We had the good fortune of connecting with Elizabeth Heitner and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Elizabeth, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
Taking risks is always uncomfortable. It’s scary not to know what the outcome will be. You can either do what’s comfortable and continue on the same path, or take a leap into the unknown. In my own experience, taking risks fosters growth, as you learn to adapt to change. The two greatest risks I’ve taken in my life were the decision to find sobriety, and decision to start my own business. Six years ago I moved from New York to California by myself to go to rehab. I had been struggling with a drug addiction for a few years that had taken control over my life. It was so scary to imagine not only having to give up my main coping mechanism, but also to do it in a place where I knew nobody, that was foreign to me. For years, I was terrified of giving up my crutch, and the possibility of failure. Eventually, the fear of staying the same and continuing to live my life the way I was, was greater than the fear of actually changing. Getting sober was the best decision and investment I ever made for myself. I was able to rediscover my passion for cooking, and find purpose in life again. Sobriety enabled me to have confidence professionally and also to weather the ups and downs of running a business. It seemed impossible to start my own business after only having three years of professional experience working in the kitchen. Despite the voices in my head questioning if I had the knowledge or experience to start a small business, I felt it in my gut that it was something worth pursuing. It was an opportunity where I could have complete creative control, and make my own schedule. It was an opportunity to find my voice, so I put myself out there. Cooking your own food is a vulnerable act- you’re showing people a part of yourself and opening yourself up to criticism and failure. But with that comes so much reward and the risk becomes one that is worth taking.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
Growing up in New York City as a Jew, eating was a huge part of my upbringing. Matzoh ball soup, latkes, and pastrami sandwiches remind me of the holidays spent with my family. I never really realized how important Jewish food was to me until I left New York. I found myself craving matzoh balls whenever I was sick, and cooking my childhood memories made me feel closer to home. In Los Angeles at acclaimed Lucques restaurant, I fell in love with my chef at the time, Nestor Silva. Nestor is Mexican, and I loved learning about his culture through the home cooked meals his mother made with us. Once we moved in together, Mexican and Jewish flavors filled our home, and cooking became the way in which we expressed our love and our histories. Once the pandemic became widespread in LA, I was let go from my position at Lucques. I began selling Mexican inspired Jewish meals from my home, embracing the food Nestor and I had been cooking at home. Shortly after, I was able to land a gig as a pop-up chef at Melody Wine Bar in Echo Park, and other restaurants around Los Angeles. There you can find items like a potato knish turned quesadilla frita, masa ball soup, Mexican chocolate babka, and pit smoked pastrami tacos. Pit smoking is a newly learned skill I picked up during the pandemic. It truly is a labor of love. The brisket is brined for 7 days, and then rubbed in a mixture of pepper, coriander, guajillo powder, garlic, and piloncillo. It is smoked with white oak wood for 14 hours on a 500-gallon offset smoker. The pastrami became a best seller and I now sell it by the pound via Instagram. This new venture has become one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. I was able to find my voice, dive deeper into my heritage, and create a schedule that works for me. I hope when people eat my food they feel a sense of nostalgia, but can also feel the love that Nestor and I share. He lifts me up when I’m down, helps me on his days off despite being tired from work, and is my greatest source of inspiration. I couldn’t have done any of this without him.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
My favorite thing to do when traveling is to eat, so if I had a friend visiting town of course it would be a trip filled with good food. We would first head to K-town for delicious pork belly bo ssams at Kobawoo. They have the most incredible banchan as well, you can taste the love and knowledge that goes into it. We’d then stop by my favorite Korean supermarket, H mart. Whenever I’m in another city or country I love to visit the local supermarkets to check out what they have. I feel like it gives you a good sense of the culture and surroundings you’re staying in. We’d eat dinner at Anajak Thai in Sherman Oaks, specifically for their Thai Taco Tuesdays where they serve dry aged fish tacos and tostadas. They seat you in the alley, blast music, and cook outside. It’s so fun and delicious. Of course you can’t forget to go to a taco stand for a late night snack, and my favorite happens to be right next to my house on Melrose and Vine. It’s called Tacos Guelaguetza. You know they’re the real deal when they have a cauldron of hot fat and different cuts of meats resting inside it. They chop and heat up your meat to order on the plancha, and it’s served with freshly made tortillas. Don’t forget the habanero salsa! For shopping, my two favorite stores in LA are Now Serving, and New High Mart. Now Serving is a family owned cookbook store in Chinatown. The owner, Ken, is extremely knowledgeable and can recommend any obscure cookbook that you might be interested in. They also have a fantastic selection of knives and home goods, all made by local artisans. New High Mart is in Los Feliz, which is a small, curated store featuring rare Japanese home goods. I’ve never been in a store quite like it- it feels like a museum. Speaking of museums, we’d definitely go to the Getty. It’s so peaceful there and transports you to another world. On our way back, we’d stop by the Santa Monica farmers market, pick up some produce that’s in season, and head home and cook a comforting meal.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I began my culinary journey at Lucques restaurant, under the mentorship of chef Suzanne Goin and chef Mercedes Rojas. I walked in the door applying for an unpaid internship, with no experience to my name, just my passion for food and eagerness to learn. They took a huge chance on me and helped mold me into the chef I am now. Suzanne Goin, owner and Chef of Lucques and several other restaurants around Los Angeles, is a huge source of inspiration to me. I quickly fell in love with her approach to cooking. I truly believe she makes some of the most delicious, inspired food I’ve ever had. Being a female small business owner, I hope to be half as successful as Suzanne one day. Mercedes was my Chef de Cuisine at the time and showed me the meaning of hard work. She always believed in me and lit a fire from underneath me. She helped me understand flavor and balance, introduced me to the farmers at the market, and took me under her wing. The mentorship I received from them is something I hope to provide to another one day. Once I started the journey of creating my business, Rebecca King of The Bad Jew became my biggest ally. I met Rebecca this past summer after she saw I was selling pastrami tacos from my home. Being a fellow Jew and female pit smoker, she messaged me on Instagram wanting to be friends and offering me her advice. She fell into my lap like the guardian angel I so desperately needed. I was smoking briskets on a tiny electric smoker on my balcony, and was constantly asking her questions. Finally, she told me to come over to Danny Gordon’s of Flatpoint Barbecue, to learn how to use his pit smoker. It quickly started to become an obsession, always trying to improve from the last smoke. We became best buds after spending several 16 hour smokes together. I’m so grateful for Rebecca and Danny for showing me the ropes, letting me use the pit smoker, answering all my questions and always supporting what would eventually become my small business.