Take Root chef and co-owner Elise Kornack grew up in a family that put food at the center of its existence. “My mom was Italian,” she explains. “I woke up to the smell of garlic and went to sleep to the smell of garlic.” But after she graduated from high school, she never contemplated cooking–instead, she pursued art at Bates College, following in her father’s footsteps until he gave her the advice that eventually ended her pursuit of drawing and painting: “Never take a job that you don’t wake up every day loving.” Since she was using her art lab tools to cut marrow bones rather than sculpt, she says she realized that “art was something I was passionate about, but it was not the thing I was passionate about.”
Related: Read part two of my interview with Take Root’s Elise Kornack
So still in college and charged with finding an internship, she decided to seek out a little kitchen experience, and she headed to Nantucket where she asked Straight Wharf owners Gabriel Frasca and Amanda Lydon for a job. At first they refused, but after she insisted, they took her under their wings. “They said, ‘Come in, and bring a knife,'” Kornack recalls. “I had nothing. I grabbed my mom’s knife, which is the dullest knife I’ve ever come into contact with. I tied it in a towel. I had no idea what I was doing.”
Within a couple of weeks, though, she’d gotten the hang of it, working her way up to garde manger. When she returned to school for her senior year, she was so convinced she’d found her calling that she hated her classes for taking her out of the culinary world.
After graduation, she spent a little time at Nantucket’s Oran Mor, where she says chef Chris Freeman’s quiet confidence “ensured me that you didn’t have to be this hotshot chef to really believe in what you were doing,” and then she headed to New York City, where she staged at and received job offers from Aquavit, Hearth, and Spotted Pig. “I took Spotted Pig because I wanted to be in the thick of it,” she says.
When she was done there, she and her then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, Anna Hieronimus, spent a month down in Baltimore, where they began meditating on the idea of opening a restaurant together. When they moved back to Brooklyn, Kornack picked up a gardening habit, and the duo started hosting dinner parties using the produce she’d reaped from the backyard. The gatherings grew, and the pair eventually partnered with SideTour, a company that offers unique experiences to New Yorkers. “We had dinners twice a week in our house, and we served hundreds of diners,” Kornack recalls. When a neighbor began giving them trouble, though, they worried that the health department might shut them down, so they began thinking about a permanent space.
The couple had some money to invest–Kornack won Chopped in early 2012–so they began looking for an address on a residential block. “We wanted the restaurant to feel like coming into our home,” says the chef. They found an ideal location in Carroll Gardens, and after a 10-month build-out and a delayed inspection thanks to Hurricane Sandy, they debuted Take Root in January of this year, though it took them a couple of months to settle on the prix fixe format that is now their only dinner option. And they’ve dealt with all of the challenges of getting a small neighborhood restaurant going: “Opening up a restaurant in winter in NYC was disheartening,” says Kornack. “It was tough until the end of March. April and May were really great, but we’re taking quite a hit this summer–this neighborhood’s empty on the weekends.” They’re finding their groove, though, and Hieronimus offers children’s yoga in the studio in back of their space during the day.
In our interview, Kornack weighs in on treasured spoons, the immense depth of good honey, and why she’s sick of the nose-to-tail movement.
On the next page, Kornack talks about the regular she relies on for feedback.
Describe your culinary style.
Restrained and market-driven. With market-driven food, it’s easy to get so excited about ingredients coming and then put too many on the plate. I try to highlight one or two and let them do the talking. I do cook meat and fish often, but I really celebrate vegetables. In the current environmental and political conditions, it makes sense to eat less meat, so let’s make meat a part of the plate, but not the center.
Describe how you run your kitchen.
My kitchen is just me: I have no line cooks or prep cooks or cleaners. So I run my kitchen the way I would if it was Sunday afternoon and I was cooking for my family.
How do you develop your recipes and menu?
Based on inspiration from ingredients, conversations, and experience. Ninety percent of the time, I plan the menu after going to the market. That is truly cooking seasonally versus just using seasonal ingredients. I wait until something truly pops out at me and says, “Put me on the plate.” Then I figure out how to represent it. Right now, it’s carrots. I went to Borough Hall Greenmarket, and there were dragon carrots, amarillos, yellow carrots, purple carrots, and orange carrots. I was inspired by them not because of how pretty they are but how sweet they taste. I created an amuse that’s probably my favorite thing I’ve created in the last two months because I was munching a carrot on my walk home, thinking about how to represent it.
Who or what inspires you?
Anna definitely. People. That’s the never-ending question for me: How can I please people? What makes someone smile while they’re eating? I’m totally obsessed with and absorbed in that kind of cooking. I love ingredients, but I love cooking for people more than anything. I like making people happy with food.
What chefs or food people do you most admire?
Christopher Freeman at Oran Mor is an incredible chef that decided to stay where he was and not chase the shiny lights and press. He decided to raise a family, and he has a beautiful restaurant that will be there until he doesn’t want it to be. Blue Hill Stone Barns is a dream, so I’m really inspired by that; I wish there were more places like it.
Who do you look to for feedback on new dishes?
Two people, and they’re polar opposites. The first is Anna. She’s the co-owner, but she’s also the average person. She goes out to eat with no pre-conceived notion of what it should be or shouldn’t be; she doesn’t go out to write a Yelp review or proclaim she’s found the next best thing. She’s also uncomfortably honest. The other person is a regular diner named Sandy Miller who comes in with his girlfriend, Lisa. They’re an older couple a few houses down. He now proclaims Take Root is his favorite restaurant. He’s honest–and he represents what people really want. He comes for brunch every weekend.
What brand of knife do you use and why?
Shun. I like the handle. I’m a pretty simple lady. It’s a bad blacksmith that blames the tool.
On the next page, Kornack talks about two things she couldn’t live without.
Are you partial to any of your spoons?
I have three spoons that I wash in between loads of dishes so I can keep using them. One is an old antique spoon from my grandmother that’s perfect for cannelling and tasting. I have a big spoon for plating and another spoon for basting.
What’s the most underrated kitchen tool?
The cake tester. I use it for temperature testing on meat and fish–most chefs do–and checking cake, root vegetables, and the doneness of pasta. I have about 10 of them. They cost about a dollar, and you really get your money’s worth.
Favorite item in your pantry or walk-in?
Salt, honestly. I also like food that’s way too salty when I’m eating at home. Second to that is garlic. I know those are obvious, but I couldn’t live without them.
What’s the most underrated ingredient?
Honey. It’s my source of sweetening. I pride myself on making balanced food with an element of sweetness and saltiness, and I pride myself on not using fine-grain sugar. Floral honey can transform a dish as much as olive oil, so I finish a lot of dishes with it. It has a deep sweetness that’s not totally upfront, and you get quite a bit of depth.
Is there a food you won’t eat?
I’ll try everything once, though I don’t really like cooked fennel.
Is there a special request you really dislike or won’t accommodate?
I accommodate every request to the best of my ability. I embrace a challenge, especially because my guests are spending $85. The hardest, though, is gluten-free and vegan. I feel really badly for those people because that means cheese and bread are out of the question, and there’s no substitute for cheese and bread. I also lean on eggs for vegetarians, and I pride myself on pasta. Plus, we start every meal with bread, and nothing else starts a meal the same way. But I love cooking for vegetarians, and I like to make sure they don’t miss out on any flavors or textures.
Is there an ingredient you won’t work with?
There are things that I won’t work with because they don’t inspire me–like stinky tofu–but I’m willing to give everything a try.
On the next page, Kornack talks about why she’s sick of the pork phase.
What do you hate seeing on menus?
I’m tired of the pork phase. I’m tired of seeing chefs lean on offal meats and nose-to-tail cooking to impress their diners. Putting the most obscure item on the plate doesn’t make it good. I don’t want to eat spleen. I appreciate using the entire animal, but it makes me feel like eating is a competition.
When customers want to thank you for a superb meal, what do you wish they sent to the kitchen?
They don’t need to send me anything. We’ll often get e-mails, which I think is so interesting. People send us such nice e-mails and rave for paragraphs, and there’s nothing sweeter than that. Any sort of acknowledgement that they’re understanding our vision means the world to me.
What’s next for New York restaurants?
Opening restaurants to support a political or social vision. It’s wonderful to open something and say, “We’re not just doing this for our food.” Andy Ricker didn’t just open Pok Pok, he’s reviving the waterfront there. I hope we see gay chefs that are out or vegetarian chefs making examples. It doesn’t have to be so grand; it can be a little thing: Here, we’re taking yoga and food and putting it in a context that’s more relaxed so we can say, “You don’t have to take this so seriously.”
Where are you a regular?
We go to Colonie often, and it has nothing to do with our food. We’ve been going there since before we moved here–Anna’s sister lives next door, and it’s such a well-oiled machine. It feels so good in there. We go to Pok Pok for the food. It’s so salty, spicy, and yummy.
What’s the most underrated restaurant in New York City?
James in Prospect Heights. We used to live around the corner, and they’d be busy, but not packed. The food is so simple but so good. Simplicity is getting lost in this new wave of creativity. Sometimes people forget it’s nice to have a bowl of gnocchi with peas and parmesan.
Who’s the most underrated culinary figure in New York City?
Women. Enough of the bearded Brooklyn men getting all the press. Women are totally underappreciated in the kitchen. And I’m not just talking about the executive chefs. Women chefs and business-owners are overlooked unless they’re partnered with a man.
Check this space again tomorrow for part two of my interview with Elise Kornack.