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Chef Elise Kornack, in her Prospect Heights garden, where she hosts her Brooklyn Rooted dinners.

“We started having friends over, and we were grilling, we were gardening, we were cooking, and we were like, “This is it. This is what we want to do. Let’s do this.”  –Elise Kornack

When chef Elise Kornack and her partner Anna Hieronimus moved to Prospect Heights last spring, Elise  wanted to find a way to bring her professional cooking closer to home. While searching for a way to do just that, Elise and Anna found the answer without really meaning to.

Inspired by a desire to share their new garden and their new neighborhood, they began inviting friends over for dinner parties. The dinner parties kept happening, and they found that gardening and cooking for people at their home – being able to talk to their guests about what they were making, how they were making it, and what inspired it – was exactly what they wanted to do.

And so, Brooklyn Rooted dinners were born. Elise and Anna are now hosting dinners in their garden for eight guests every few weeks.

We sat down with Elise in her gorgeous garden to share a beer and some of her homemade bread, and to learn more about Brooklyn Rooted.

So Elise, why don’t you start by telling us about your background in cooking? How did you get into it and how did that lead you to start your Rooted dinners?

Whenever anyone asks me about my background with food, I always go back to my mom. Growing up, I woke up to the smell of garlic on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Not pancakes or bacon – garlic. My mom would make red sauce on Saturday, let it cook through ‘til Sunday, and then we’d eat it during the week.

And it wouldn’t be something like, “Oh, tonight we’re too busy to cook. We’ll just make pasta.” It was like this sauce had been made for two days.

I can’t really remember any time in my life when food wasn’t the focal point. Every day was focused on food. My mom is from this big Italian family in Boston. She used to do food tours of the North End – the Italian part of the city. She sold squid when she was out of school. She taught cooking for like twenty years…

We had this whole big Italian Sunday supper thing all the time. It began at eleven o’clock in the morning and it didn’t end until six. We’d have like ten courses – pasta, antipasti, fish, meat…and on and on and on. Sunday was ‘leftover day,’ or ‘Sunday supper.’ We just sat and talked and talked and talked and ate and ate and ate.

When I went to college, I went for visual arts. It was a good way for me to get out my creativity, and I kind of fell in love with drawing and painting, but it seemed like every night I’d leave the studio and I’d go home and invite my friends over for dinner, and I’d spend double the amount of time in the kitchen making dinner than I did on my artwork!

I remember one time we randomly turned on the Food Network and saw this show ‘Chopped.’ My friends all said, “You know, that’s so funny – that’s what your life is like every day!” We had no money in college, so we’d just open the cabinets and be like, “OK, what do we have? What are we going to make?” And we’d make these ridiculous dishes with ridiculous ingredients, and they’d come out great.

All that got me thinking about how this love of food and cooking was embedded in me. I remember everyone saying to my mom, “There’s nothing in the house! How did you make dinner?” And I realized I had absorbed that skill without even meaning to. I started getting myself cookbooks and knives. I got really good at sharpening knives! This was all before I had ever worked in a restaurant.

The table at Brooklyn Rooted's latest backyard meal

At my college they did this thing where you can leave three months early to go abroad or do something interesting each year. All I wanted to do was go work in a kitchen. I worked it out with the school, and I decided to go to Nantucket. I heard about this place called Straight Wharf restaurant there. It’s run by a couple – Amanda Lydon and Gabriel Frasca. It’s a serious place. They’re really talented. Neither of them went to culinary school. They traveled all around France, sleeping on sacks of flour and learning from people – learning how to cook by cooking with people.

So I had heard their story, and I knew that’s where I wanted to work. I just walked into the kitchen one day and said, “Can I work for you?” And they said, “No.” I was like, “OK…well, what do I need to do to be able to work for you?” They said, “Do you have a resume?” I said, “No. I have nothing. I just really love cooking and I want to learn. From people. I don’t think school is really my thing…” And they kind of looked at each other with this glance that said, “Ohhh…I guess we can take this one under our wing.”

And they did. Within a month I was working garde manger, which is the first station – the first step on the line. You’re working with cold stuff, but there’s an attention to detail required that I was really excited about. I loved it, but it wasn’t so much the work itself that flipped the switch in my mind. It was the pastry chef working there at the time. Her name is April Robinson. She had lived and worked in New York for eight years, for…everyone – Grey Kunz, everyone. She had opened the Oak Room and all this amazing stuff.

She had taken the summer off from New York, and had decided to come to this random place – Nantucket – to get away. Straight Wharf was ‘slow paced’ for her. We became friends on my second day working there, and she basically became my idol. She told me all about the ins and outs of New York City, told me about all the chefs, introduced me to The Dining Section, New York Magazine…I was in complete awe.

It’s actually funny – the back of the restaurant looks out at the water and the docks, and there was this bench. We’d do ‘bench time’ every night. We’d go out there after service and we’d talk about service that night and she’d tell me stories about all these crazy services she’d had, where a chef burned her intentionally and all these wild things. Over that summer she told me the whole story of how she became a pastry chef…why she became a pastry chef. We became fast friends – she was the one who flipped that switch for me and made me realize I just wanted to cook.

Come September I had to go back to school for my senior year, and I was absolutely depressed. I was distraught. I just wanted to cook. I didn’t want to do my thesis. I wanted to cook. But my parents had spent a lot of money on tuition and all that, so I went back and I pushed through. It turned out to be a good year. I actually sold half of the [art] pieces I had done for my thesis to faculty members, which was pretty cool.

But as soon as the graduation ceremony was over, I left. I drove home to Boston, slept there, and the next morning I was on a boat to Nantucket to get another job. This time I hooked up with this chef Chris Freeman. He had worked at a good restaurant on the island called Topper for like nine years. It was too crazy there, and he wanted to open his own small bistro-style place. I just adored him. He had three kids, was married, was opening his own place, and I was just like, “Wow. You can have it all! It can be done! This is amazing!”

His restaurant was called Oran Mor, and I had an amazing experience working there. There was no pastry chef, so we all had to take turns, rotating making bread and learning pastry, which I thought was the coolest way to run a restaurant ever. That’s where I actually learned to bake bread. To be a savory chef who actually gets to learn pastry and baking? That’s an awesome opportunity. It usually doesn’t happen. Now I wake up in the morning and I can say, “I think I’ll make some bread.” That’s a great thing and I owe that to Chris.

So anyway, New Years came around – the end of the season on Nantucket. The restaurant was closing for the winter. I had just finished visiting friends in San Fransisco and Seattle, and I was sold on the West Coast. I was in. I couldn’t wait to get out there. One of my best friends called and said, “Hey, do you want to spend New Year’s in New York before you move out west?”

We had a bunch of friends here in the city and I was like, “OK, whatever.” So I came. And a week went by, then another week went by, and I ended up walking into restaurants to see if I could stage in their kitchens. I ended up staging at Hearth and The Spotted Pig and Aquavit, all while sleeping on a friends couch.

What’s staging?

Staging is basically working for free in someone’s kitchen to get a chance to learn how they do things. I had a resume by then. I’d only been at two restaurants, but I’m a pretty big go-getter. I work really hard, and usually chefs can see that. Like, within five minutes of talking to you. So they let me stage.

I ended up getting offered jobs at all three places. I was like, “Wait, what am I doing? I can’t live here. I don’t want to be in New York. I hate the city!” But I guess it was pulling me in. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to work, but I decided to go to The Spotted Pig. I knew they were really busy, really crowded, kind of an intense kitchen. I knew April Bloomfield was pretty hardcore. I wanted to hone my line cooking skills – get fast, get good. The Spotted Pig seemed like a good place to do that.

If I was going to move to New York city and be a line cook, I was going to move to New York city and be a hardcore line cook. I just dove in. Got my tattoos, cut my hair…I just said, “I am doing this.”

Elise bakes her own bread for every meal

I met some really cool people there. It was a great experience. I was there for a year, and then I wanted to move on. Most young chefs work one to two years in a place and keep moving to get more exposure – to learn.

I took some time off and went back to Nantucket to help out chef Freeman finish out his season, and to hang out. I came back to New York in January to work at Aquavit. This was last January. I worked there until about a month ago. The restaurant is renovating and changing the concept. Marcus Jernmark, the chef there now, sat down with me and the other sous chef, and said, “You know, I have a chef coming back from Sweden who has been working with me for years. I’d like him to be a sous chef as well.”

I’d been thinking about doing something different, and with the renovation and the changes in the kitchen all happening it seemed like the timing was perfect, so I left. Anna, my partner, and I had just moved here to Prospect Heights. We got engaged last spring. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. We wanted to find a way to spend more time together, and to get to know each other’s passions better – hers is yoga, mine’s food. They’re not as dissimilar as you might think. They can both be really wholesome, organic, important parts of a community. We were like, “What can we do? How can we do something together?”

What prompted the move to Brooklyn?

We had been living on 14th Street in Manhattan. We had been planting herbs like crazy in these little strainers and stuff on our five by five foot balcony. And one day Anna was like, “I really want to garden. I want to plant food and pick food and make food in our own garden.”

I said, “Alright. Let’s do it.”

So we found this place. We got our garden, and of course, we were like, “OK, we’ve got the garden, now we want to share it with other people.”

We started having friends over, and we were grilling, we were gardening, we were cooking, and we were like, “This is it. This is what we want to do. Let’s do this.”

Garden sunset in Prospect Heights

So we decided to start hosting dinners here in our garden. I really liked the idea of making food for new people and being close to my diners – being able to talk to them, tell them why I cooked the food I cooked and what inspired it. So that’s how we ended up doing these Brooklyn Rooted dinners. We have eight guests for each dinner and we’ve been doing them every few weeks.

How are you spreading the word?

We’ve been working with these great guys at a startup called Sidetour. They’re a group of friends who all went to school together. I met one of the guys, Mark, and he explained to me what they were doing. I thought it sounded like the coolest thing ever.

A while back, one of the guys, Vipin, who’s now the CEO of Sidetour, decided to travel with his wife for a while. They sold everything in their apartment, and traveled for eight months. When they came back, they realized that wherever they were, the best experiences they had were when they met someone local. When someone took them into their home, or to places off the tourist maps.

They said, why can’t we make that happen in New York – the center of the universe? This is the place where that should be happening. Everyone comes here, so why can’t we make it easier for people coming here to find those sorts of experiences? So they started Sidetour. They call it a ‘marketplace of authentic experiences.’ They’re just getting started. They’re not marketing it through advertising or anything – they want it to spread by word of mouth. They want people who are interested in that sort of thing to find it themselves.

So they’re featuring our dinners as one of their Sidetour experiences. We’ve been spreading the word ourselves through word of mouth, too. I don’t want to be pushy with it – throwing things up all over the neighborhood and that sort of thing.

We’ll do some Facebook and Twitter stuff, but I just found out about Twitter last week! I did my first tweet last week, and it said to me, “Too many characters. Be more creative.”

I was like, “What!? What do they mean? I thought my tweet was really funny and creative already!”

I asked Mark from Sidetour about it – he was like, “No. They don’t mean it’s not creative in that way. They mean make it shorter!”

I was like, “Why?”

He said, “Ugh. OK. I’m coming over there to show you how it works.”

So he comes over to show me how to tweet. I’m kind of excited about it, actually!

Ahh, tweeting. I have a feeling you’ll be an expert in no time! Tell me a little more about the dinners. How have they been going?

The first few dinners have been great. The last two sold out. They were inspired by Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta. Each dinner is inspired by a different ingredient or chef or place. The next two dinners are inspired by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. And I’m going to be doing something called a Yeasty Feast, which will be a special thing celebrating local beer. We’re going to feature beers brewed by local homebrewers.

We set up the meals right here in the garden. When it gets too cold we’ll move inside. We have an old harvest table that we found in Pennsylvania. We have all these different chairs, and all this different glassware that we’ve collected during our travels. So the style is a little eclectic, but everything has its own story!

Everything I serve is made in-house, from the bread to the dessert. We get all our ingredients at the Greenmarket. It’s a three-course meal with wine pairings. We have nice printed menus with recipes people can take home. Anna waits the table, and I’m here cooking, and everyone’s talking and laughing…At the end, everyone’s been hugging and exchanging numbers…it’s exactly what we wanted!

What’s so great is just meeting all these people. We can’t believe how many people there are right here who care, who give a shit about great food, about what they’re eating, and who want to share that and have a conversation about it. It’s exciting.

For more Elise’s Brooklyn Rooted backyard dinners, or to reserve a spot, check out her website, or her page on Sidetour.


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One Response to Brooklyn Rooted: A Backyard Supper Club Sprouts in Prospect Heights

  1. Pingback: Brooklyn Rooted: A Backyard Supper Club Sprouts in Prospect Heights | Take Root

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