Interview with Chef Eric Korsh & Ginevra Iverson of Restaurant Eloise - Napa Sonoma

June, 2009

Antoinette Bruno: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Eric Korsh: A combination of two things: my love of eating and my love of making people happy through food. That combined with the restaurant atmosphere, which I fell in love with at the age of 14. Since then I’ve never looked back.
Ginevra Iverson: I grew up cooking with my mom; I think once I started working in restaurants, I saw it as an energy and a pace that I loved. After years of cooking professionally, I can’t imagine sitting in an office or doing anything where I wasn’t constantly moving and busy. I’ve tried other jobs mostly in high school, where I worked some odd jobs here and there, and [cooking] really was the one thing that fit. I’ve loved cooking since I was little.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
EK: Food should be exciting to eat; it should be nourishing and hopefully change your outlook on life, friends and relationships. Food should give you some kind of spiritual relationship. In terms of dining, I love it. I love eating something that someone cared about and drinking well-crafted wine. That's what I like to do when I’m not at the restaurant.
GI: Food should be delicious and enjoyable. I don’t have a specific philosophy; I think the style I follow, more than anything, is really traditional preparations of food. I don’t do fusion, I try to stay away from fusing different countries together or different things together. I feel like food was created in certain regions for specific reasons of flavor, and I like to stick to those.

AB: What goes into creating a dish?
EK: Finding the perfect balance of acid and fat.
GI: A lot. I think mostly it has to do with the seasons. I remember going to cooking school and people saying, “It doesn’t matter what your personal preference or taste is, you have to know when things taste good, and you have to know how to cook everything.” I totally disagree. I cook what I like, and I think that’s when you make your best food; that’s what makes you excited. So usually my dishes are totally based on what the weather is like outside—if it’s hot outside, I want to eat food from the Mediterranean, when it’s cold I want something from Northern France, something hot and braised and boiled. So when it comes to doing a dish, I first think of what I want to eat and then collaborate with Eric about how to create it.

AB: What trends do you see emerging?
EK: Nose-to-tail cooking, thanks to Fergus Henderson. It’s absolutely mind-blowing to eat that type of cuisine—braised pig trotter totally boned-out over mashed potatoes and prunes that were bloomed in Armagnac. That’s the type of ballsy food that you only eat a few times in a lifetime. It’s both satiating and decadent.
GI: I can’t say that I’ve been here [in California] long enough to really know what the change has been or how it’s changing, but one thing I do see as really prominent is Italian-style salumi. It’s been very present in New York for a long time with Luppa and Mario Batalli. And I think because of the wine culture here, and because California wine can be so big and bold and spicy, it’s really a good marriage between the two. That’s really taken off and seems like it will go on for a long time.

AB: How do you keep abreast of the latest trends?
EK: I keep an eye on chefs that I admire, talk to my friends and read the New York Times.
GI: We aren’t a particularly trendy restaurant, so our food is pretty traditional. I don’t really keep up-to-date on trends, but we do get the New York Times delivered everyday to the restaurant, so every Wednesday I look over the Dining Section. In the past, we always ate out. We went back to New York in January and tried to eat out as much as possible. It’s not the best way to follow trends, but it is the best way to build a community. Here [in Napa Sonoma] we support other restaurants and they support you because everyone sort of needs each other, especially here, where there aren’t that many restaurants.

Baylee Simon: Was it a bit of a culture shock for the both of you to go from a New York kitchen to one in Sonoma?
EK: Sure, I actually heard someone out here say that Sonoma County was the center of the universe, and I had to disagree and say it was New York City. I love New York; I’m from New York, so I love it. My wife loves it, too. We miss the energy, we miss the food.
GI: We got off the plane [in California] and we moved to a little town called Geyersville, which has only one stop sign. We went from New York City to one stop sign and a house we’d never seen. It was really in the middle of nowhere and it was a shock. We had made the mental decision that if we weren’t going to be in the city, we’d be in the country, but we didn’t really comprehend what that meant. It’s great during the day, but at night there’s not a lot going on.
EK: After so many years of cooking in New York, we had a tight-nit, close group of friends in restaurants all over the city. Moving out here, you kind of start over in that regard. I miss a lot of our friends and that support structure. We’ve become close with Ari Rosen at Scopa and some of the other restaurants, but I miss being able to go to any number of different restaurants, walk in the door, sit down, and know the bartender and the people working there.
GI: The lack of anything ethnic here. As far as the other restaurants surrounding us, there are some good restaurants but nothing ethnic at all. Trying to find really good Thai food or Vietnamese food is nearly impossible unless you go into San Francisco. For two people who love to eat and cook, that’s been a difficult change.

BS: What steps do you take to be a more sustainable restaurant?
EK: We compost a lot of stuff here in the garden. We have an acre of land that is pretty well-planted, and we’ve got a ton of raised beds where we grow everything form cucumbers and eggplants to every herb you can imagine. We have 40 to 50 tomato plants and all of our stone fruit comes from the garden.
GV: We’re on a well and we have a pretty small footprint. The only other thing we could do is get solar panels, but that’s pretty expensive. The purveyors out here are really great and almost everything we get for the restaurant is local, between produce and fish. It’s a pretty gentle restaurant in general.

AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
EK: The economy. You could say that we opened at a tough time, but the type of restaurant we have is very successful because there are tons of locals. It’s a place to hang out at, which is super cool. I’m glad we didn't open a steak house—they tend to be very expensive. I'm not sure people are into spending money right now. A steakhouse also implies a ton of dry aging inventory. It's a big nut to crack.
GI: The economy. We opened and everything has been going well; we’ve gotten really great reviews. But we’re in a fairly seasonal location, and when the economy went out, it wasn’t like in New York, where everyone typically goes out to eat, especially when entertaining. Here people have houses and large kitchens, and huge patios, and large spaces; you can make do without having to go out [to eat]. Until people feel a sense of relief that the economy will get better, that will be our greatest challenge.

BS: What are the challenges and benefits of working together as a married couple?
GI: We’d already worked together a lot, so it wasn’t a new experience. The benefit is that in this industry, you work so much that if you don’t do it together in one way or another, you’ll never see each other. Everyone is at the restaurant all the time. So that’s one of the benefits of being together. The other benefit we have is that we have two different styles of cooking, but they compliment each other. The way that the food comes about here is a marriage of the two of us, of our two approaches towards food. The one challenge might be that you can’t go home and not think about [the restaurant].
EK: I can’t think of any challenges, really. Chefs always work long hours anyway, so I guess there are some working chefs who work 70 to 80 hours a week and then come home and don’t talk about work with their significant others. On a rare day off, we have to push ourselves to not talk about [the restaurant].
GI: You have to make an effort to disconnect. That’s really the only down side.

AB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
EK: This is a pretty great job. I've had tough jobs in the past, but I’m pretty psyched about the job I have now. I cooked in New York from the age of 15 to 31, and I’ve worked in greasy spoons and some tough places that I'm happy not to go back to.
GI: I’ve managed people before, but the actual hiring and firing is the hardest part for me. It’s not fun when you personally like someone but you have to let them go. That’s really the hardest thing.

AB: What advice would you offer to young chefs who are just getting started?
EK: Work in a restaurant, make a real commitment, and never spend less than one year at a job. Also, research your jobs well. Never compromise. If you are deciding between working at a 3-star and another restaurant, shoot as high as you can. Your real education happens on the job—that eclipses any training you’ll get at culinary school.
GI: Work hard. It’s not an easy job and the harder you work, the more successful you’ll be. You have to be focused and passionate about what you do.

AB: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs? Do you hire chefs with and without a culinary school background?
EK: I took some classes at the French Culinary Institute, although I'd already been cooking for eight years when I took them. No, I don't look for cooks with culinary school backgrounds. Do I recommend culinary school? At $30,000-plus, I don't know. If you’re self-motivated, I'd get myself into a real restaurant for a year before deciding on whether or not to pursue a degree. A lot of people graduate from cooking school and they are told they are chefs. Those same kids show up at work and don't last a day.
GI: I would not recommend cooking school for the most part. If anything, I would recommend a few night classes. I think [school] is a giant waste of money. But having said all that, I went to [culinary school]. My experience was that it’s an absolutely obscene amount of money, and for the most part schools are for-profit organizations. If you were to work for that whole year-and-a-half, keep your head down and work hard, you would take away a lot more and would be a lot further along than if you spent that time in school. When hiring we don’t look one way or the other. We look for someone who is interested in doing great food and has the energy to do it. We rarely look at the resume.

BS: Who are your mentors?
EK: I don’t know. I don’t really …do you have any mentors, Ginevra? We don’t really have any.
GI: I mean, I think of a mentor as someone who guides you around and who shows you the ropes, and I don’t think we’ve had that experience.
EK: I guess I would say Lulu Peyraud. She’s a self-taught chef from Provence, France.
GI: She’s had more influence on our career than anyone we’ve ever worked with. We’ve never met her, but she taught us a lot. Her book is inspiring any time you start to lose inspiration or get too restaurant-y, and you feel like you’re putting combinations together just because you’ve done them before. We go to her book—it’s a cookbook/food book that makes you realize why you’re cooking; it recalls the whole experience of cooking great food and really brings you back to why you do this in the first place. She’s a very wonderful chef and very knowledgeable, and not just about food, but about wine and life.

AB: What is your proudest accomplishment?
EK: Getting to this point.
GI: My family—my daughter and my husband, by far.

AB: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
EK: Probably sitting right here. I don’t just want to own a restaurant, I want to own a successful restaurant. I’d also like to go to France again with my wife. My dream would be to own a restaurant in the Dordogne River Valley with tons of black truffles.
GI: I don’t know. In the next five years, I’d like to figure out how to spend time here and in New York City. We never wanted to own more than one restaurant, but I do want to live in more than one place. I don’t know how that all works out. In five years, I would like to have this restaurant be successful and be able to enjoy time in New York City.