Take Root's Elise Kornack: "I'm Tired of the Pork Phase"
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.