At Loom, Cortney Burns Weaves Together the Threads of Community

Loom is set to open this spring at the new Tourists hotel.

Cortney Burns
Photo: Kristin Teig

The Houghton Mansion in North Adams, Massachusetts, is haunted. Or at least, that’s the rumor. As Cortney Burns enters the dilapidated home of Albert Charles Houghton, North Adams’ first mayor back in 1895, she greets any lurking spirits with a matter-of-fact “hello.” But the boxes of dried sumac she’s foraged and coriander-root liqueur she’s aging in her test kitchen have already let them know she’s here. “I’m building a larder because that’s what I know to do,” says Burns as we wander through the old house together.

Burns is best known for her larder at Bar Tartine in San Francisco, where she and Nick Balla helmed the kitchen starting in 2011. The two wove together the food of Asia and Eastern Europe; the common thread connecting it all was Burns’ arsenal of handmade flavor-boosters like charred bread powder, furikake, and mushroom vinegar. The famed chicken paprikash punched up with housemade paprika and smoked potatoes tossed in a black-garlic vinaigrette won over critics, and Balla and Burns earned national acclaim and a James Beard Award for their cookbook. “What they were doing was so unlike what anyone else was doing,” says Jonathan Kauffman, San Francisco Chronicle’s food reporter. “Every dish had two or three elements you had never seen before. Sometimes, you’d just go in to see what they were pulling out of their hat.”

In 2016, they closed Bar Tartine. As they started to detangle their cuisines through follow-up projects (Japanese-focused Motze; Duna, dedicated to Central Europe), entrepreneur Scott Stedman called Burns out of the blue, inviting her to check out a project in North Adams. Now here she is, building up a new pantry and taking on the first solo restaurant of her career: Loom, set to open this spring at the new Tourists hotel.

Though she made her name in the Bay Area, Burns has always had a bit of wanderlust. She only got into cooking to fuel her passion for travel, she says, and pursued an undergraduate degree in cultural anthropology and South Asian studies with the goal of “working at National Geographic and being paid to travel the world.” While in college, she lived in India and Nepal, taking notice of who cooked in the household and what street vendors were making wherever she went. “I look at food from an anthropological standpoint,” says Burns. “That’s how I understand a place.” After university, she moved to Australia, picking up a kitchen job to support herself.

Her globe-trotting came to a sudden end on September 11, 2001—her mother encouraged her to come home to Chicago, where she cooked for a while before setting off for California with a mountain bike and no firm plans. Before long, she was back in the kitchen, landing a job at the Parc 55 hotel in San Francisco after working a grueling 14-hour shift. Burns stuck to kitchen work, cooking under Marsha McBride at now-closed Cafe Rouge, then at Quince and Boulettes Larder. After a stint as a private chef in wine country, she met Balla at a Japanese food conference, and the rest, as they say, is San Francisco restaurant history—until Stedman’s invitation to North Adams enticed her to hit the road again.

“We’re on Route 2—the original pleasure road,” says Burns as she drives the three miles from the mansion to our next destination, Tourists. The hotel, which opened last summer, was founded on the site of an old industrial mill by a group that includes Stedman, Wilco bassist John Stirratt, real estate developer Ben Svenson, and five more investors. (The team also purchased other properties around town, including the Houghton Mansion, outbidding a ghost-hunting group). The spare but modern 48-room resort is on 55 acres that include 30 miles of walking trails, a central lodge, and an event space. Despite the name, the goal of Tourists isn’t to draw just visitors to the city but locals, too. “What does it mean to be a tourist in your own town?” Burns muses. Part of the answer lies with her upcoming restaurant.

As we wind our way toward the site, Burns remembers her first visit, two years ago with Stedman. It was right before Balla and Burns shut down Bar Tartine, and she was in the middle of figuring out her next move. After a tour of the property, Burns asked Stedman why he wanted her. He told her something that surprised her. “He said, ‘I don’t feel like you’ve realized your dream,’” she says. “It was pure and honest.” And it was true.

“I’ve always been a maker,” Burns says. “That’s how I clear my head.” As a kid in Chicago, Burns says, she was always creating—she sewed her own clothes if she couldn’t find ones she liked. She learned how to build things with her father and would slip into his workshop if she needed to think. Near the end of Bar Tartine, Burns was creating at a breakneck pace. She cooked for others but barely gave a thought to how she nourished herself. She decided that North Adams, Massachusetts, would be her next workshop. But first she needed to understand its roots.

Burns began working closely with Gene and Justyna Carlson, the North Adams Historical Society’s treasurer and secretary, respectively. As they started putting old community cookbooks in her hands, she started seeing the imprint of many cultures: Irish, French Canadian, Italian, Welsh, Lebanese, Jewish, and Chinese immigrants had all left their mark on North Adams. All of this helped Burns shape her new vision.

Burns and I pull up to the old textile mill on Route 2 where she initially planned to build out her restaurant. At first she wanted a small venue, with just 14 seats and a tasting menu. But as Burns dug into North Adams’ history, she decided on something more inclusive.

“I thought about how people are woven together to create something else, and the idea of weaving all those stories brought me to Loom,” she says. “It’s an exploration of this tapestry of culture, history, and immigration.”

Loom, which will be located across the Hoosic River from the hotel in an old church that once housed the Welsh Temperance Society, will seat 60 and knit together the communities, culture, and food that have shaped North Adams over the years. On the menu, that might look like a sprouted lentil salad with harissa vinaigrette and charred lettuce, or a rose-scented apple cake. “What if the Italians asked to borrow sugar from the neighbor next door, and they got rosewater instead?” Burns wonders aloud. That’s the kind of food she envisions at Loom: “It’s a gathering place, where people break bread and share time.”

These days, leading up to opening Loom, she’s cooking for herself, thinking about what she’s craving and how she can sate others. And she’s building her larder once again, the cornerstone of her cooking, with things she’s foraged for or received from farmers around North Adams. “When I look around, I tell myself, ‘I’m not leaving anytime soon,’” says Burns. “I’m taking it all in, embodying it, and embracing it.”

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