Emily Harris belongs to the millennial generation, frequently defined as a generation of complainers. Nothing could be less true of this twenty-nine year old American, born and raised in Detroit that abandoned her former life as a violist and set out alone, to end up working in some of the world’s top restaurants. Just to mention a few: Eleven Madison Park and Nomad in New York, Maeemo in Oslo, Alinea in Chicago. A densely packed and complicated trajectory – partly recounted by the tattoos on her arms – which took her to the Hiša Franko last year, where she now works as sous chef for Ana Roš, Best Female Chef 2017 for the 50 Best.
How did your career as a chef begin?
Quite simply, I needed a job. I had always studied classical music but when I finished high school I was no longer convinced I wanted to go on to do musical conservatory. I started to work as a waitress in several venues and when I entered the kitchen to replace a member of staff, I immediately realized how much I liked it.You have – quite literally – travelled the world. Can you briefly describe some of the most salient moments?
In Portland I realized that cooking was a serious job and that it could really be a possible career path. I wanted to see how far I could take it: I went to work at the Alinea which opened doors whose existence were totally unknown to me. It was though but I eventually came into contact with the world of chefs, guides and ratings. At that point I decided to come to Europe and figure it out. I managed to get an internship at the Noma: a completely different world I was completely unprepared for. Now, looking back at it, I didn’t have the best approach.
Why do you think your approach was not right?
Young cooks have a lot of things that motivate them. To me, at the very beginning, it was just pure competition. I wanted to be the best and to see what the best was. If I felt someone had done something cool, I wanted to do it too. One of the biggest mistakes in cooking is to believe you can go it alone. When you’re young, you only want to show off, but it’s all about the restaurant as a whole. Looking back at it, how silly I was!
What took you to Slovenia?
At some point I felt lost and I didn’t know if I was motivated by the right things anymore. A friend of mine, who knows Ana from the first Gelinaz, advised me go and work with her. I arrived at the Hiša Franko one year ago. Ana has changed my entire approach to cuisine. At first, she teased me: I kept saying “It can’t be done” and she would reply “Why?”. If anything frightens her, Ana goes out of her way to challenge it. She doesn’t allow herself to be confined and sees everything as being an opportunity rather than a constraint. Then, she personally cooks all of the staff meals: where else would that happen? She’s the coolest!
Are there any similarities between food and music?
Everyone imagines chefs as being big, bulky, lively and noisy but in actual fact we are very vulnerable. If you do something you are passionate about and have invested a lot in, every criticism and failure hurts a lot. Music is the same. However, the vibes conveyed by this work are addictive, and the bond you create with others is a very strong one. This industry creates families.
How would you define your cuisine?
I was born in South Korea and was adopted when I was very young but, as my mother says, I have cooking in my blood. I’ve loved Korean food from a very early age and I felt I had a bond with it even though it is not normally the sort of food kids like, being quite strong and pungent. In general, I am always super inspired when I get to Asia, it is there that I have always eaten the things I like best and that’s what I like to cook: big bowls of noodles, bibimbap, taco, very simple and delicious things.
What do you think the future holds for you?
When you receive all the support I get from Ana, you feel free to make decisions you would never have made otherwise. But right now I’m interested in what I’m doing and I’m enjoying it a lot.
Clare Smyth, Hélène Darroze and Nieves Barrágan Mohacho are just a few of the women recognised in CODE Hospitality's annual round-up of influential women creating positive change in the industry. See the list.