Round Two With Take Root’s Elise Kornack: “You Have to Find the Balance Between Getting Pushed and Getting Pushed Around”


I ran part one of my chat with Take Root’s Elise Kornack yesterday. Here in part two, the chef talks bread-making, how to keep from getting discouraged in the NYC restaurant industry, and why she’d like Dan Barber to cook her an egg.

At what New York restaurant do you celebrate a special night out?
We like to go to Fatty Crab. It’s one of my favorite restaurants in the city, and we never go to the city, so going to Manhattan feels special. I’m very memory-oriented, and we used to go there on dates. I proposed to Anna just around the corner. The food is so good there.

What would you like to see more of in the New York culinary scene?
Trust from people. People too often wait to see it in New York magazine, Eater, or Serious Eats to trust that it’s good, but you miss out on so many things by waiting. And we don’t get to reap the benefits of people who would like this food, because those people never come in the door. The adventure is stepping out of your comfort zone.

What do you wish would go away?
Trending, or at least using that word. Stop using the word “trend” to describe something, because as soon as you do it, it becomes something else. Let things be what they are, and stop trying to categorize them.

What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
Potato chips, no doubt. Specifically sour cream and onion. Also, salt-packed anchovies out of the jar. I eat them until my lips turn white. I have to do it in the privacy of my kitchen because Anna doesn’t like the smell.

What’s your favorite meal to cook at home?
Cannelini white beans have been in my life since I was in the womb. Sometimes we’ll have greens and beans, which are cannellini beans with thyme and kale thrown in at the last minute. Or we’ll have the same thing but with dehydrated garlic chips. We eat that at home once a week and top it with crispy broccoli florets or mushrooms. We keep a vegetarian house, so we have to get creative protein. Otherwise it’s pasta with butter, salt, and cheese.

What’s the most memorable meal you’ve ever eaten?
Gilt Restaurant. I was coming to visit David Carmichael, who was a chef there for a very long time, and was April Robinson’s boyfriend. I was coming to the city by myself for the first time, and she got me a reservation. I had the 14-course tasting in the lounge. I’ll never forget the experience, but second to last course was foie gras gelato. That was the moment when I thought, “Oh my god, you can do anything you want with food, and I’m in a city that celebrates that.” I thought that it would be tough to exceed that meal, and it has yet to happen.

What do you wish you could put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I don’t think I’d keep something off because I’m worried that it would sell. It would be more about whether it would fit with the rest of the dishes.

Hit the next page for what Kornack thinks is the most challenging thing about working in the NYC restaurant industry.

What music is best to cook to?
I listen to reggae almost exclusively. If I want to slow things down, then Joni Mitchell.

What one tip would you offer an amateur cook looking to improve his or her cooking?
Salt. To understand this, take something and cook it without salt. Add a pinch, taste it. Add another pinch, taste it. Do that until it’s too salty. Then you can understand the entire spectrum, including where you like it, and where restaurants do it. And cook food that you like.

What do you wish you could tell your line-cook self?
Use any opportunity that you’re not at work to sleep. Resting, taking care of yourself, exercising, and eating go totally out the window when you’re a line cook. Take care of your body, because this is hard on your body.

What’s your favorite dish on your menu right now?
The amuse. The carrot dish. It’s not a full dish, but it is a full dish. An amuse should start the meal and make you say, “If this is an entry to the meal, I’m psyched.”

What are your favorite local purveyors?
I go directly to the Greenmarkets. Bodhi Tree. The women there are incredibly sweet, and all the vegetables are absolutely beautiful. They’re so incredibly passionate about what they do.

What’s the most challenging thing about working in the New York restaurant scene?
Not getting discouraged. You want to be in the thick of it, get all the press you can get, but maintain your authenticity. Everyone is constantly pushing each other to do better, which is the most wonderful thing about NYC. But it’s also the most challenging thing. You have to find the balance between getting pushed and getting pushed around. Everyone has that day when they’re like, “Fuck, can everyone just relax?” Put yourself in a place to get criticized, because it’s not personal.

Describe your craziest night in the kitchen.
The craziest kind of night is when Anna and I have had some sort of personal battle at home and bring it here. There’s one corner in the restaurant right by the trash can where diners can’t see us. We stand there and have really intense fights. When we’re not in sync, which is so rare, it adds this intense pressure. And it’s difficult–you know when you go home, you’re not going to get a break.

Hit the next page for Kornack’s desert island food.

What’s your proudest culinary moment?
The day we opened. I still can’t believe that we opened this together with no outside help. We used our money. We painted these walls. We’re two women, we’re gay, we’re 26, and we had no investors. We’re really hard on ourselves and we push ourselves, but sometimes it’s nice to sit back and revel in it.

What’s your desert island food?
Broccoli rabe sautéed with garlic and salt. It’s a memory of my mom, and I could eat it all of the time. Anna and I played this game the other night called “What’s your favorite?” It’s a bachelorette thing, so we wanted be prepared. When I said that, she was like, “That’s a side dish.” But hers is string cheese, so get out of here.

What’s the most pressing food issue today?
Educating people on why seasonal local movement is a good thing. I’m not talking about educating the people who are living in Carroll Gardens, but the people living in remote cities elsewhere. Helping them understand why the fields covered with soybeans and corn could be better used. Educating youth and finding creative ways to inspire them to be part of a change that they could never imagine. That’s the obligation of a chef: We are the liaison, the person who gets the farmed produce and puts it in front of someone who’s going to eat it.

What’s always in your refrigerator at home?
Hot sauce and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. I can’t live without hot sauce, and Anna can’t live without mayonnaise.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten?
They’re these little sea animals, and we call them toenail shells in Nantucket. I ate them raw on the boat. My dad and I tried to sear it on the side of boat. It was the strangest eating experience I’ve ever had.

Favorite food-related item to give as a gift?
Bread. It’s the only food that transcends all cultural, geographic, and social boundaries, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. Being a chef who can make bread is something I’m really psyched about. There are four ingredients, and the process is all restraint. But it’s like, I took the humblest of all ingredients, and I made this for you.

You can have anyone in the world cook for you. Who is it, and what are they making?
Dan Barber. An egg with any vegetable in season at that time. Someone who can cook eggs really well and celebrate vegetables well is impressive.

What’s next for you?
We’re getting married in the fall. As for Take Root, I don’t know. I have visions for where I’d like it to go, but we’ve been met with so many challenges, and we’ve surprised ourselves after each of them. I’d like the restaurant to be at a place where I can look for a place upstate where I can grow and source food almost exclusively for Take Root. That’s probably a seven-to-10-year plan.

Hungry for more? A new chef interview appears in this space every Tuesday and Wednesday.