Cornell Cooperative Extension Broome County’s inaugural “Women of Food: Celebrating Women-Owned Business” event featured local chefs preparing their signature plates and telling personal stories about the foods and relationships that launched their culinary journeys.
The event, held Aug. 15 in the CCE Broome County commercial kitchen in Binghamton, New York, also provided recognition and funding for the kitchen, which serves as an incubator for local entrepreneurs, farmers and food-business owners, regardless of gender.
“We are celebrating the remarkable women who have carved their path in the food industry while providing crucial support for CCE Broome’s Commercial Kitchen,” said Katie Matsushima, CCE Broome County kitchen manager and product development specialist.
The kitchen plays a pivotal role in nurturing and empowering local startup food ventures. For the chefs whose flavors were on display, the kitchen and the CCE team behind it have been key to unlocking businesses growth, helping them find new markets for prepared foods, and developing plans to obtain market placement for shelf-stable products.
“This event means so much,” said Chantay Skrine, as she plated her signature dishes – spicy jerk chicken, Southern collard greens, and coconut rice and beans. “To see women empowered and working together to make one common goal happen is an amazing thing.”
The kitchen adjoins the Broome County Regional Farmers Market and is in the same complex as the CCE Broome County-run Taste NY store, offering entrepreneurs a variety of resources in one location.
Skrine started Sweetay’s LLC in 2021, following her dreams of feeding her community by offering custom cakes, sweets and snacks from her home-based business. As a vendor at the Broome Country Regional Farmers Market, Skrine quickly developed a following. She is now selling meals-to-go at the Binghamton Taste NY store.
Working out of the CCE Broome County commercial kitchen allowed her to prepare foods beyond the scope of what is allowed in a home-based food business.
“Connecting with CCE has helped me take my business to the next level,” Skrine said.
Soojung Lee, one of the event’s featured chefs, served up spicy kimchi with generous bowls of bibimbap, a traditional Korean dish.
After moving to Broome County from South Korea, Lee graduated from the SUNY Broome Culinary Arts Program in 2021, going into business for herself shortly thereafter. The staff at CCE Broome County encouraged Lee to start a hot food business; three months ago, she launched Seoulful Food LLC.
Lee is already selling out on Saturdays at the farmers market. “Everything runs out by 11:30 or 12,” she said.
In addition to the prepared foods, Lee has been working with CCE and Cornell to understand the complexities and process of bottling her chili sauce for sale. “The kitchen is very helpful for me,” she said. “Everyone cooperates with each other. It’s amazing.”
Chef and transplanted Brooklynite Maria Hall, owner of Boricua Soul Catering and Sweets in Binghamton, said she began cooking in her family’s kitchens. “My grandmothers’ especially,” said Hall, who prepared pinchos de pollo – chicken kebabs – and Puerto Rican style macaroni salad for the event. She also offered samples of her signature tres leches cupcakes.
“Just falling in love with the way we come together when we sit down to eat,” she said. “When everyone loves the food, it just touches their soul. That’s why it’s Boricua Soul – ‘Boricua’ meaning ‘Puerto Rican.’”
CCE Broome kitchen was key
Hall started her business in 2016 and does catering, runs pop-up events and creates custom cakes and desserts. Thanks to the CCE Broome County commercial kitchen, Hall was able to prove her business concept without a big investment in infrastructure.
“Without the kitchen, I wouldn’t be able to put my food on the map in Binghamton,” she said. “When I found [the kitchen] and connected with everyone, it took off from there.
“This event today is so special – I was teary-eyed earlier,” Hall said. “When I was in high school, I said I wanted to pursue a cooking career, but my guidance counselor said, ‘That’s a man’s field.’ My dream dwindled a little bit. Being here today, it’s just amazing to me.”
Members of the CCE Broome County commercial kitchen have access not only to modern cooking facilities, but also to Cornell Cooperative Extension resources, including contacts at Cornell and the Food Venture Center at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, and the shelves of the state’s Taste NY stores.
“It started in 2016, along with the Broome County Regional Farmers Market,” said Amy Willis, director of food systems at CCE Broome County. “Our idea was for this to become a whole food system cycle where vendors in our farmers market become kitchen users and then get products onto the store shelves – kind of a soil-to-shelf idea.”
Over time, the kitchen space evolved, hosting not only farmers, but local food trucks and caterers, as well as cooking classes run by the SNAP-ED nutrition team at CCE Broome County. The kitchen is available for rental or membership to anyone, regardless of gender, in Broome County with food-business aspirations.
Staff assist entrepreneurs with licensing, regulations and putting together business and marketing plans, and answer questions as they arise. “We’ve had quite a few businesses come through our kitchen through the years that have outgrown us and gone on to bigger and better things,” said Willis. “We’ve seen two in the past few years move from our kitchen to their own brick-and-mortar spaces.”
“It is a place where local entrepreneurship flourishes, underrepresented voices are amplified and the initiatives of minority and women-owned business enterprises are championed,” Beth Roberts, CCE Broome County executive director.
“I’ve devoted a good part of my career trying to build up the food economy not only in Broome County, but across the state,” said attendee and New York State Assemblymember Donna Lupardo (D-123rd Dist.). “When you meet these women and you learn about their lives and you learn about what this business means for them, the aspirations they hold and the dreams they have for their families, it’s really a point of pride for us to know we have this opportunity here for them.”
“Women of Food is so exciting for our region,” said New York State Senator Lea Webb (D-52nd Dist.), who also attended. “We have some incredible entrepreneurs in our community – and especially women- and minority-owned business. Food is a great unifier that brings everyone together. It’s a great showcase of the exemplary skills of these women business owners.”
CCE Broome’s efforts were recently rewarded with $750,000 in new funding awarded Aug. 23 by State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. The funding will be used to expand the kitchen space and build a new walk-in cooler and dry storage area.
Melissa Jo Hill is a communications specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension.