Take Root is a one-of-a-kind success story: The Michelin-starred restaurant, located in Carroll Gardens, is only open three nights a week, with a single seating per night for 12 diners. Chef Elise Kornack and her wife, Anna Hieronimus, are the lone staffers — and dinners revolve around a single set menu. Thanks to Kornack’s inventive, assured cooking and Hieronimus’s warm hospitality, the restaurant has won a loyal following.
In August, Kornack and Hieronimus announced that they were temporarily closing Take Root, both to renovate and to enjoy some much-needed downtime. On November 5, they’ll reopen the restaurant with a fresh look and the same $120-per-person tasting-menu format. However, during their downtime, the couple says they actually contemplated closing the spot for good. Here, Kornack explains their thinking:
What have you been up to during your downtime?
The time off was absolutely spectacular. I don’t know how it could’ve been otherwise. It was everything. It was productive. It was family-oriented. It was kind of relationship-oriented. It was work-oriented. We went in on the restaurant alone, so it takes a lot out of us and our relationship, day to day. It has been three solid years since we had taken time off, and been able to get in the swing of that, without having to go back to work in a week or two weeks. We really needed it. We talked about it a lot over the summer. It was either we were going to close the restaurant altogether and leave Brooklyn and leave the city, or we take time off and redo some stuff.
Oh, wow. We’re seeing so many chefs leaving New York right now.
Yeah, and we were actually considering it. It had no reflection on the success of the restaurant at all. It was kind of the opposite. It was like almost that was what was keeping us going — that the restaurant was so well received and successful — but it was more our personal life that was kind of getting in the way of whether we wanted to be here. Ultimately, we decided that this is where we want to be, at least for the near future.
So the couple of months off were great. We spent August seeing our family … And then September was construction, so it was deciding how much we wanted to do and what our budget could be. Our space is the size it is, and there’s no option to expand or do anything, based on our relationship with our landlord and whatnot. So we had to really think about it.
How’d you decide to renovate?
Most of it we decided to do aesthetically. We fully painted the restaurant, which hadn’t been done since we’d moved in. We moved in with basically no money. We’d decorated it with things from our house, so this was necessary. We renovated the bathroom so it’s brand-new, which needed to be done as well. We got all new dining chairs — cushioned ones — so we’re excited about that, because we are really big proponents of comfortable dining … The renovation was really just about functionality and comfort for the diners. But it still has the charm. It’s still the same space.
Are you changing up the food in any major way? Is the price staying the same?
The price is staying — it’s $120. Reservations are staying. Everything’s the same. The food and the dining have changed a little bit. We’ve been working with Felt+Fat in Philadelphia. They made a bunch of plates for us, and we got a few other fun little trinkets for people to dine with.
It was really just about finding out voice and our rhythm again. The climate of the industry is really intense and competitive and nasty, and there are a lot of jabs. There are things that have made us feel kind of grossed out by everything. So we had to take a step back and find out how we could get our own voice back in the food and in our service.
What’s the dish you’re most excited about?
Well, I’m really excited about the desserts. One of the desserts that we’re working on is all-black. There’s a black rice and this really beautiful chocolate mousse, and then there’s this beautiful disc of chocolate, with a sour-honey powder. What it does is really evoke that feeling of the first snowfall and the layers of earth that are underneath. It’s got some preserved berries from the summer — as I love that you can still see some of the old leaves from fall, and there are some fallen berries and things like that. I’m really concentrating on making intensely bold flavored food, but like one or two flavors on a plate, and that’s about it. Mostly, just stripping down all the pretension and the trends. We’ve just really been trying to focus on what we do and not get caught up in everything else.
There’s been so much talk lately about making food simpler, moving away from more intricate preparations. What do you think about that shift?
I really believe that there’s a fine line, and we try to walk it in every way — beyond the cuisine even, in that you have to ride comfort and intrigue. It’s really a blurry line. It’s kind of a tough one to get in between, but you want to try to put diners in a place where they’re being challenged a little bit, but also they’re being comfortable.
It’s about ingredients, plating, technique, flavor profiles — all those things, just finding one familiar thing and one intriguing thing on each plate so that it’s a little bit of both. I think the real thing that stuck with us that happened over the summer was a conversation about sustainability and working with your farmers and foraging. It’s just gotten so out of hand. There’s just no reason to be wearing those things on your sleeve. It’s 2015. We all know that we’re reducing waste, and we all know our farmers. If you don’t at this point, then that’s a bigger conversation. I think it just got, you know, like, “Who’s working with who? What foragers and natural wine and which reps are you working with, and what farms do you go to, and what time at Union Square Market do you get there to buy your vegetables?” Who cares? I mean, we’re all doing that, and we’ve all been doing that for years.
A lot of terms have been thrown around about what we do, and what other restaurants do, and how to categorize the cuisine. We got kind of bummed that we got thrown into things because we’re so unique, and we do some things so different. We’re not a vegetable-forward menu, or we’re not this or not that. It’s just what we are. So we’re going to try to take control of that conversation inside our restaurant by just really making our point of view very clear and very unique to how we feel about everything.
Alma in Los Angeles just closed, and Ari Taymor said that a small place like that, the accolades ended up crippling the business. Is that something that you’ve experienced?
I actually read a quote in an article that Andrew Friedman wrote with Jeremiah and Fabian of Contra, and what they said was that it’s actually the younger people that make it hard. It’s not the older, seasoned New York diners. They see those accolades as a way to know about your restaurant, but they come in with an open mind. It’s the younger bloggers and Yelpers and self-proclaimed critics that see these things and they say, “Oh, a Michelin star, now I have to go and see if they deserved it or if it’s worth it,” and those words are just so negative. They’re just not constructive for the industry, and they’re just not something that a business owner wants to be subjected to. It’s one thing if it’s an actual critic or an actual food journalist. It’s like, Okay, this is part of the game. I signed up for that, but I didn’t sign up to be personally judged on a day-to-day basis based on the fact that I’m successful, or based on the fact that my restaurant has received positive accolades.
So I can definitely understand where Ari was coming from. It’s kind of a double-edged sword. It gives you diners, and it gives you the opportunity to relax a little, but at the same time, you’re [running] a gauntlet every service, with the kind of diners that come in and what they put you through. It’s definitely more evident for us because we’re face-to-face every single night with every single person, so it’s definitely intense, but we’ve been really blessed. Honestly, we have great diners and good experiences for the most part.
Would you take this kind of break again? Do you think this will be an annual thing?
Not for this long. I definitely was itching to get back to the kitchen after a month, but I think we are definitely going to be reformatting a few things of how we run the business. We call it, like, our anthropological project, opening Take Root. How could this work? Because we really set out to open it with this mind-set of proving ourselves, and the industry, wrong. You can achieve these orthodox milestones in an unorthodox way. Somebody started every trend at some point, and for us, running a business this way is really special. We might start to take off a little more time in between to recharge. I think we’d be better for it, and the experience of our diners will be better.
Seasonally, we’ll take off two weeks in between each menu change, so that we can kind of recharge the wine list and spend time on the R&D; of the menu, because for me it’s really hard to change things. I’m prepping every single week, and I don’t have the same opportunity to have somebody go test a menu or a recipe or whatever while I’m also running the restaurant.
The alternative is to bring in more people, but that would kind of defy the DNA of Take Root.
Yeah, it’s funny. I caught up on so many articles last night, and I read Pete Wells’s review of Bruno, and he said something like, “Running a tasting menu in a small kitchen is easier than running a restaurant.” Anna and I laughed because we were like, There are so many variables that he is so unaware of that happen when you run a restaurant by yourself that are so difficult, and the idea of hiring staff versus not is not a matter of just hiring staff versus not. There are so many things that go into that decision. Your relationship, your marriage, your customers, your restaurant, your brand, your history, all those things, and making choices to run restaurants in certain ways — no matter what the way it is — all have their reason. There’s always a method behind the madness. So I can assure everybody that us continuing to do our restaurant this way, there’s definitely a reason for it.
What’d you make of his decree against restaurants receiving too much early hype?
It was definitely provocative. Anna and I were friends with Josh Ozersky, and when he passed, obviously, we were very upset. But one of the things that we laughed about since months have passed is that we miss his provocative way of being, and without him we feel like the restaurant industry is just falling apart. He was always the person who called people out. We always laugh about the veggie-burger craze, and he would’ve been in an uproar about it. All of these funny things that we’re like, “Somebody has to be the person to call people out.”
So I definitely do honor the fact that Pete Wells did that, and there was a number of things in that article that we agree with, as business owners and as restaurant owners, but we’re also friends with Dave [Gulino] and Justin [Slojkowski], and we know how hard they work and how much passion they put into what they do. It’s hard to swallow. Maybe it should’ve been two separate articles — it would’ve had a bigger impact on everybody, and a positive one that would’ve started a good dialogue, but, unfortunately, I think it wasn’t delivered the best way.
In an industry where people are rewarded for pushing themselves as hard as possible, without ever stopping, it’s nice that you can take this break on your own terms.
Part of the reason we did this was to show other people that it can be done — other young cooks out there and other young entrepreneurs — that it’s okay to take some time to work really hard, so that you can make your own future. You don’t have to be yelled at in a midtown kitchen just to get ahead. You can do your own thing and make it work.
You can get all those things that maybe you dream of getting and also have a family, a life, a normal apartment, and a normal schedule if you want to. You still have to sacrifice a lot of other things to get it. People don’t think that we sacrifice much in this situation, but we do. It’s just a give and take.
This interview has been edited and condensed.