Elise Kornack sits in the dining room of her Brooklyn restaurant, Take Root, talking rapidly, at times rapturously, about food and cooking. She has that look in her eye, a gaze into the distance that you see in driven chef-thinkers. What’s she’s talking about is a dumpling, one that’s up first on her current winter menu, with house-made dough wrapped around a morsel of lamb breast and served with black-garlic vinegar and fried leek root.
The dumpling, and the story behind it, sum up the 28-year-old Kornack and her cooking exquisitely. For she didn’t just go out and purchase dumpling wrappers in Chinatown, a few stops away from her Carroll Gardens F train stop, but she spent three weeks perfecting the dough herself after she and her wife and partner, Anna Hieronimus, had a craving for dumplings. Then she went and sourced bowls and chopsticks to fit the feel of the restaurant so she could share her craving with her customers.
If it all sounds a bit OCD, well, it is, but it’s this meticulous attention to detail and raw ambition that has made Kornack a standout young chef, and it’s helped turn Take Root into one of New York’s most unusual success stories. After all, this is a 12-seat restaurant that’s only open Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., serving a 10-course tasting menu that’s $105 per person, plus beverages, with all dishes brought to the table by Kornack or Hieronimus, who is also 28. Despite all this, and despite opening in the dead of winter in 2013 on a street with no foot traffic, Take Root has earned a rave review from the Times, a best new restaurant of 2014 nod from Esquire, and a Michelin star.
“As a chef, I’ve always wanted a Michelin star,” Kornack tells me halfway through our hour-long discussion — though she’s quick to add that she didn’t think it would come so soon, and in such an unorthodox restaurant. We go on to address her drive, as well as a range of topics from seasonal cooking to meeting diners’ lofty expectations to media exposure to competition to what she could possibly do next to top what she’s done at Take Root. The portrait of this chef that emerges, to me, is one of a woman who is not afraid to do things her own way, who strives for simplicity in her dishes but will always take the most challenging route to achieve her goals.
From Art Class To The Kitchen
“I always knew that food was my main passion but never really had entertained the idea that it could be a career,” she says, discussing the transition in her trajectory that led her from art studies at Bates College in Maine to a kitchen internship in Nantucket. Kornack says she enjoyed being an artist — she excelled at drawing and making minimalist works with graphite and wire — but hated parting with the finished product. “I got too sad when I would sell things,” she says. “It was becoming too close and too personal and too emotional. I started getting really upset about it, and that was that.”
Her father, she says, jests that she chose an even more ephemeral mode of expression, and one in which her art doesn’t exactly end up on the wall, to put it delicately. She laughs at the anecdote (which involves a toilet) but snaps back into serious mode. “It’s true. There’s always that ability of having to let go as an artist that’s the same thing that a chef has to do. Once it’s out the window and it’s in front of people, you’re no longer touching it anymore, and it’s for them to enjoy. So that part I’m still working with, but the medium has changed.”
“If you’ve been to Blanca or Atera, Take Root and Luksus, there’s really nothing about those four experiences that are at all alike. It would be like comparing the Spotted Pig to Carbone and saying, ‘Well, there’s an Italian influence and they’re both kind of fun places to be.'”
The medium, for Kornack, is now a few fresh ingredients, expertly combined, into dishes that blossom well beyond the sum of their parts. When I dined for the first time at Take Root on a dark wintry night in December, I expected the usual tasting-menu array of seasonally appropriate root vegetables, braised meats and warming flavors. This is not what I got. After that dumpling, out came an oyster, its brine cut with bright citrus from a Meyer lemon, its texture enhanced by mustard seed. Yes, squash, potato, beet and sunchoke appeared in the middle courses, but in playful contrast on the plate were (respectively) mint, trout roe, kumquat and eucalyptus.
When she delivered a plate with cabbage and lobster, she also shared a memory of her New England upbringing.
Hieronimus, her partner in life and in the restaurant, runs the beverage program and also knows how to throw the occasional devastating curveball. I was expecting a pairing with biodynamic wines, for example, but I wasn’t expecting a pairing to include beer; for one course, she poured a Belgian sour ale from gypsy brewers Grimm that also surprised my palate.
To put it simply, in a way that might please Kornack herself, this was not the precious market-driven set menu place I was expecting. Sure, I’d read the glowing reports. In Bloomberg Business, critic Tejal Rao wrote, “Kornack’s style is distinct, beautiful, sharply focused. Each dish seems to invite you to examine only a few ingredients very closely — and enjoy them thoroughly.”
For all the accolades and chatter, Kornack’s cooking is ultimately personal and thoughtful rather than flashy or stylized. It’s a refreshing approach, and one that puts her at odds with the wizards of the city’s other heralded tasting menus, where foams, trompe l’oeil and technique are part of the show.
In Which I Back Into A Delicate Question
As special as Take Root is, it’s hard, as a writer, to ignore that it’s part of a subtle movement where young chefs with artistic proclivities are dictating the menu for dinners, with few if any choices allowed. But still, I probably shouldn’t ask my variation on the old “What makes you different?” question. Halfway through it, Kornack cuts me off. “Oh, we’ve been to all of them, the ones you’re probably thinking of. Atera, Blanca, Luksus,” she says, rat-a-tat–like, then adds that she and Hieronimous have yet to try the highly touted Semilla. “When people come in and talk about the other experiences, we say the thing is, on paper, yes there are similarities, but there’s literally nothing alike. If you’ve been to Blanca or Atera, Take Root and Luksus, there’s really nothing about those four experiences that are at all alike. It would be like comparing the Spotted Pig to Carbone and saying, ‘Well, there’s an Italian influence and they’re both kind of fun places to be.’ Well, they’re completely different perspectives on those experiences,” she says. Ultimately, she says, competition isn’t a factor, and she’s not angling to be thought of as part of some vanguard. “We’re really private people, and we’re doing our own thing.”
That thing has clearly resonated, given that securing one of the 12 seats at Take Root has become almost impossible. Part of any great restaurant’s allure is that the diner gets an extrasensory thrill just sitting there. The food has to satisfy, of course, but decor and vibe, people-watching and other factors influence the experience. Surely, diners’ anticipation mounts as they maneuver the brownstone back streets of Carroll Gardens up this nondescript block that dead-ends at the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, mostly devoid of businesses save for this storefront dining room. The space is disconcertingly residential; even though it’s filled with subdued, stylish touches, it almost feels like you shouldn’t be there.
“I feel like it pushes most New Yorkers out of their comfort zone,” Kornack says. “As a chef, you’re always a little bit trying to do that. Whether it be through an ingredient, or through a plating, or through a preparation or through your environment, you’re trying to push people a little bit into an experience less so than just a restaurant. We have a lot of restaurants that you can just go dine and have the same experience. Being intimate in some way was part of the intention. We wanted people to feel just a touch uncomfortable before they started eating. So they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, I need to settle, relax. I’m in good hands; I can handle it.’”
Does the space ever push people too far? Yes, she admits, a few diners flinch, but mostly, the shared experience leads to a sense of camaraderie. It’s not uncommon, she notes, to see strangers talking to each other as they walk down the street after departing Take Root.
When I point out that one of my takeaways from dinner at Take Root was that it surprised me how many bright notes the dishes hit, Kornack speaks wittily about seasonality. A chef like Magnus Nilsson, cooking in a far-off corner of the world and espousing a certain worldview, almost has a responsibility to cook with what the land provides. She’s not pretending, not yet at least, that she’s one of those chefs. “We’re in New York City, and I fully support locality and I do everything in my utmost to get my milk, my dairy, my meat, my vegetables from locally sourced farmers. But the reality is, we’re in a city. You know? And we do have access to other ingredients, like lemons and oranges and kumquats that are coming from California, to kind of break through and cut through that seasonality. I think there’s one thing to be seasonal and local for the sake of doing it, I think there’s another point to doing it and doing it really well 85 percent, 90 precent even but allowing that 10 percent to open up the creative gates a little bit. Because otherwise we’d all be eating the exact same thing in every other restaurant. So I think it’s important to understand your audience, and also understand where you’re coming from. And to force foraging and locality into a space that’s literally a concrete jungle doesn’t make that much sense to me.”
She also has strong opinions about chefs who tout restaurants as “market driven.”
“I find way too often, people are just changing things just for the sake of changing them,” she says. “If somebody says to me, ‘We change our menu daily because of the market,’ I immediately don’t want to go to their restaurant. Because I’m like, you haven’t spent enough time with those ingredients or those dishes for there not to be a hit-or-miss menu. And I don’t want to give my money to a hit-or-miss menu.”
Kornack’s quest for authenticity and consistency extends all the way down the menu. Knowing that she’s the only chef in her compact question, I ask why she includes two dessert courses — when I dined at Take Root, first up was grapefruit with labneh, followed by a white-chocolate parfait with quince and fried wheatberry — and here she grows more enthusiastic than ever.
“I love pastry — love doing pastry. At one point in my career, I contemplated heavily not doing both and doing just pastry,” she says. One of her first mentors was a pastry chef named April Robinson in Nantucket (and before that Manhattan), whom Kornack says has dropped out of the industry. “She took me under her wing. Her approach to pastry was what kind of originally inspired my interest in it and now is what inspires my conception of dishes. First of all, you never use it as an offshoot or an afterthought or a plan B or the end of a meal. It’s not the end: It’s the beginning of that section of the meal. And then the second thing is, recipes are really important for desserts.”
So What’s Next?
I find it fascinating that Kornack, who started at the Spotted Pig, continued on to become sous chef at Aquavit and then opted to go it alone, ignoring what seemed like a promising career path.
Her choice says a lot about the way Elise Kornack thinks and works. “I wanted to find out what I had creatively, and you can’t do that when you’re working under somebody else,” she says. “Collaboration is always an opportunity, but it’s not the same. And I wanted to know if I had the creativity that was going to drive me to continue in this industry in the way that I wanted. Secondly, Anna and I wanted to see each other. We wanted to have a relationship, and family is incredibly important to me, and farming and gardening are things that are going to be a major part of my career in the next phase. And creating time, carving out time in my life to do something other than being in a four-walled kitchen with neon lights and no air.
“So many chefs choose that path, and that’s totally viable, and a lot of them have looked at what I’m doing and scoffed at my schedule, or what I’m doing or how I’m doing it, and that’s totally fine because I made the choice to do this, and my intention was to prove to people that I can get a Michelin star, I can be on Adam Platt’s list … and also see my wife, come home for dinner at nine o’clock on Monday night if I want to. That was important to me. It sounds snooty, and as a young person it sounds, I’m sure, probably even worse. But it’s really just a good intention. I’m not trying to undermine anybody or make it seem that you don’t have to put in your time — that’s not it. There’s just different ways of doing things, different paths to take to get to the same result. This is just the one that I wanted to do.”
Clearly, she’s not angling for an executive chef gig in Manhattan, and if she has plans to open a more traditional restaurant, maybe go for that second Michelin star, she isn’t saying. Asked if they get approached about doing something on a bigger scale, she shoots back, “We’re approached nonstop,” but she’s cryptic when pressed for details.
“How can we do this, but reach more people, and not lose what this was? We’re taking the steps to take the steps, because we know what we want to do, but we’re making sure that before we do that, there’s plenty of things that are set out beforehand that will maintain the same integrity of what we’re doing here,” she says, and then finishes with what is surely becoming the mantra of her young career. “It’s definitely going to be difficult, but I think we’re up to the challenge.”
Take Root, 187 Sackett St., Brooklyn, NY 11231, 347-227-7116, take-root.com
Read more FR Interviews on Food Republic:
- At Prune, Gabrielle Hamilton Is Throwing A Party. You’re Just Paying The Bills.
- Here’s To Not Shutting Up: How Humble Brooks Headley Blew Up Cookbook Publishing
- Pastry Genius Will Goldfarb, Decamped To Bali, Has Some Unfinished Business
- How Chris Shepherd Went From Tailgating Master To Legit Stadium Chef