The Chef of Take Root on Time Away, the Intersection of Art and Cooking, and Forging Her Own Path
Tonight, after a multi-month hiatus and renovation, Take Root reopens on Sackett Street in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. The Michelin-starred restaurant is one-of-a-kind, even in the current anything-goes climate: a 12-seat jewel box offering a set tasting menu for just twelve guests, three nights a week. The restaurant is also noteworthy for the fact that it has a mere two employees, chef Elise Kornack, a former artist, and her wife and partner in the enterprise, Anna Hieronimus, who tends to the front of the house, wine, and other matters, and tailors playlists to accompany the menu, which changes roughly eight times per year.
Turns out there was more to the story of the hiatus than most people realized — Kornack and Hieronimus almost packed up and left town, fatigued on the rigors of life in New York, and of the climate of the industry here. That, and the details of the renovation, are discussed in Sierra Tishgart’s interview with Kornack over on Grub Street. I sat down with Kornack about two weeks ago, and we kicked around a number of related topics over coffee in Take Root’s newly refurbished dining room. What emerged was an understanding that the restaurant is, as much as anything, an expression of the two lives that converge there. Here, along with best wishes for their relaunch tonight, are the highlights our conversation:
[Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
FRIEDMAN: Very often, one takes a vacation and it’s not until you’re away from your home base that you gain perspective on your life. Are there transformations or new ideas that came to you by virtue of not doing this on a weekly basis that wouldn’t have come to you if you hadn’t had this recent break?
KORNACK: One hundred percent… I needed to see my family. I needed to go to my source of inspiration which is Nantucket, which is where I grew up. I needed to walk the places I walked and breathe and just see something other than this little corner that I walk around. [Ed. Note: Kornack and Hieronimus live a stone’s throw from Take Root.] So creatively, it opened my brain again. It let me see things a little bit clearer, and just laugh with my brothers and cook with them and just relax. And I don’t get to do that when I’m here.
And also just straight-up inspiration. Eating other food, just being in nature. Going to the farms that we work with, talking to our wine makers, it really gives you inspiration… The food is still my food. It’s still my style. It’s no different. But it definitely reminded me to just cook my food and be confident in it and not be so wrapped up in the things that are going on around me… Chefs get very quickly influenced by [other] people. They’re looking at Instagram. They’re saying, “Oh, they’re doing this. How can I do it?” I’ve tried not to do that because I need to just focus on what I’m doing. The second I try to play somebody else’s game, that’s when shit’s going to hit the fan.
FRIEDMAN: That reminds me of a friend I had in college who wanted to be a poet. He didn’t read poetry because he felt there was no way he’d be able to keep the influence from seeping into his own work.
KORNACK: Exactly right. I remember back in college in, like, Drawing 101, we would all be with our charcoal and everyone’s pages were all smudged and crazy and the teacher would sometimes say, “When you look at it and you are just about to change something, stop, because that’s when it’s done. Don’t keep fucking with it. Don’t keep changing it. Don’t keep testing it. Just leave it alone. Go home to your dorm room. Go do whatever. Come back tomorrow. If you still think that it needs something, fine, do it.”
But if you’re constantly fucking with things and looking for the answer somewhere else… that doesn’t work for me. I need to go have a drink with my wife, go walk my dogs. So that’s the time off we both really needed.
FRIEDMAN: Do you feel that the food’s actually going to come back closer to what it was when you first opened? Is the evolution that you actually got back in touch with yourself?
KORNACK: Yeah, absolutely. We brought back one of our dishes [salt-baked yellow beet with smoked egg yolk and citrus vinegar] that we opened with; it’s now the first kind of amuse thing. It’s always been on the menu in some way since we opened, but now it’s the first thing. We’re kind of saying, “Changing and evolution is really wonderful; you welcome the new; but you’ve got to keep the old and you have to honor it… you’ve got to have the base. You’ve got to have the foundation, and it has to show its face sometimes throughout the menu. Everything’s not about new, new, new, new, new …”
FRIEDMAN: I have a whole list of questions here but we were talking before we started recording, so since it already came up… I’m pausing because I’m always loath to go to the gender question, or —
KORNACK: [laughs] Oh, go. I don’t care
FRIEDMAN: The reason I’m always loath to go there is I feel like nobody starts off cooking thinking they want to be a woman chef or they want to be a gay chef. They just want to be a chef, right?
FRIEDMAN: A lot of that emphasis is imposed on you.
KORNACK: Of course, yeah.
FRIEDMAN: But I’ve also read a lot of interviews with you, and it seems like you’re very comfortable talking about it. Even eager to talk about it.
KORNACK: I mean, somebody has to, right?
FRIEDMAN: Where do you feel like things are, if I just put the question out very generally?
KORNACK: Well, they’re separate conversations, the female [thing] and the gay thing, totally separate… and once they get merged it kind of dilutes both of their messages.
In terms of the woman aspect, we all know it’s an issue. We all know it’s a problem that needs to be fixed in the industry. There’s got to be something to be done about it. Women cannot be called female chefs. That word is not necessary. We’re just chefs. And there does need to be more equal coverage and there does need to be a conversation about it that should be continuing.
And then the gay thing is separate. A lot of people assume that female chefs are gay or that gay women chefs are more tough, more buff, whatever. It’s hilarious. They’re all stereotypes, but they do come from somewhere. And that toughness and that intensity comes from feeling excluded. You get defensive. Anybody would, and [become] not who you are. If you feel excluded from something or you feel judged or discriminated against, you’re going to put your guard up which makes you feel like you’re defending something or you’re nasty. That’s where those things come from.
I don’t really feel it that much from the media. I’m really lucky and I feel really blessed in that. I haven’t felt terribly isolated in that way.
FRIEDMAN: You don’t feel undercovered.
KORNACK: No, I don’t. I mean, I think there’s definitely a few people. Names will not be disclosed … [but] they stand out as basically the only publication that’s never gotten behind us … and I do feel like it’s because we’re gay women… but what’s hilarious is they‘re women. Men are never the problem with me. I’ve never had an issue with a male writer, a male critic.
FRIEDMAN: Well, historically, the food writers in this country, it’s a largely female population, right? So the whole fact of women being excluded from or marginalized in coverage is fascinating in itself.
KORNACK: Right. There’s a flirtation that we find female writers or female journalists have with the kind of romance of that “sexy male chef.” I mean, I just watched Burnt. Of course, it’s going to be Bradley Cooper that plays that role, right? They couldn’t have picked somebody who’s a little overweight or whatever…
But these young guys, these strapping, talented, tattooed, rough-around-the-edges chefs, I mean, come on. If you’re an older woman, that’s going to be something that has a little extra intrigue. I don’t have anything to offer in that way…
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FRIEDMAN: It is interesting because again, we were talking before we started rolling tape, about the mainstreaming of, I won’t say gay culture, but of gay people. One might think that being gay is, for lack of a better term, “marketable.”
KORNACK: That’s what we think, but it’s not. It’s hilarious. I remember the title of the Lucky Peach article [about us]. It was Two Employees, One Michelin Star… we are the only restaurant confirmed in the entire world that has a Michelin star that runs it with two employees. In the world. World. Not country. World. That’s crazy. To me, that alone is a story. Plus we’re women. Plus we’re under 30. Plus we’re married. All of those things to me seem like …
FRIEDMAN: Why aren’t you on the cover of a magazine, right.
KORNACK: But nothing. Crickets. And we were like, this is so interesting. We don’t care. We’re not chasing the press. We don’t do that. It was just so interesting to us.. but it wasn’t that we were upset because we wanted the coverage of our restaurant. It made us realize that we still have a lot of work to do as a society when it comes to women and gay culture.
FRIEDMAN: A related question: You’ve talked in interviews about this restaurant changing the idea of what a restaurant can be. I assume what goes hand in hand with that is redefining the idea of what a chef can be. The fact that you’re here on your own doing everything in the back of the house. You know, people always point to the fact that “chef” means “chief.” But you’re not anybody’s chief. You’re doing all of it. You grew up at a time where things were evolving. But do you think that growing up gay made it at all easier for you to follow your own path professionally, to do something unusual?
KORNACK: [nods vigorously] Totally.
FRIEDMAN: Do you feel like you developed either the backbone or the openness or this idea of, “I don’t need to conform” … Was that part of your DNA coming into the chef world?
KORNACK: One hundred percent. There’s a lot of things that have given me the courage to forge my own path; one of them is definitely my parents. They were fully in support of us (a) being who we were, doing what we want to do; and (b), being who we wanted to be. So I was so lucky to have been in a situation that I could do those things. So I already knew that being different was okay and also celebrated, in a way… there were always times I was getting myself into trouble, picking my own path, doing whatever.
And then my wife was secondary. She is one of the bravest women I’ve ever met: marrying me, and supporting me through my career and jumping straight into the restaurant industry without any previous experience. In fact, she was the one who encouraged us to renovate and re-open.
FRIEDMAN: This path you’ve chosen, it’s limiting. You can only put out so many dishes. You can only be open a certain number of nights a week, probably, if for no other reason, at some point the engine will break down.
KORNACK: Yeah, exactly.
FRIEDMAN: But in terms of the future, do you think about the template changing? Do you think about wanting to do bigger things? Do you think that’s a place you might take a turn to at some point? I wonder because you come from an art background. There obviously seems to be something about ‑‑
KORNACK: The studio.
FRIEDMAN: Right. And self‑expression and maybe not the need to do it on a mass level or not the need for the drama, that adrenaline addiction that a lot of cooks have. It seems to me that your need is to just kind of share what you do with as many people as it’s reasonable to do that with, and that’s it. Do you think that’s going to be your life?
KORNACK: I mean, I think about it every day, every night.
FRIEDMAN: You think about this every day?
KORNACK: All the time. One thing my dad told us when we were little, and he still sticks to this, is … you should love your job every single day. Whatever you’re doing, love it. I gave you that opportunity through the work that I did in my life. Now you get that opportunity. This is something that I’m giving to you. Please don’t do anything you don’t love. So every morning I check in with myself. Do I still love what I’m doing? Okay, cool. I’m good. I still love what I’m doing… we do see it kind of in the way that I once felt about my studio and you have an exhibit.
I grew up in the culture of going to lots of little art galleries and art openings on the weekend with my family. There were these small spaces, seven or eight pieces on the wall. The artist had worked tirelessly in their studio for a time, and they showed it to the people for that night only or those two nights and then it closed down, and then they went back. You do your thing, then you present it, then you do your thing [again] …
I was always drawn to that lifestyle and having those kind of moments of hibernation in between the moments of showcase… we never really wanted to own a restaurant in the way that other people did. We knew those things. And so when I come into the kitchen every day, it’s intentional that I work alone. It’s not to be pretentious and obnoxious. The only reason we’re open a certain number of days a week is we want to make sure the people that are coming here are getting a kick-ass experience. And we want to make sure we’re not overdoing it, we’re not burning ourselves out so that towards the end of the week, the Saturday night is not as good as the Thursday. It has to be great. And for me that means I need to do the things that are going to make my head and my work be at its best. That’s working alone for me.
FRIEDMAN: But there is, I’m assuming, an extra element when it’s food that isn’t necessarily there when it’s art. As personal as what you’re doing is, there is the need to be pleasing to your diners, right?
KORNACK: Oh, my gosh, yes…. all I care about is that my diners are happy. We ride this line between intrigue and comfort and we try to find that perfect balance all the time. We want to find a place where our diners can be physically comfortable in the chairs and in the space, we want them to love what they’re eating and drinking, and enjoy the music and be here. It is totally not about my point of view being this forced thing for them to swallow. It is my point of view through food but I also want to make sure you’re enjoying it… if somebody doesn’t like something, I don’t care how much I love it; it’s off the menu. Because what we’re doing is hospitality. If it’s about the chef, that’s actually the opposite of what should be happening… if chefs are creating menus that are just for themselves, their diners will feel that and then they’ll be empty and the diners will be dissatisfied or feel weird about it and it’s just never going to click. There has to be that balance where it’s for you but it’s also for them all the time. That’s actually the hardest thing about being the only one in the kitchen …
FRIEDMAN: Since you are someone who used to be an artist, I have to ask: There’s just one piece of art in this room. What’s the significance?
KORNACK: The photographer is my and Anna’s dear friend, actually, who she knew since she was a baby, who introduced us. His name is David Al-Ibrahim. And this is a beautiful photo that I was just really drawn to… I liked the ominous peacefulness of it. It’s one of the ones he took when he was traveling, actually ironically and hilariously, in Scandinavia because we’re not really a new Nordic [restaurant]… we really just wanted one thing that was going to be on the wall that was going to be important to us personally, and he was the person who introduced us, which started everything, so we thought his art should be the only art that’s in here.
FRIEDMAN: What most excites you about the reopening?
KORNACK: I’m just excited about honestly cooking again for people. I just kind of missed it. I mean, I cooked dinner every night for Anna when we were off … I’m excited to have people back in the space and for the heartbeat to pick up again. The space feels quiet, which I like during the day, but I miss that moment at night when people arrive. It’s a part of my life.