Bea Helman

An Interview with Colonie’s Elise Rosenberg and Tamer Hamawi

If the line outside Colonie’s Brooklyn Heights location is any indication, the chefs and creative team behind this lovely farm-to-table restaurant are definitely doing something right.

With a verdant “green” bar situated beneath a vertical garden that functions as the restaurant’s living art piece, Colonie is more than just another one of New York’s super-chic Farm-to-Table restaurants: they live by their ethics, and have brought the garden into the grand vision of dining. With its excessively modern, rustic vibe (think high ceilings, exposed brick, and lots of plants) Colonie is a favorite brunch gathering space among locals: their ricotta crostini is a local legend, and the New American fried rice (which incorporates farm-fresh ingredients like asparagus disks, tiny hon shimeji mushrooms, and ramps) is a celebrated must-try.

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On a lovely summer afternoon this past June, Garden Collage sat down with the Colonie owners Elise Rosenberg and Tamer Hamawi. We got the scoop on their vision for locavore dining, the origins of the restaurant, and the gorgeous vertical garden that has become their claim-to-fame.

GC: Conceptually speaking, what is Colonie all about?

TH: I guess it all started when I moved to Brooklyn Heights– arguably one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in New York City– which is a very affluent neighborhood: the $20 Million brown stone was sold in Brooklyn Heights. It’s a lot of old money, but over the last 10-15 years the demographic has been changing because it’s so close to Manhattan. Everyone started to move into Brooklyn because people realized how beautiful it was, amazing subway access, a lot of different lines all around you, especially if you have to get to Manhattan very quickly – it is just over the bridge. You can jump into a cab right here and be in SoHo in 10 minutes.

GC: We just came from SoHo! You’re right: it is super convenient.

TH: It’s a convenient and beautiful neighborhood, [laughs] lots of money – but no good restaurants.

I moved in and just couldn’t understand where the good food was. I mean, this is New York City, every neighborhood has good food but this neighborhood, for some reason, had nothing.

Shortly after Emelie and her husband moved into the neighborhood, they felt he same way, and we would often sit around our apartments talking about the situation. We were both part of management teams at different Manhattan restaurants at that time, and we always said “One day we should open a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights, it’s desperate for something good”.

As the years went on we kept talking about it, and in the end we just decided to do it and found the spot on Atlantic Avenue.

GC: Did you think about the neighborhood’s potential for the future?

ER: Yes, definitely. Atlantic Avenue was a street you usually avoided. It used to be a very vibrant, cool area with lots of Middle Eastern places, but over the years this died off, so I was very hesitant about this location but had hopes for the future because of the park, and we knew Barneys had taken over a space down the street.

GC: So apart from your gut feeling there was a lot of gentrification going on. That seems to be the story of New York as of late…

TH: Yes, we could tell it was a good time to be going into this area, and as it turns out, it was a really, really great decision. We couldn’t have wished for a better location! Not only do we service all of Brooklyn Heights– a community that was desperate for something new– but we also get to interact with the other sides of Brooklyn, which is a very different demographic. It’s a little bit younger on one side– I guess it’s what you might call hip— and more conservative on the other side.

GC: So you have a total mix of customers. That makes sense– there’s great energy here.

TH: Thank you! Construction-wise we did everything kind of ourselves. We were out there every day, finding materials, trying to make this something special on a low budget. So we opened on a Friday at 6pm – and by 6:30pm we were fully booked! – Within a half an hour every seat was taken, that just gives you an idea how much demand for something of quality there was in this neighborhood.

ER: During construction, we had put out a sign in the window saying that we will open soon but in the meantime check us out on Kickstarter.

TH: Yes, and initially it was not necessarily about raising money: we just wanted to create awareness!

GC: A smart marketing move!

TH: We wanted to gather up some support from the neighborhood and to let people know who we are and just to say, “hey, there is this cool restaurant coming soon…”

It was quite overwhelming how many people went to website and donated money. Our incentives were really good by giving people back their donation in the form of food and wine once we opened. For example, a $10 donation provided you with a glass of bubbly, $20 got you a plate of Oysters, $250 was dinner for four, and so on. It was a media scoop. We landed in magazines and newspapers for being the “young, hip restaurant” using a crowd-funding site to open their business. Soon, media started chasing us, and even Florence Fabricant was calling us every week asking: “When are you opening?”

GC: And the vertical hanging garden was part of the concept from the beginning on?

TH: We had a rough idea as we were working with an architect, but we were very much the designers from the beginning. We called the wall “the creative wall” because we needed to create something for it. We wanted it to be somewhat functional and have a purpose to it. At some point we decided on a living wall, and it became the most talked-about design feature in the space.

GC: It’s like a living art piece!

TH: [The green wall] created a lot of color and a sense of life in the space. It also does have really good acoustic-absorption properties as well, and it breaks up the bar area and dining room really nicely.

GC: Tell us more about the plants you are using in the vertical garden.

TH: We have a variety of different plants, because they have to be a certain size to fit the pockets and ideally they are cascading plants, because it’s a felt-pocket system made from from recycled plastic bottles. Each plant sits in an individual pocket.

I moved in and just couldn’t understand where the good food was. I mean, this is New York City, every neighborhood has good food but this neighborhood, for some reason, had nothing.

Meanwhile, the whole wall has a built-in irrigation system that comes on two times a day. And on the opposite site you can see those theatre lights that are grow lights, which are also set on a timer. They come on in the morning and shine for six hours with really bright halogen light.

GC: That makes sense, because I imagine the space would be too dark for flowers– yet the piece looks totally healthy!

TH: They need a little bit of maintenance, so once a month we look for dry or dying plants and replace them, but for the most part it is pretty self-sufficient. We did originally want it to be a bit more functional and grew herbs, but we found that they wouldn’t last as long as we wanted.

GC: Do you get a lot of different feedback from customers?

ER: Yes, whenever we are taking customers to their table we get comments. It is a successful installation because it’s cool and different. Nowadays you do see the design popping up here and there, but I do think we were one of the first restaurants to have it.

GC: Do you garden at home?

ER: I am growing some tomatoes and I have a little herb garden, but I want to do even more and have plans of getting a green house– they are actually not that expensive and I have space for it. With the restaurant, we did what we could in terms of creating nature. Even that window over there [Rosenberg points to a verdant strip outside the glass] some people think there is a garden and ask to sit outside.

The Farm-to-Table movement is also big for us. FoodINK had just come out around the time that we opened, and it opened my eyes and definitely influenced Colonie. Our chef Andrew Whitcomb actually just recently won the Rising Star Chef Award for Sustainability. That was really special for him, and for us, and as a restaurant it’s important to be acknowledged for taking this matter very seriously. The industrial farming industry is such a nasty scene.

ER: Winning that award was an honor, as it was part of our concept from day one: it showed people how serious we are about this topic. [And the results, Garden Collage would like to point out, speak for themselves.]

The Rising Star Sustainability Chef Award celebrates a chef who has placed sustainability at the heart of his/her culinary philosophy, who works to embody and manifest that philosophy through every aspect of his/her culinary program, and is recognized as a leader in sustainability in his/her community.

Check out the community’s impressions of Colonie, below.

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