Interview with New York Rising Star Chef Elise Kornack of Take Root

by Sean Kenniff
February 2015

Sean Kenniff: How did you get your start cooking?
EK: I initially was an artist before I went into food. I worked at various restaurants such as Straight Wharf and Aquavit. When I was thinking of what to do after Aquavit, I thought, “Should I continue working under someone else while making shit money or should I go out and do something for myself.” That's when I decided to jump and take the risk to open Take Root. 

SK: We see a lot of the "Third Plate" mentality, as described in Dan Barber’s book of the same name, in your dishes. What does that mentality mean to you and your style of cooking?
EK: Dan Barber's work with the Third Plate is inspiring. Simply put. He is constantly redefining what it means to be a sustainably-minded chef. I have always arranged my menus around what is "in season" but when I work closely with famers and foragers, as I do now, I am able to highlight ingredients—not only the ones that are intentionally planted, but the ones that are wild or were once considered less desirable. This approach to sourcing ingredients has transformed the way I cook. 

SK: You cooked a dish the exemplifies the Third Plate—Charred Tendersweet Cabbage, Lobster Stock Braised Cowpeas, and Yarrow Greens—what was the original inspiration for the dish? And how did it come together?
EK: The original inspiration came upon my seeing the cow peas at the market. I knew immediately that I wanted to work with them. They were beautiful!

SK: How does this dish express who you are as a chef? 
This dish appears simple, but there is a complexity of flavor and texture that unfolds as you eat it. Many of my dishes share these qualities. It’s the study of simplicity that most represents my self expression as a chef.

SK: Why did you decide to braise the beans in lobster stock? And what affect does this have on the flavor of the dish?
I wanted to braise the beans in lobster stock to create an intense depth and funk to the dish. The lobster stock was reduced from 12 quarts to four quarts, so the stock takes on a salty caramel flavor not dissimilar to a good fish sauce. 

SK: Why yarrow greens? Where do you source them? And what flavor do they impart? 
Yarrow is the bitter component of the dish. The yarrow was from a farmer friend of mine who is growing some pretty cool stuff out in Snug Harbor, [Staten Island]. 

SK: In terms of food costs, how does "serving the whole farm" on the plate affect the bottom line? 
Serving the whole farm has dropped food cost for me. I’m more excited and more willing to spend money on an ingredient I am less familiar with than one I am familiar with. The investment is greater than the purchase of the ingredient. I am also able to study the ingredient and to better understand the regional wildlife and support the farmers who dedicate the time to bringing these ingredients to us. 

SK: What are your plans for the future?
EK: Right now, Take Root is exactly what we want it to be. I see my restaurant as more like my studio than anything else, where I can share my art with my diners. We opened this place with a specific plan in mind, patiently and not compromising. I know of a few other restaurants that have opened around the same time we did that have gone under because they rushed their planning. We got plenty of recognition in the beginning, so there's no real push for change, except for the fact that I would like to move to a location with more storage. 

SK: Right now it's just you and your wife, Anna, working; are you looking to hire anyone in the near future?
EK: Our rent here is actually lower than our apartment, so without any overhead costs, we do pretty well. If we were ever to hire, we wouldn’t consider them staff, rather a teammate. However, right now Take Root has become exactly what we wanted. The space is small, Anna [Hieronimus] and I have our roles and we're just thinking about what we're doing here, right now. We got our first Michelin star, we are not driven by money; so, this model is perfect for what we're doing. The size we're at right now is perfect because we’ll always have diners and I never have to compromise on the integrity of the food. Also, when I was a sous chef, I realized I spent more time babysitting or being a cook's therapist, now I can spend my energy on making the food to the best of my ability.