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emma hearst

    Emma Hearst, Chef

    2009_02_hearst.jpg Emma Hearst is the chef and owner of Sorella, a compact and warm restaurant on Allen Street that opened in December. Hearst based her menu on her travels (with general manger Sarah Krathen) to Italy’s Piedmontese region; Krathen curates a wine list that highlights small Italian producers. We pulled up a bar stool last week and asked Emma Hearst some questions about the restaurant. As we talked, Sarah Krathen offered her thoughts about the Sorella’s wine list, and the restaurant’s laid-back tone.

    How long have you been open, and what's the idea behind Sorella? We've been open since the first week of December, so almost two month now. We wanted to bring a sense of family to the Lower East Side. Sarah and I conceptualized the place while we were traveling through Italy, Piedmont specifically. And we really wanted to bring back the love. Sorella is an ode to Piedmont.

    Are those pictures from your travels on the wall behind me? Yeah, that, and there are a few of my two dogs, Lola and Charlie. The whole place is drenched in wine, too. We have wine barrel ceilings above us, and we actually painted this wall [points to wall with photos] with wine. We invited some friends over. That was a fun day.

    What brought you the two of you to Piedmont? I've always had a huge love for Italian food, for its simplicity. We traveled through all of Northern Italy but Piedmont really struck us - the love and hospitality of the people. They know how to use their land well.

    And it's the seat of the Slow Food movement. It is. And that's something that we hold near and dear to our hearts here.

    You cooked at Union Square Cafe. I was just a line cook there.

    Did you go to culinary school? I did. I went to the CIA.

    How was that? It was fine. [laughs]

    Do you have any other restaurant experience? I'm from upstate New York, and I've been working in kitchens since I was thirteen. I started as a dishwasher.

    Me too. It's a fun job! And I actually do it every day now. But working in kitchens is what I do. I've been doing it my whole life.

    How often do you change the menu? I’ve changed half the small plates menu already. I get bored really quickly, and that’s one of the reasons why I like Sorella’s concept so much. I'm not locked into anything and we can be whatever we want to be. Our real goal is to just make some tasty, seasonal food, serve some tasty wine, and not rip people off. We want quality throughout the whole restaurant - the food, the wine, the seats, the music, even— attention to every little detail.

    Can you tell me about a dish on the menu you really, really like? The dish that's been getting the most press is the chicken liver pate, which is on homemade grilled duck fat English muffin bread. We do all our breads and pastas in house. The chicken liver is really a mousse, so it's very light, and it's served with sugared Benton's bacon and a fried egg.

    How many of you are there back in the kitchen? It's just me, my sous chef, and my pastry chef. It's a really small kitchen - it's a pirate kitchen. Yesterday afternoon we didn't even have thirty chairs in the back but that night we did a wine dinner for thirty-five people while doing service out front. We just make it happen.

    On Serious Eats you and Sarah told Laren Spirer you both love Cafe Katja. It's amazing. It's super-serious comfort food - Austrian. They have a great beer list and some good wines. It's a nice little neighborhood spot. You should check it out.

    Other places you like to go? Not at the moment [the bartender setting up for evening service sings “Blue Ribbon” to the tune of “Moon River”]. Oh right, Blue Ribbon. I was just there the other night. But I haven't been going out very much. This is my new boyfriend [points to restaurant floor]. Or it's more like a really expensive baby.

    These overhead racks here are specially designed for wine? My architect is from Resistance Design, and we got these custom made in Bushwick by a steelmaker.

    Hearst's necklace
    What's up with your necklace? I got it from my tattoo parlor - I can't remember the artist's name. But it’s got a cleaver and a knife.

    Have you ever cut yourself on it? No. But sometimes when I get out of the shower and flip my hair over to put it in the towel, the necklace whacks me in the face.

    Can you tell me your strangest, only in New York story, like a tour bus of Norwegians come in for dinner? Nothing like that. We do get a lot of older Chinese people from the neighborhood looking in and giving us their nod of approval. Or sometimes just shaking their head and walking away. This is a crazy part of Allen Street and there's always fights and addicts. Riiight around here.

    Street fights? Mmm hmm. Crazy people fighting over dumplings.

    [Sarah Krathen, Sorella’s general manager, walks over to the bar.]

    Sarah, tell us about the wine. It's all Italian wine list, 110 bottles, and I do 28 by the glass— between $8 and $17. It's mostly from Piedmont, but we represent the rest of Italy too. I look for smaller production and off the beaten track varietals. I like to show labels from families and people that I know in Italy.

    How did you get into wine?
    SK: I started drinking it, I guess.
    EH: She drinks a lot.
    SK: Emma and I went to the same culinary school and I did a wine program there. After that I was a teaching assistant at the Italian restaurant at the school, so I got really into wine education. And then after that, really just by drinking and reading, and becoming friends with Emma. She has a problem.

    What's the working dynamic between the two of you?
    EH: We're best friends and we work well together - there's none of that front of the house versus the back of the house going on. We've been friends a long, long time.

    When did you decide to open a place together?
    EH: We had a catering company and we took a road trip across the US wondering, where are we going to open our restaurant? We knew one day we wanted one. We got a lot of comments from our peers, like, “are you ready for Manhattan? For playing with the big boys?” We were like, eh eh eh, sure. We’ll move on if we fail.

    Do a lot of chefs come in here late night?
    SK: We designed this place as a spot that industry people would like to come to. A lot of chefs have been coming in, and that's the thing that we're most proud of. Missy Robbins was here twice. Anita Lo stopped by. It's the most unbelievable feeling, people actually eating here and paying for our food! We're still very shocked.
    EH: We can't believe it. We love what we do.

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