By the age of four, when most kids are negotiating the finer points of sandbox diplomacy, Emma Hearst knew she was going to be a chef. Not only did this unusually ambitious toddler know she would cook for a living, she even knew she wanted to own her own restaurant. So while the rest of her toddler colleagues were showing off elastic waistband diapers or drooling wistfully in nursery school, Hearst had already settled upon her professional destiny, no doubt with some inkling that the very early bird gets the proverbial worm.
It’s no surprise that this kind of conviction in a four year-old would lead to a career like Hearst’s. Barely twenty years later and Hearst, still too young for her quarterlife crisis, is the proud co-owner of one of the city’s hottest new restaurants. But this isn’t luck or serendipity, it’s the result of years of focused preparation. With an enviably one-track professional mind, Hearst worked in restaurants as a young teenager, getting the kind of real-time gritty work experience she needed while other kids were fumbling with their teenage angst over tawdry prose. When Hearst finally made it to The Culinary Institute of America, fate rewarded her with her future business partner, Sarah Krathen.
Between two young women and a big idea, Sorella—which means sister in Italian—was born. This 54-seat restaurant has already won scores of accolades including Best New Restaurant and a four-star review from New York Magazine. And it’s in the kitchen of this deceptively modest restaurant that Chef Hearst carries out the dream born twenty years prior, cooking bare-knuckle Piemontese food that has as much soul as it does grace, captivating her peers and making an indelible mark on the culinary landscape of the city.
Interview with Chef Emma Hearst of Sorella - New York, NY
Antoinette Bruno: What are your favorite restaurants?
Emma Hearst: I love Gramercy Tavern and Franny's out in Brooklyn. I just ate a great meal at Aldea.
AB: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
EH: Well, when I was four years old, a really little baby actually, my mother would try and put “normal-kid” shows on, but I would only want to watch cooking shows. I knew I wanted to open up a restaurant at the age of four. I started working professionally in kitchens at 13 as a prep cook.
AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
EH: I went to culinary school. I went to the CIA. It gives you time to build a lot of good relationships. I met my best friend and my business partner in culinary school. As far as prepping you for the real culinary world, and what it's like, it's a complete fantasy-land. The good schools give people time to practice the things they would not get much time to practice in a restaurant setting. I learned by traveling and eating. I don't think there's enough emphasis on how much going out to eat can act as a learning device. I don't have the most impressive résumé and I'm 23, but I know what good food is supposed to taste like.
AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
EH: Keep it clean, keep it simple. Don't mess with it too much. You should keep a high level of integrity while cooking and you should keep the integrity of the ingredients you're cooking with high, too.
AB: What goes into creating a dish?
EH: Seasonality for sure. All we do is talk about food and what we are craving at the moment or if we have recently had something really great to eat. When we want to play with a certain ingredient or idea, the dish just kind of builds organically. I'll sit down at the end of the night with my kitchen staff and some wine and talk about where we are going with flavors and techniques. Our mission is to always make the new dishes better than the last. We must always be moving forward and never go back. I make sure my cooks and I all have the same palate.
AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
EH: Running a business. The hardest part for me and my business partner has been trying to control the restaurant rather than the restaurant controlling us.
AB: What is the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
EH: I don't want to say ‘prove myself,’ but we didn't tell anybody our age or names when we opened this place up—no PR. We were very low-key. We're just trying to cook some honest food and do what we love, but we got really lucky with this experience. Slowly, over time, we let people know our story.
AB: If you had one thing you could do again, what would it be?
EH: I wouldn't change a thing. We made a lot of mistakes, but I am cool with making mistakes because we have learned so much from them. Being a creative mind and in the kitchen, I think for me the hardest thing is to be aware of the numbers, to be aware of questions like “Are you profitable?” Because you can make the tastiest food on the block, but if you don't have the numbers, you won't make it.
AB: What trends do you see emerging?
EH: I try to veer away from all food trends.
AB: What chef would you like to cook for you?
EH: The grandmothers in Piedmont.
AB: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
EH: I'd probably be a makeup artist. Or a professional eater.
AB: What’s next for you? Where will we see you in five years?
EH: Hopefully surfing on the North shore of Oahu. We have a new project in the works right now. I don't think there will be another Sorella. But you know, never say never, right?