2008 Graduation - Baccalaureate Ceremony
Sheila Lukins - Steinhardt Distinguished Alumna
I graduated from NYU in 1970 - a challenging year for many colleges, there were faculty and student strikes, Kent State, SDS, the Weathermen. Because I was in the art department I was asked to sew a tattered flag which flew over the school. I was moving to London a few days after graduation and I only hoped to leave with a diploma. But, miraculously, we graduated in Madison Square Garden and off I sailed. I loved NYU. I knew I had the education to let me do what ever I wanted to do. After a three-year stay in London and France I moved back to New York and soon afterwards, I had two great daughters.
While I was at home with them I began a small design business. This was before computer graphics and I went through more press type from Lee's Art Supply store than anyone could imagine. But I was in the logo business and through word of mouth I picked up some great clients - an African Gold Mining Partnership, and a well-known handbag designer. But not so fast - I'd have to give these people price quotes, say $100-$200 per logo and they'd say "much too expensive!" So, after one year in the logo business and maybe bringing in $300, if they'd pay me, the phone rang one morning. A new dawn! From the time I got married, I cooked dinner every night (except when I was going to NYU and had papers due). I taught myself to cook, loved it, and entertained frequently.
Back to the phone call. The man on the phone was a single Wall Street broker who lived in my building. He was in panic mode - "Sheila, I need help! I'm having six people for dinner tonight and I need food! The super's wife usually cooks up lasagna and a salad for me but they are on vacation."
I said, "Don't worry George. I'm home with the girls. I'd be happy to make dinner for you. What will you pay me?"
The big question again. We settled on $100 plus the cost of the food. I was thrilled. Real money! I sent the food to his apartment in my dishes around 6PM.
The next morning he called me with raves. I had made a Greek dinner - moussaka, Greek salad, mezes to begin. Gale Green and another writer from New York Magazine were there. They thought I should begin catering for single men. They called Ellen Stern who started Best Bets for the magazine and she called me and asked that I come up to see her with lots of food for her to taste. Armed with a picnic basket filled to the brim, over I went. She loved everything she tasted and did a full-page spread with photos in my kitchen. I had a big platter of Chicken Marbella, my specialty, in front of me, and the caption of the story was Eat, Drink and Be Murray.
The Other Woman Catering Company was born. I had two hundred calls from single men in a couple of weeks, which was amazing. What was so interesting was that these weren't guys entertaining their girlfriends. They were calls from administrative assistants, or secretaries of single business men, who entertained clients in their offices or in their homes. In all the time I was The Other Woman, I only met one or two of my men. Another fact: I never lost a dish. They came back clean with a check. During this phase of my career I always sent the food out in my dishes, but as I was doing this on my own, it was a little trying. Masses of food all the time and it was beginning to lose its charm, but I kept plugging on. Then one day, again, the phone rang. It was Julee Rosso.
She said, "I'm the director of advertising at Burlington Industries (domestic division). I'm Michael X's girlfriend and I've been eating your food for two years and I love it. My company is introducing a new line of Oleg Cassini sheets at a press breakfast at his home. Will you cater it?" I said yes. Going all out in 1976, I brought in espresso machines, croissants; I made egg creams with Fox's U Bet Chocolate Syrup and seltzer bottles, served blackberry and lemon mousses, and decorated with arm loads of hydrangeas.
The food was a bigger hit than the sheets and Julee asked me to cater the rest of her market week at Burlington. I did, and during one of the afternoon parties she said she had an idea to talk to me about. At that time, more and more women were beginning to work. It was 1976 now - a lot of time had passed since graduation. She said she had an idea for a food shop where people could stop on their way home from work and buy everything from soup to nuts for dinner to a full dinner party. Originally the idea was to buy everything in for the shop - breads, cheeses, pates, shelf items, etc. Did I want to do this with her? I said I had to think about it. Well, if not me, someone else - I couldn't let that happen - so I was in! Speaking of full-time jobs, try the food business. 1977 was a seminal year for the specialty food business. The Silver Palate, Dean & Deluca, and Eli Zabar's EAT on Madison Avenue all opened.
Women were working in offices and few were barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Our store served a need. We were feeding two income families and when our customers served our food, we heard that they often said they made it themselves. It was always good home cooking - easy to pass off as your own. We found a space for rent for our shop on the Upper West Side (At that time an unsavory neighborhood) in an 11x14 foot space for $425 a month. Of course, it needed work and we made it beautiful.
We couldn't think of a name for the shop. We went to Raoul's for dinner on Prince Street (still there) with Julee's boyfriend and my husband to name the shop. In those days The Purple Onion was a popular name in London, so that was in contention. Michael, Julee's ad man, thought Seaboard Deluxe (meaning "To Go") in coffee shop lingo, was edgy. So we went with that. The following day, Florence Fabricant of the New York Times, doing an article on the renaissance of Columbus Avenue, called and said that she wanted to include the shop in the article.
"What are you calling it?" she asked. I said Seaboard Deluxe and she said it sounded like a railroad station. "Why don't you call it the Silver Palate?" The rest is history. It worked for the store, products, catering and the books!
There was a concert in Central Park on the steaming hot night we opened in July 1977. We sold out of absolutely everything we had in the store. I was on fresh food duty in my apartment full-time by then. It would remain that way for quite a while. My co-op board had limits and the board of health had rules. We finally rented space for a kitchen and hired help.
Then came products. A few Christmases later we were putting up some fruits in brandy in beautiful jars for the holidays when Gordon Segal, the owner of Crate & Barrel, was walking up Columbus Avenue looking for new products. He came in our store and loved our products and asked if we would make some for his catalogue. We always said yes first and then figured out how to get the job done. That is the best piece of advice I can give you. It always worked. We were on our way. They were big hits that season but we knew we couldn't keep our basement canning kitchen going forever. We needed help.
If we were going to make products we needed to find a factory that would agree to hand pack our products. We found this too and begged our way in and eventually boutiqued our line to over 2,000 stores across the country, and by 1986 had formed a joint venture with a Japanese trading company and opened two Silver Palate boutiques in Japan. That was extraordinary because instead if exporting our products, I spent time working in factories in Japan making the products for the stores to carry.
More followed. In 1986 we became the Food Editors of Parade which I have been doing on my own since 1991. In 1982, we wrote the Silver Palate Cookbook. The New Basics was the last project Julee and I did together from 1988 to 1989. We had a great partnership for 11 years, and in 1988 we sold The Silver Palate and went our own ways.
I went to work for United Airlines from 1996 to 2000 and redid all the coach class food based on my USA cookbook. I continue to be Food Editor of Parade Magazine and will have my 7th cookbook published in October. I own much of my extraordinary career to an unwavering foundation built upon my NYU education. I wish you good luck and give you my heartfelt congratulations. Go forward and follow your dreams, and as I have said a million times, do whatever you have to do to get the job done!