He and Bogdonoff have since split up, with Neuman taking the company on his own in 2006, rebranding it to Neuman’s Catering in 2007 and Neuman’s Kitchen in 2012.
As business picked up, Neuman expanded his presence on Chrystie Street, adding office space above the kitchen and down the street. Meanwhile, Neuman has watched the neighborhood that was home to his great-grandparents turn from gritty to glamorous. For him, the turnaround has mainly been correlated with rent increases rather than directly contributing to his customer base, due to the fact that there’s no retail operation.
“While gentrification is good in some ways, it isn’t really good for us because we’re not capitalizing,” he said. “But because our business has grown faster than our rent has gone up, we’re very happy here, but we know our days are probably numbered. We’ve physically outgrown it.”