Elise Kornack Got Out

I want out of New York City, but she won’t let me go.

I’m in love with New York City. I will defend to my last breath why the city means no other city on the planet is worthy of equal love and affection. Her concrete and steel, and push and pull, and people and drive, and will to survive–they are the city I love.

But New York City’s killing me, as Ray Lamontagne croons.

She’s too loud and too crass. She vibrates and rumbles while you beg her to lay still. She’s perfumed with pollution. Her people seeth anger when you most need them to show tenderness. She pummels humans like me who live with illness and disability.

And she wears away those with whole bodies, doing the best they can to push, pull, drive and survive in jobs that push, push, push day after day.

In my years interviewing hundreds of chefs in New York, I’ve seen how working here compounds a physically grueling job with a home life not exactly restorative. When you live in a small apartment not near a park or river or place to breathe fresh air in quiet, how do you restore after days and nights of work on end? Many cooks and chefs don’t–they seek pleasure in booze, drugs, physical company, brief sleep. Then they get up and beat their bodies again. I see what the job entails. I have no quick solution for this.

In the below from a panel called Respect Your Mind, Body, and Time at the recent StarChefs International Chefs Conference, chef Elise Kornack shares how far she fell before she got out. The chef/owner of Take Root in Brooklyn, Kornack left a high level of success in New York. She took a substantial risk in doing so–one I admire and am confounded by because it seems so many of us push well beyond the brink for the sake of our success, but not for our health or happiness.

Brooklyn

Elise Kornack

Respect Your Mind Body and Time

Starchefs International Chefs Conference, October 21st, 2018

From a pretty young age, I was always known to do the opposite thing that every other child was doing. My parents notoriously went into their parent-teacher conferences, and it started with, “Well, Elise is doing XYZ, and everyone else is doing ABC.” And then it became kind of a trend in my life. And it wasn’t on purpose–it was always just because I was kind of sticking to my own guns and saying, “This is what’s going to work for me, and so I’m going to do it, and if there’s no precedent, that doesn’t matter.”

So about six years ago my wife and I set out to open a restaurant together. We are still, to this day, the only restaurant in the world that’s earned a Michelin star operating by just two people: we didn’t have a dishwasher, a porter, an accountant, a cook, anyone else. So it was a really big undertaking. And part of the reason we did that way was because we wanted to spend time together and save money, and also because we were doing it for the first few weeks alone, and before we knew it, press started to catch on it became our narrative. And there was a number of different occasions where we had opportunities to hire different people and renovate and start over, and it just became clear that that’s not what our diners were looking for–they wanted to come in and experience what they had heard about.

And to my surprise, after Michelin came in and we had our star, everything kind of switched and the ante got upped in a big, big way. And the pressure started to mount day after day to a point where I was starting to break a little bit.

And I actually also had a specific moment where I really realized things were going south. So my mother has suffered from a personality disorder and bipolar since I was younger. And so I had a really deep understanding of mental illness and mental health and the majorly wide spectrum that there is, and all different kinds of illnesses and how different each of them is. Often very easily and people in a state depression for anxiety or panic disorder for anxiety disorder, and they’re all very, very different. So, because I had that understanding, I thought, “Well, I know all the signs, I’m not struggling in any way–don’t need to worry about it.”

Until actually one day–exactly two years ago–I had my first crippling panic attack. I was walking down a street in Hudson, NY up where near where my wife and I actually recently moved full time. And I almost fainted. And I started hysterically crying and was stuck on a park bench. And I called my wife, and I said, “I can’t move, I can’t go anywhere, I don’t really know what’s going on.” She brought me back to our place and, immediately, the first instincts were to go to a doctor because, obviously, physical symptoms mean physical illness. So, we went to the first doctor, and they ordered me to get an MRI and a brain scan and EKG–basically, every part of my body was checked out for physical symptoms. Until one doctor finally was like, I wonder if this is not physical? It’s possible that maybe all these symptoms are actually because of a mental unwellness. And she instructed me just to go start seeing a therapist and to start there and see what would happen. The next day of course and I asked a few friends if anyone had preferences for a therapist that I can start with and all of them got back to me within minutes. And I went to my therapist and started out saying, “I have no idea what’s going wrong with my body. Everything feels like shit. I can’t get out of bed, and I’m not sleeping more than an hour every night, and I’m like throwing up halfway through service.” And she said, “OK, let’s start here, and start talking about it.”

Well, of course, I still had service that week, and I still had to work six days a week, 14 hours, and I was totally unclear as to how I was going to get through that except for just pushing through it. So every day, I would go to work exhausted, throwing up and crying, laying down in the wine room just to catch my breath and then pushing through service. I got to my breaking point. I looked at my wife and said, “I really want to leave the city.”

We had no idea how to close a restaurant. It was doing really, really well. It made no sense to anyone we spoke to. Especially in a city like New York when everyone’s pushing to be successful or be somebody and get press. It’s contrary to what people believe when you say. “Oh, I want to stop something that’s working.” I was just praying for some sort of divine intervention. I’m not religious, so to have something come through was really kind of a miracle: I woke up one day, and my landlord said, “Your lease is up.” And 24 hours before that, we had signed on a house upstate. I felt like that was pretty much divine intervention. We said, “This is time to go.” We told a few friends in the press, and before you knew it, we were out.

So now we live full time in the Catskills. We have a beautiful house on six acres of land, and we just signed on a property for our next restaurant, which is on 24 acres of land surrounded by mountains and a river. So very excited to be surrounded by nature, a little bit of fresh air.

 

 

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