Recently we got a glimpse at the new recipes and at some of the stories behind the kitchen doors at Sorella, one of the Lower East Side’s best restaurants. Here’s a preview of the new cookbook from co-owners Sarah Krathen and Emma Hearst. This story first appeared in the September 2013 edition of The Lo-Down‘s print magazine.
Behind every great restaurant on the Lower East Side, there’s a great story. Sitting in cozy candlelight, sipping a cocktail and sampling what a chef has to offer, you may not ever hear it, but the backstory of each place gives every dish context and color.
That chef seems awfully young, who is she? The staff seems to have a lot of inside jokes, what’s that about? And while we’re at it, what’s in that sauce dribbled over the broccoli and why oh why are these breadsticks so addictive?
Learning the answers to these questions is the reason we love it when our local restaurateurs publish cookbooks.
Next month, fans of Sorella, the Italian spot at 95 Allen St. founded by best friends Sarah Krathen and Emma Hearst, will get to peek behind the kitchen door at the five-year-old restaurant, its owners and its Northern Italian cuisine.
Sorella: Recipes, Cocktails and True Stories From Our New York Restaurant hits bookstores Oct. 29.
We sat down with Krathen over a few flavors of gelato to talk stories, recipes and running the front of the house, which has been her main job in the partnership with Hearst, though both are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America.
Sorella’s story begins there, where the pair met nearly a decade ago. They both moved to Manhattan after graduating. Krathen worked briefly at Zoe in Soho; Hearst did a short stint as an intern at Union Square Cafe as part of her CIA training. Though their careers were just beginning, they both quickly burned out on working at other people’s restaurants, and started to question their futures in the city’s restaurant industry. So they launched a small catering business out of their fifth-floor walkup apartment in Union Square, whose success convinced them they could do their own restaurant. The only question was, if not NYC, where? Their mentors and friends insisted they were too young and too inexperienced to launch in Manhattan.
For Hearst’s 21st birthday, the partners set out on a cross-country road trip with an eye toward choosing a new home in which to open their own place, says Krathen, now 28. Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and New Orleans all failed the audition (though they did love New Orleans, especially).
“We decided there was no other place like New York,” says the Key West, Fla., native.
With financial backing from her partner’s family (yes, those Hearsts), the pair opened Sorella in late 2008, when Hearst was 22 and Krathen 23.
“We tried hard to hide our ages for a long time,” Krathen says. “How young we were made it hard to get employees who took us seriously. So we just hired other young people and we all learned together.”
About six months in, New York magazine’s critics boosted the restaurant into a citywide spotlight, awarding it four stars, noting its “conspicuous elegance and culinary refinement” — and sending Krathen into a frenzy of drafting industry friends into hosting and bartending to keep up with the resulting crowds.
Their original team included sous chef Molly Nickerson and pastry chef Yarisis Jacobo. Hearst helmed the kitchen, Krathen oversaw the running of the house and the bar.
“We both got basically all of our restaurant experience running this place,” Krathen says, laughing. “We certainly had our ‘oh, shit’ moments, as in, ‘oh, shit–sales tax!’”
The staff’s easy compatibility is palpable in the restaurant on an average night, and shows throughout the book, which references “carefully placed inside jokes sprinkled throughout the restaurant.”
“I was really intent on trying to have a sense of humor in the book,” says Krathen, who did the bulk of the writing after refining the recipes with Hearst.
The food itself, though, is very serious.
Most of Sorella’s dishes originate from Krathen and Hearst’s travels through Italy’s Piedmont region, a trip the pair undertook about a year before opening the restaurant.
Butter, cheese, pasta in many forms, rich pork and beef dishes and decadent desserts abound; a food writer once accused Hearst of treating bacon as a seasoning, and meant it as a compliment.
Krathen credits Hearst with all the kitchen wizardry, confiding that her partner “started cooking at 5 years old.”
“Emma’s amazing talent is that she can eat something once and then recreate it,” Krathen says.
In just one example, the pair tasted a pasta known as agnolotti dal plin on their travels, and it immediately rose to a spot near the top of their must-have list for Sorella. The name of the dish translates to “pinched pillows,” and the tiny puffs of filled semolina dough are a house favorite.
When choosing recipes for the book, Krathen says, they included personal favorites as well as staples of the oft-changing menu.
“We wanted to do all the things everyone knows,” she says. “It’s sort of crazy, to me, to think we’ve done that many things, that we could make a cookbook of them.”
One of the restaurant’s most popular items is the broccoli fritto, which sprung from Hearst’s kitchen during what her partner calls a “weird Asian phase.” The broccoli is lightly fried to an all-over crisp that leaves its natural crunch in place, and dressed with a pickled hot pepper aioli that leaves you smacking your lips together. It originally appeared on the menu as broccoli tempura; no one ordered it, Krathen says. She renamed it; customers went crazy for it.
The book will be published as Sorella reaches its fifth anniversary, and one year after a new chapter began in Krathen and Hearst’s partnership. Last November, after the death of her grandfather, Hearst stepped out of the kitchen she’d built and took some time off to mourn and regroup. She’s been living in Hawaii, where she is studying yoga and eating vegetarian, a twist that makes Krathen laugh, because when Sorella opened, Hearst refused to put so much as a salad on the menu as a nod to non-meat-eaters. (When a friend and critic insisted they add a salad, the story goes, Hearst adorned fresh escarole with nuts, cheese and a brown-butter dressing.)
Nickerson, who had left to work at Marea, came back to take over the kitchen. Though Hearst is no longer there every day, she and Krathen talk daily, and have spent a large part of the last year collaborating on the cookbook.
The broccoli fritto recipe isn’t that difficult, Krathen promises, and the restaurant’s fans can now learn how to make it and 74 other Sorella favorites, including the decadent duck-fat and chicken-liver-mousse English muffin known as pate di fegato, as well as some of the signature cocktails that Krathen developed for the bar. One of Sorella’s highest-demand dishes, the crunchy, salty, addictive, Italian-style skinny stalks of bread known as grissini, however, you’ll still have to go to Allen Street to enjoy: that recipe, Krathen purposefully omitted.
“The grissini, well, the grissini is our secret,” she says.