Now reading Two Employees, One Michelin Star

Two Employees, One Michelin Star

Taking stock of Take Root in Brooklyn.

When Take Root opened, almost three years ago, the press painted it as perhaps the most Brooklyn restaurant in Brooklyn: a rarely open tiny place on a tree-lined street in Carroll Gardens that offered children’s yoga during the day and a vegetarian tasting menu at night. (Yoga was never part of the restaurant’s offerings, but it made for a good story; their menus are vegetable-heavy but not vegetarian, and they do not accommodate substitutions.) In the years that followed, chef Elise Kornack and her partner Anna Hieronimus have defied expectations and definitions—and earned themselves a Michelin star.

One of the most striking things about Take Root is that there is no kitchen staff: it’s just Kornack. “I realized that I didn’t really like the kitchen life,” she said, referring to her time in the kitchens of the Spotted Pig and Aquavit. “I didn’t like the camaraderie of it. I’m not a team-oriented person; I am not terribly social. It wasn’t really my gig. But I really wanted to keep cooking, and I wanted to cook for people and create, and continue to do that.”

Kornack moved in with Hieronimus when they were both between jobs. Hieronimus had worked in retail and had just gotten her yoga teacher training certificate, but “was drifting about,” she said. Kornack had started getting offers from other restaurants, but wasn’t sure she wanted to go back into a kitchen.

“I was like, I want to be a chef,” said Kornack. “I want to get a Michelin star because most young chefs do, but I also want to see Anna. I also want to get married and have kids with her. I want to come home from work and have dinner together. I had been working fourteen hours a day, six days a week, like every other young chef, and I didn’t want to go back to that.”

Hieronimus didn’t want it either. She told Kornack, “I want to be able to see you, so we’re gonna try something together and see what happens.”

At Hieronimus’s encouragement, they started a supper club in their apartment, using produce grown in their backyard. Kornack handled the food and Hieronimus handled everything else. It was an immediate hit. Word spread online and tickets sold quickly.

“Everything was great. We were really lucky,” says Hieronimus.

Kornack cut in, “The kicker is that we got in trouble with our landlord.”

The two had to leave their apartment, which forced them to realize that their dinner-party situation was not actually the long-term plan they needed. Luckily for them, they found a well-priced commercial space in the neighborhood.

“And now we’re here,” they added.

 The opening of Take Root was far from easy. They were twenty-five at the time, and neither had ever ran a restaurant. “We were like, Let’s just see how this goes,” said Hieronimus.

They spent Monday through Wednesday preparing for the week’s three seatings, one each on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. They allowed themselves Sunday off, to spend time together outside of work.

“We had no choice but to be hands-on about everything,” Kornack said. “Anything we wanted to do was up to us to do. Vegetables require a lot of care and a lot of cleaning and a lot of attention, and I’m one person. I’m literally one person. We have to keep things focused, otherwise things just don’t get done. Even Anna is cleaning vegetables all the time.”

After a few months, Ligaya Mishan wrote an enthusiastic review for the New York Times, and business took off. A month after that, Kornack and Hieronimus felt the restaurant was stable enough to go on their honeymoon. On day three, they received a call from their landlord: a pipe had burst next door and flooded the restaurant.

The two were devastated. “All the momentum we had from finally being discovered,” Hieronimus said, “was totally wiped out.”

Kornack agreed. “In New York, a million restaurants open each month. So when you finally get someone behind you, you have to run with it. And we couldn’t. Everything was gone.”

It’s hard to remember now, when every new restaurant is “vegetable-centric” or “-driven” or “-forward,” that there was a time just a few years ago when meat in all its forms was in vogue. When Take Root reopened, post-flood, in 2013, press was hard to come by.

“We weren’t exactly what people thought of when they thought of a ‘cool’ restaurant that they wanted to talk about and promote, especially at the time,” Hieronimus said. “It was hard to get certain people on board when we’re a young, female, gay couple.”

Kornack continued, “If you think about any artistically or creatively driven industry, women have had to fight to get their spot and be recognized as equal. Any additional minority, like being gay, adds more prejudice and makes everything just a little bit harder. That was true for us too.

“When it comes to the media, I get it. They’re running a business too. If they need to sell copies of their magazine, who are they going to put on the cover: a super-attractive guy who is cooking what’s popular, or a gay woman who is doing her own thing? It’s not going to be me—that’s reality.”

 “If you want to appeal to the masses, you have to appeal to the masses,” Hieronimus said.

IMG_6235_WEBAfter reopening, Kornack and Hieronimus doubled down on doing what appealed to them. In the kitchen, that meant cooking predominantly vegetable menus. In the dining room, Hieronimous decided to change her playlist every week to match the menu. She and Kornack started timing how long each dish would take to serve, building in time for diners to ask questions.

The press noticed. Writing in Esquire, Josh Ozersky chose Take Root as one of the best new restaurants for 2014. Adam Platt included the restaurant on New York Magazine’s Where to Eat 2015 roundup. Michelin awarded the restaurant one star in its 2015 guide.

“The word had kind of spread that it was like this super-special experience that you couldn’t have anywhere else,” Hieronimus said. “We definitely feel the pressure because people have been waiting so long to come in, and have made such an effort to secure to make a reservation.”

Kornack concluded, “We don’t want people just to come in because of the accolades, though. We are not like other Michelin restaurants; it’s still just us. We always say, when people look at Take Root: ‘It’s two people, it’s very intimate.’ If that’s an experience you want, then totally come. Because the food is going to be awesome.