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Talking pies with Emily Elsen

Posted July 20, 2015

Timeless: independent of time; eternal; ageless. In other words – pie.

In a city where culinary fads are amass and restaurant doors close as fast as they open, it can be a tough task to seek out the simple in New York. But for sisters Emily and Melissa Elsen of Four & Twenty Blackbirds, this was a vital component to their burgeoning pie business. The key ingredient? Humility.

The girls grew up in South Dakota where their mom ran the local restaurant and their dad was a farmer. Making pies was an activity that started with their Grandma – rolling out dough and chopping fruit in her kitchen. Over a decade later and life at Four & Twenty Blackbirds wasn’t all that different. “In our early days we were making pies in our home kitchen and personally driving them to people. Like hand delivering them on Christmas Eve morning or Thanksgiving,” Emily said.

After a solid year making and transporting pies themselves, the pair felt confident they had a product that was well received, and a fledgling business idea. Take a look at the main Brooklyn location in Gowanus on a typical day now, and things look vastly different. Emily and Melissa can be found in their actual offices, chirpy cooks are milling around in the 3000 square foot production kitchen pumping our hundreds of pies a day, and you’ll likely run into visitors that have come from as far afield as Shanghai and Alaska for a famous slice of pie.

We chatted with Emily about the changing face of her Brooklyn home, why pies are awesome and where else to eat in her favorite city in the world.

So growing up in South Dakota. How was that?

It’s very different from New York City! When we were growing up there were only about 400 people who lived there. Our mum ran the local restaurant and our dad was a local farmer. Everyone knew everyone and there was a lot of community support. You can totally compare it to like one block in Brooklyn. The way that each community is like block by block, and everyone knows each other and looks out for each other. And it was also super mellow and laid back.

Now that you’re living the big city life, do you even miss that sense of calm?

I do somewhat. I mean, I’m naturally more of an energetic kind of go go go person, you know? I’ve been here since I was 18. I wouldn’t change living in a city for anything. But the thing I miss the most is the quiet. As I’m getting older, the noisiness of the city is kind of starting to get to me – there is literally never silence. But other than that, I’m not a slow mellow person by any means.

Um, you are too young to be using the phrase ‘as I’m getting older.’

Laughs. Well ok, ok. Maybe it’s New York City then. I’ve been here 15 years and I’m comparing myself to those that have been here like a year, and they seem so fresh and energetic! And you just feel like saying to them, ‘give it ten years and see how you’re doing.’

Can you remember back to when you first moved here? What was so alluring about New York City?

You know, I actually fell in love with Brooklyn. I was applying to art school and I felt like if I was going to study art, it had to be in New York. I think a lot of people feel that way – it’s one of the greatest cities in the world for art. But it was Brooklyn that I loved when I got here. It felt so neighborhoody and it was close to the city without being overwhelmed by buildings and concrete. There were trees and small streets and it felt approachable to me.

When you moved to Brooklyn, did you ever imagine you’d be running a successful pie business?

No way, I never thought it would get so much support. A big part of it was my sister Melissa moving here and wanting to start a business together. I wouldn’t have done it on my own. We both found we had gravitated back to making food as a creative expression. She studied business and finance, but she was very creative as well. I was heavily involved in the art scene at the time, but we still felt that making food – a product that was consumable – really spoke to us. There are a bunch of creative processes that are involved in a food business.

Gowanus is kinda off the beaten track. How did you identify it as the neighborhood for you?

Well, we figured it was still on the edge. It was post industrial and up-and-coming and there was a need for a place for coffee and gathering and that sort of thing. We’ve slowly scaled the business up to the stage where we have a 3000 square foot production kitchen, and eventually plan to have a cafe and other aspects to it. And right now I’m talking to you from my office – I have an office now. When I think back to when I first started coming down here, it was really quiet then. We could kind of do whatever we wanted – we had big parties and did all these crazy things and nobody was really paying any attention. But even in 2010 when we built the shop, people were still wondering what we were doing.

What was Brooklyn like 15 years ago?

Brooklyn was so, so different then. People were only just starting to say ‘oh, Brooklyn’s getting cool.’ And I was all like, ‘what, really?’ Because it was a time when people were telling me not to go to Bed-Stuy in case I got shot. I’ve lived in Crown Heights for like 8 years now, but back then I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable here. I would have stuck out like a sore thumb. The gentrification and changes have been pretty dramatic.

What do you find particularly inspiring about Brooklyn?

Honestly, for me it has always been the diversity of Brooklyn that’s inspired me. I’ve always been extremely inspired by the mix of people and culture here. It’s so different from where I come from and everybody works together. And if you’re from Brooklyn, you’d never say you’re from New York. Brooklyn pride is real. But I mean each borough has it’s vibe.

Do you feel like each neighborhood’s vibe is reflected in its food culture?

Absolutely! I mean, look at Chinatown. And Bushwick has super great Hispanic food! And here in Gowanus, the food businesses are really creative.

Where are some of your favorite places to eat, drink, party and hang in the city?

Oh boy, oh boy, that’s hard. But I can do it, I can think. Ok – Franny’s or Prime Meats is where you’ll find me for eats. Smith Canteen for coffee. And Estela in Manhattan for something a little Fancy. And then either the Reynard at the Wythe Hotel for a night out.

View the full list here.

By Ali Francis. For Supper.

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