Sunday, December 30, 2012

Interview with Elizabeth Falkner: Restaurateur, Author and TV Star

Interview with Elizabeth Falkner
Give 100% and Kick Some Ass

Facebook:  Elizabeth Falkner
Interview by Jessie Riley, Jeff Yoskowitz and Kathryn Gordon of

Jessie recently helped Elizabeth with the opening of her new Sicilian-style restaurant Krescendo.  We visited her at the restaurant (364 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn NY) for this interview.

Jeff:  You've had such a long rich history in terms of food.  We’d like to talk today about the lessons you've learned from starting your own restaurants and other projects and what you’d do and what you’d never do again!

Kathryn:  Did you first learn about food at home? 

Elizabeth:  My mom is a dietitian and a really good cook, so I didn't eat processed foods growing up.   Being from Southern California, we had good access to produce and there was a general focus on healthy eating (and appearances).

Both grandparents from my mom’s side made candy!  There was also a family farm in Missouri where my grandfather hunted quail and we learned how to pick vegetables, can foods and fish. I actually included a “food memory” recipe in my new book, Cooking Off The Clock, that reminds me of the earthy smell of picking corn in a field – Corn Soup with porcini mushrooms and cacao nibs.

Jessie:  Originally you transitioned into professional cooking from working in film?

Elizabeth:  I’ve now been cooking for 23 years, but I have a BFA in abstract, experimental film making, and painting.  I was working in film when I started at a small café and I became the chef there a month later because I had a better palette than anyone else! 

Kathryn:  Who were your mentors as you learned the food industry?

Elizabeth:  Traci Des Jardins and Mary Cech. 

Traci Des Jardins took a chance hiring me to do the desserts at Elka after I had just a bit of fine dining experience.  It was an early Pacific Rim restaurant with excellent food.  I told her I could do better with the desserts.  I realize now that my approach to getting that job was unusual!  I had tried the desserts, and they sucked, with nothing more imaginative than green tea crème brulee.  So I designed a menu, and brought in samples incorporating Japanese ingredients and using a bento box.  I got the job, dessert sales soared by 60%, and I later went with Tracy to Rubicon.  

Mary Cech taught me how to do chocolate work, pull sugar and build showpieces.  I also learned what it was like to temper for 3 days straight without sleeping to help Jemal Edwards prep for a competition and then I started to compete myself – I was always going to break the rules!

Photo Credit:  San Francisco Chronicle

Jessie:   In California, you opened and closed two restaurants, Citizen Cake and Orson. How did you find your first investors?

Elizabeth:  Robin Williams and some of the backers for Rubicon were some of the original backers for Citizen Cake and I raised about $30K with family and friends.

Jeff:  How did you decide it was the right time to open Citizen Cake?

Elizabeth:  I saw the writing on the wall:  “Why are there no great pastry shops in San Francisco where people can get a really cool cake?” There wasn’t one anywhere, so I decided I had to open a pastry shop and fill that gap.

The first one, I managed really well for 1 ½ years, but it was in a remote and (then) seedy area where it was hard to get traffic.  I was approached by other landlords to open another Citizen Cake and it was an opportunity to have a bigger audience.  In the original location, the cakes were upscale and I was being bashed for “changing the neighborhood.” 

I decided on a busier, more central location near my customers – but from the get-go it was challenging.  I opened for $1.2 million during the silicon boom.  It was 1999 and I had 30 investors, who all really believed in the project.

The lease was the most difficult issue, at first.  The pastry shop and café got off the ground quickly, but I was hampered because one of the landlords owned a wine bar down the street and didn't want me to open as a restaurant after 6 pm. 

Jeff:  What was the biggest lesson you learned from that leasing process?

Elizabeth:  We didn’t even touch any location with a complicated lease when Nancy Puglisi (owner of Krescendo) and I looked at restaurant locations in Brooklyn! It’s just not worth it.

Kathryn:  What other challenges did you face? 

Elizabeth: I opened a spinoff, Citizen Cupcake.  In 2008 we opened Orson to have a commissary baking location for Citizen Cupcake.  In 2010 I had to move the location of Citizen Cake because the landlords wanted to double the rent.  Everyone was acting like I had so much money, but I couldn't pay double. 

Unfortunately, I had been forced to remodel for $300,000, 2 years prior the end of the first lease because we had a bad floor. There was water movement under the ground of our location and the floor had rotted.   We had to relocate and absorb those remodeling costs.

We found a great new spot in the heart of where our clientele worked.  It was a former restaurant but it was trashed and needed gutting, so the build out took 6 months longer than it was supposed to.  The space was “too big” for what we needed.  The process was very hard on my personal relationships but everyone had worked so hard and we didn't want it to vanish, and I had put a lot of other people’s money into the project. 

By then we had morphed into offering steaks and martinis at night so it wasn't only a pastry shop, but I don’t recommend running a pastry shop and restaurant on top of each other!  For awhile it held together because I had a really great overnight bread baker for many years, my right hand pastry person who came with me from Rubicon (until she had twins), and a GM who knew about wines, and worked with good chef de cuisines who communicated really well about food stuff. 

Then the economy crashed.

It was all “outside white noise,” and I didn't know how loud it was until it was all done.  I was doing modern fine dinning and after the crash everyone only wanted comfort food.  I just needed to stop.

Kathryn:  How did you get involved in food TV?  You've worked with both Food Network and Bravo, even though there is competition between the networks!

Elizabeth:  It just sort of happened here and there.  In 2005 I became Cat Cora’s sous chef, then I did 3 Food Network Challenges.  Next I worked with Bravo as a Top Chef judge and I was one of a few people who talked to them about starting Top Chef Just Desserts.  From there I did well in the Top Chef Masters, and Iron Chef started calling… 

Jessie:  Do you do your own promoting?

Elizabeth:  I have worked with PR people in the past.  Right now I have a TV agent.  You have to have an agent to do television– but it’s a Catch 22 situation.  You need a show to get an agent and vice versa.  But I talked to Tom Colicchio and he helped find an agent for pitching me to Magical Elves (production company).

Kathryn:  Your second cookbook has just been published?

Elizabeth:  Owning the bakery, I had been approached for many years to have a cookbook, and decided to write the first one (Demolition Desserts) because I wanted to document my recipes, since my cooking style kept moving.  So I wrote Demolition Desserts in 2007.  This fall, Cooking off the Clock was published (Random House).

Kathryn:  What motivates you to do the TV shows?

Elizabeth:  What I love about those shows is what I love about teaching.  I love the discovery of new ingredients, and what can be done with them.  I also studied film production, so I love seeing how the scenes are shot, and the story telling that is edited together.

I also like “the game,” and going from being the “underdog” in the first The Next Iron Chef series to being the “scary chef” to watch in the second year!

Jeff:  How did you decide to open this style of restaurant in NYC?

Elizabeth:  For any concept development, my approach is to ask:  what makes sense to pursue?  You have to look at openings, not just jump on a bandwagon.

I had been talking to Nancy Puglisi, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and I was pizza obsessed.  Nancy wanted to come back to Brooklyn and I said:  I’d help you with that. We have a simple menu; people just want pizza, pasta and cocktails.

There once was a lot of Sicilian cuisine in Brooklyn but fewer restaurants are around now, and the cuisine needs some resuscitation.  I look at the recipes and determine what someone else can do with it – relating to food like a Californian, and make the style my own.  So there will be some Elizabeth-style in whatever it is I wind up doing.

Jessie:  Are you an owner of Krescendo?

Elizabeth:  I have some equity, but I don’t want all the responsibility any more.  I have too many other projects in my head I would like to do.  And I don’t want the investor and operational responsibilities all by myself.  When you are the only person responsible for everything – it’s a whole lot of self-pressure.  I don’t want to let anyone down.

Kathryn:  What do you think so far about being in New York City? 

Elizabeth:  I am still getting used to the short growing season in NY versus California.  I’m starting to work with some farmers directly, like Blooming Hill Farm.   

Jeff:  What advice would you give someone entering the food industry?

Elizabeth:  Have stamina and perseverance.  Stick with it and do not give up.   You have to give 100% and kick some ass.  Continue with it for 10 years and you will become an expert. 

This is a very physically demanding job – it’s not strictly the hours, it also mentally demanding.  I love working with a team of people, but it takes a lot out of you.  You have to give other people responsibility, and they have to follow through.  You need some balance in your life for longevity in this business – and time to go to the gym.

Jessie:  I know you have a lot of projects going on; what’s next here for you, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth:  I will be offering pizza, pasta and pastry classes at Krescendo, using our Matador pizza oven!  People can contact us at Krescendo to enroll (718) 330- 0888.

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