From the Peak of “Success,” Elise and Anna Choose to Redefine It
From Inside Issue 6: Mind & Body
Text by Elise Kornack with Anna Hieronimus
Photos by Cara Howe
We wake around 8:00 AM. While most dog owners need to be up when the sun rises for their pets to rush outside, our dogs have come to enjoy the slower mornings and the final, half-lucid, sleepy moments before coffee. Anna wakes first to start the brew. We drink store-brand beans and use a French press, a detail that often raises eyebrows, as most people expect us to grind fair-trade beans and to toil over our Chemex. There are occasions when we do that, but there is something truly satisfying about coffee that tastes like coffee, void of citrus notes or aromas of cocoa and hickory.
By the time the smell reaches our upstairs bedroom, I find myself more willing to leave the warm bed and make my way downstairs—that or Anna’s impatience has her making purposeful noise urging me to do so. Each morning we sit and sip on our back porch, surrounded by pine trees, the smells of dew-coated grass, and the noises of wildlife—busy birds and chirping crickets, croaking frogs and unruly squirrels. When it rains, the pine forest around us quiets and all you can hear is the water funneling through the gutter and the wind finding its way between the branches of the trees.
Our mornings in Brooklyn began with a similar routine, interrupted, however, by a more restless, frantic energy. We did feel protected, tucked away on the second floor of a refurbished firehouse, but rather than being circled by white pines and a rambling stone wall, our balcony backed up to what had initially been a courtyard filled with fruit trees and grassy lawns. By the time we left, two trees remained and more than half the backyards we overlooked were cemented and divided by chain-link fences.
The commute to work was a modest 400 feet around the corner, but seemed much further as we walked, heads bent down to avoid noisy neighbors, dodging children on scooters who were barely supervised by overwhelmed parents on their phones, and people flicking cigarette butts into the few patches of grass that circle the roots of the trees lining the street. This kind of morning was not serving us well. We were anxious, saddened by the behavior of our neighbors, and frustrated by the lack of quiet and natural landscape. It was clear we needed out. But how? When?
Our restaurant, Take Root, was special, a 12-seat eatery we designed so that we could operate it alone and find our creative stride without the strain of a considerable overhead or a prying investor. We ran it with ambition and grace in equal measure, and were ultimately very blessed with the response from diners and media. For the first four years, the pride we had in our work and the recognition of our efforts and vision justified all the pressure and anxiety we experienced. Over time, however, our relationships with our friends and family suffered, we stopped exercising, and we spent our days off huddled up indoors, desperate for privacy and quiet.
“Hudson became our getaway—and our gateway to our inevitable migration north.”
One stormy February weekend in 2014, just after our Valentine’s Day push, we headed a few hours north of New York City to Hudson. We were intrigued by the quiet city emerging with a new creative identity and were looking for a change of scenery, perhaps a little inspiration and a meal at a new restaurant we’d heard of, Fish & Game. They’d just opened, and Hudson was hardly the hot-spot it’s since become. The waterside city felt undiscovered, and the chic shops and frenzied Brooklynites were fewer and further between.
From that visit on, Hudson became our getaway—and our gateway to our inevitable migration north. We got a rental apartment on North 3rd Street, on an underdeveloped block off Warren, the city’s main drag. It wasn’t dissimilar to our place in Carroll Gardens: still a second floor walk-up, still in a city. But in Hudson, within minutes of walking out our front door we could be swimming at the base of a waterfall, or sitting by the river, or traipsing through the woods in search of mushrooms. We could hike up to a good view of the valley, or find a place to sip a beer in the dead silence of an abandoned orchard. We started letting our minds flirt with the idea, imagining what our lives would be like if we didn’t have to return home to Brooklyn at the end of each visit, if we could take the leap and move to the Hudson Valley full time.
When we weren’t fantasizing, we were stressing. I was sick with anxiety. I underwent CAT scans, EKGs, brain scans, and blood tests, all to identify the source of the pains I was living with, which included constant blackout migraines and nausea, a chest so tight I couldn’t breathe, sleepless nights, constant tears, a lack
of appetite, and a solid, dark energy resting heavily on my shoulders at all times. My first instinct, and that of our doctors, was to address the physical symptoms, as some of them could have easily been the beginning of something more serious. At the time, though, we were unable to see that my emotional stress was manifesting physically, and that my body was clearly telling me to stop and take stock in how I was feeling.
We were at what other people referred to as our “peak of success.” Our restaurant was always booked months in advance. We had a handful of highly coveted industry accolades. Our diners were happy and the media had finally taken to our restaurant concept in a way we never could have imagined. What we were incapable of admitting to ourselves at the time, though, is that this kind of success does not always equal happiness, and that it would be wise to define what success means to us, both as individuals, and together as a couple. The final months of operating Take Root, Anna did her best to support me, and I did my best to support Take Root, but we both knew the clock was ticking and the time was up.
“Why would you stop doing something that is successful and makes you money?”
Our conversations about moving inevitably led to obsessive house hunting and eventually to the purchase of our first home. Around the same time, we closed Take Root in March of 2017 and left our firehouse dwelling on North 3rd Street. As we made the necessary announcements about closing and moving north, everyone questioned us. “Why would you stop doing something that is successful and makes you money?” they asked. In turn, we again asked ourselves: How do we define success? And what are we willing to sacrifice in order to have it? Concretely, our restaurant was a success. Our quality of life, however, was suffering. In the long run, the concept would not be sustainable, no matter what changes we made with regards to staffing or expansion, because we were deeply unhappy where we lived and we were isolated from any real support system or healing life force.
As our moving date approached, we separately predicted what our individual reactions to the closure of the restaurant would look and feel like. Anna imagined herself feeling buoyant and liberated. I was concerned I’d feel purposeless and disoriented without my professional kitchen.
After the first few weeks spent unpacking and orienting ourselves with our new neighborhood, I immediately became obsessed with my garden and meeting local farmers. I found myself feeling less unsettled than I’d anticipated. Anna, on the other hand, was surprised to find herself struggling with the loss of her identity as owner of Take Root, and she grappled with the uncertainty of the future. Her way of coping happened by meeting the incredibly talented and thoughtful network of people in Hudson that we’ve come to call our dear friends. Building a support system when you go through a major life change is essential—knowing that you’re a part of a community of people who value you, will listen to you, and love and support you. Once we felt supported, our relationships with certain members of our families grew stronger. Our confidence to take the next step in our careers seemed more possible.
Over the past year we’ve explored every career option conceivable. And we’ve taken a significant amount of time in the process to recharge our batteries and to seek inspiration. We’ve learned that there are many ways to relax. Some include nature walks and talk therapy, hot baths, and laughter, and others include Netflix binging, drinking more wine than one should, and doing
so without judgment.
As we move towards our next project, a restaurant in the Catskills, we are excited to introduce new methods of management and a practice called intuitive leadership, where we hire employees based on both skill set and interests or hobbies, allowing each person to be of use in more ways than simply “what they are hired to do.” We want them to have room to move through stress they may experience and to have the tools to cope with tension and trauma. We want them to find solace in their natural surroundings and to spend their days off seeking views of the valley and wading in streams. But most importantly, we want to define for ourselves what success means, as individuals and collectively.
We don’t know exactly what our restaurant will look like. We haven’t tested every recipe, nor do we have a fully formed wine list yet. We aren’t sure whom we will work with or who will eat in our dining room. But we do know it will be located on the west side of the Hudson River, nestled among the pine trees, in a place where we can grow food, educate our neighbors, and find a more balanced place to call home to our creative sensibilities. ///
Sat Feb 9: Issue 6 Launch Events in Hudson, NY
Join Jarry, Elise, and Anna this Saturday, February 9th in Hudson, NY to celebrate Issue 6 with apéritifs and lite bites at 2 Note Hudson, followed by drag performances and dancing at The Half Moon Bar, all benefiting Albany Damien Center’s Smart Meals Program. Click below for details and RSVP!
Elise Kornack is a James Beard Award–nominated chef, recipe developer, and restaurateur, known, perhaps most notably, for Take Root, the critically acclaimed, Michelin star, tasting menu restaurant she ran with her wife, Anna Hieronimus in Brooklyn. Anna, the restaurateur and beverage director, has appeared on both Forbes magazine’s and Zagat’s “30-under-30” reports, and she and her work have been featured in ELLE, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Life & Thyme, and other publications. Elise and Anna currently live in the Catskills region of NY where they plan to open their second venture.
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