"It's just really want I want to do in this space, and I think people are really excited to have us here."
Chef Elizabeth Falkner of San Francisco's wildly popular Citizen Cake moved out to open Krescendo in Brooklyn and then left it in less than a year, which floored some people who seriously eat. Now, at the newly opened Corvo Bianco in what was once the Upper West Side's iconic Endicott Hotel lobby, she's serving up plates both ambitious and comforting, and logging in long days to get her menu just right for the extremely wanting neighborhood.
Last week we caught up in the sunlit space, and Falkner embodied the both exhausted and adrenaline-fueled energy you'd expect from a chef only a few weeks into her opening, punctuated by a full, fun laugh. We chatted about her journey from northern California to Brooklyn to the Upper West Side, and how this is the menu she's proud to own.
What was your intention with moving out to open Krescendo? I needed to move out of San Francisco—my ex-partner and I had broken up and we were partners in the restaurant together. I'd spent my whole life in California, and I'd been wanting to move to New York for a while and it was sort of the writing on the wall. Everything just came together. The owner of Krescendo needed some help opening, so I did that and then it was like, "Okay, what else can I do?"
So you felt you fulfilled your goal with opening Krescendo? Yes.
Citizen Cake was had a really successful run. Are you reticent to owning here? I've owned restaurants so I know what goes on, but as a chef/owner you're the chef and manager and owner. I just really want to be a chef right now, and I feel like I can help the owner here because it's his first adventure—ha! It's his first venture—in New York. But it is an adventure. And I've always taken ownership of the restaurants I've worked at; that's probably why I'm a good chef, because I look for people that act like it's their restaurant, too. I think you have to do that, to keep finessing all the time. So I do feel like I own this restaurant, and menu.
Has your cooking style changed since moving to New York to target diners here a bit more? I've heard mixed things from chefs on both coasts, but you'd imagine that people would be more adventurous eaters here. I guess it depends on the venue and maybe the neighborhood, but when I started the menu here I put on rabbit, and I've been running sweet breads as a special and people have been ordering a lot of it and they love it. I put quail on the menu. There's nothing really weird about what I'm serving and they're really beautiful presentations, and people seem to be ordering everything. I'm going to make a sauce out of rabbit kidneys and liver and all that stuff, and I know it will be really tasty and people here will say, "Okay, that sounds great."
Do you feel people in this neighborhood are hungry for a bit of adventurous eating?Our restaurant is large enough that we're going to attract a lot of different people, so there has to be something for everybody. I always have things I feel are very safe, like pappardelle pasta with short rib ragout. We sell a ton of that, of course, and it's really, really good. This space has been a lot of things over the years. It was built in 1890 as a really fancy hotel lobby, then it became a really funky mob hangout—they built the precinct around the corner because of it—then it was a dive place where the New York Dolls debuted back in the '70's, and then Dino de Laurentiis used to have DDL Foodshow here, which was like Eataly before its time, and then it was a couple of other restaurants. So it's made a lot of memories for a lot of people, and it's just gorgeous. I think everybody's been watching to see it open and the owners and architects did a great job with the design. It's very much my aesthetic, too, so it's really comfortable and fun for me to put food on these tables. It's just really want I want to do in this space, and I think people are really excited to have us here.
What makes this menu yours, maybe in a way that's even more personal to you than what you were doing at Krescendo? I look at food as art movements—really, because my dad's an abstract painter—and I look at the evolution of products, things dying, different trends, the Mediterranean influence, the restaurants I used to go to in San Francisco like Zuni and Chez Panisse, Le Cirque, Gotham, and Craft in New York. I've always blown my money going to other restaurants, so I learned a lot. It's all affected the way I cook here today.
I've kind of been in love with Italian food the last few years because it's just so simple— I'd gone to Italy a couple of times and had such outstanding pastas that I was like, wow, if I could cook like that I'd really be a master with just a few ingredients. But I didn't want to come here and just do pizza—even though I think what we did at Krescendo was really awesome.
So here I kind of walk this tight rope of liking really great service but I don't want it to be so expensive or upscale that it becomes precious, because then the food becomes a little precious. I love the simplicity of pasta with a short rib ragout and some good bread and a great salad. So I think my food definitely tries to speak both of those languages at the same time. As a chef I try to be, "Ha, I've never had this ingredient with that dish," or, "I found some great stuff from a local farmer." But I'm not going to give it to you in a precious way. I want it to be approachable, to translate.
This restaurant is huge, and gorgeous, and as a celebrity chef who's really a chef in her kitchen you've got eyes on you. Do you feel all that? I told my cooks last night, and I think it's a good thing to think about when you're at this point; this isn't about our outside life. This is about a Broadway play. This is a big theatre—it's not a little thing here—so we have to put on a big show. We have to put on a show and it has to be a crowd pleaser.