Max and Eli Sussman: "No One Asked Us to Open a Restaurant, but Someone Asked Us to Write a Cookbook"
The Best Cookbook Ever
Most chefs who put out a cookbook do it after they've run a restaurant for awhile, and then they often turn out a memoir that ends up serving more as a coffee table souvenir than as a recipe book. The Sussman brothers did it backward. Max was sous chef at Roberta's until earlier this year, and Eli helms Mile End, but neither has been working in restaurants long enough to put out that kind of account.
That hasn't stopped them from penning two catalogues of recipes -- This is a Cookbook and just-released The Best Cookbook Ever -- which, they say, are meant to be on the opposite side of the spectrum from those stylized collections from big-name chefs: These are useful guides in the kitchen, meant to be dog-eared and splattered, whether you're an amateur or an expert in the kitchen.
The brothers grew up in Michigan with a food-loving family, and they both found their love for the industry -- and for providing instruction to new cooks -- at their old summer camp, where Max ran the kitchen for a couple of summers and Eli worked as his assistant. During that time, Max worked hard to bring the dining program in line with the ideals of the camp, buying local and sustainable ingredients and enlisting campers to help cook from scratch.
After that, the brothers' paths diverged, and they took separate routes to New York kitchens: Max moved here four years ago after working his way up the ranks in restaurants in Ann Arbor; Eli abandoned a Los Angeles office job when he realized he was spending all of his spare time cooking and all of his expendable money on food.
When Eli landed in Williamsburg, his brother was already the sous chef at Roberta's. Eli started trailing in kitchens, and Mile End spoke to him immediately. He joined the team, working his way up to sous chef there. Max left Roberta's earlier this year to focus on his own project.
In this interview, the guys talk about an upbringing that put food at the center of their lives, the Brooklyn brand, and repeating mistakes on their second cookbook.
The Best Cookbook Ever
Tell me your story. How is it that you both ended up in food? Max: Our family was food-centric. There was always a lot of cooking going on, and we never had a microwave, either, which caused us to cook from an early age just to heat things up. Our mom cooked dinner every night, and our dad baked challah every Friday night and had a couple of dishes he knew how to make, like roasted chicken. Eli: He makes a really good lamb stew. Our family is geographically very close, so that helps as well. We spent a lot of family time together. A lot of big families do holidays together, but we did weekly dinners. Our aunts on our mom's side live in the same neighborhood, and our grandparents don't live that far away. It was very common to have 15 people at a dinner, and it wasn't for anything special. Max: It was always a potluck -- whoever's house we were at would do the big stuff, and people would bring over dessert or a salad. Eli: Our aunts were also mean bakers. On Passover, our mom cooks for three days, and you can either help move heavy things like the tables, or you can help out in the kitchen. So we helped out in the kitchen.
How did you start doing this professionally? Max: I didn't start cooking professionally until I was in college. We went to the same summer camp. That was my first cooking job -- I was 18. The head guy threw out his back, and they were like, could you come help out in the kitchen for a few weeks? I really liked it. I ended up spending the whole summer inside under fluorescent lights cooking huge pots of spaghetti. I was hooked from that point. I like the idea of there being this whole world of food out there; there was so much to learn. I started to work in restaurants, and I never got bored. Eli: I worked a fast food job, and I did it because it was close to our house. I also worked with Max at our summer camp. Max was the head chef, and I was assistant in the kitchen. And we were the only people with professional experience working in the kitchen. Max wanted to phase out frozen items and use local ingredients to match the ideals of the camp. Max: There was this idea there that the kitchen was separate, and we tried to make the kitchen part of daily life. That's also what we try to do with the book -- to make cooking exciting and accessible. Eli: That camp informed our ability to write cookbooks more than working professionally, eating in any country, or living in NYC. We'd have a group of 10-year-olds, and you could see that they were learning to do something, and we loved it. We were teaching people to interact with the food.
When did you come to New York? Max: I came going on four years ago. I'd been cooking in Ann Arbor, and felt like I really needed a bigger challenge. I didn't really know what I wanted, but I knew I needed to be somewhere else. New York is the obvious destination if you want to cook: There's a community of people involved in food that you can talk to and share ideas with or just eat their food. [Meanwhile,] Eli was in LA not cooking doing an office job and kind of hating it. Eli: Yeah, I was totally unhappy. I saw what Max was doing, and I wanted to be doing that. I'd been doing this one-foot-in-one-foot-out thing with food stuff in LA. I was involved with Share Our Strength, so I had a lot of interaction with chefs. I was spending all my free time cooking and all my money going out to restaurants. I kept asking Max what to do, and Max is pretty blunt. He was like, "You are annoying me so much. You have to just do it already." So I think, OK, I'll give it a shot, and if worse comes to worst, I can go live with my parents or go back to LA where I probably have a job. Max helped me put together a list of people I could speak with; Mile End was the first place I trailed. I loved everything about it; it made perfect sense, and I decided there was no reason to look elsewhere. Max basically told me, if you're learning something and the people are good and you get treated well, you can't get a better job cooking -- rarely do cooking jobs satisfy even half of those requirements. I'm a million times happier making significantly less money than I was in LA. Knew immediately into my trail that I was going to stay.
Max, do you want to freestyle a bit on the Roberta's legacy? Max: For me personally, it will stand as being one of the most amazing experiences I've ever worked, and not just career-wise but as an amazing place to be and work. It felt like a super special place, and it was amazing to be surrounded by people who are doing what they're doing out of passion -- it showed me that can work. I felt lucky to be there during that time. It was this weirdly assembled group of insanely talented people, and everything there was made through blood, sweat, and tears. What I took from that place was the ability of a bunch of people to put their heads together and make something really special. Eli: I think it will be crazy in 20 years to look at the Roberta's family and see what people have moved on to do and see the vast array of talent that in a short period of time has passed through the doors. It's a unique place, and people are trying to replicate it now. Max: It's very different from most restaurants, which are hierarchical and top-down, and if you have an idea, don't tell anyone. At Roberta's, there is this environment to try something new, whether it's a new dish, new way of doing things, or a new system of communications. Maybe it will go through a few iterations, maybe it will fall by the wayside, but you can jump into that process. The menu was a collaborative process: If a dish worked, it went on the menu. If it didn't, no hard feelings, maybe we'll come back to it. He allowed that to happen while maintaining the standard.
The Best Cookbook Ever
Roberta's and Mile End are integral parts of what has sort of become the Brooklyn brand. How have things evolved out here? What is Brooklyn's place in the culinary world? Eli: It's hard to speak for my boss, but before he opened Mile End, it wasn't like he was the chef or GM of a restaurant -- he was in law school, and then he had a great idea and an awesome product, and he just went for it. It was a combination of having a really great idea, being in the right place right time, and working really hard. I don't know if it's the Brooklyn way; it's the small business American way that people have forgotten about. It's a nostalgic return to working with your hands. It's become a Brooklynized idea, but that's because you have a lot of people with great ideas that are forced to work really hard in the pressure cooker of New York City. Max: I think anywhere where rent is a little less, it lets people do things that are a little more risky. Some of those outliers turn out really well, and some of those risky things fail.
Are we still seeing things like Mile End and Roberta's come out of this area or has the moment passed? Is there still room for creativity? Max: Everyone's always gonna say the good old days were last week and the future looks horrible. But the first thing I learned about New York is that it's always changing. So I don't think it's a case of there's no more room for creativity Eli: There's not only room, but there's physically room. People always say everything's been tapped. But there are plenty of warehouses to open a company or do something creative in Brooklyn.
Tell me about the new book. Eli: It's an evolution of This is a Cookbook. We preserved the things from the first one that made it successful: accessibility based on tone, and the recipes are things that you could cook. Most people want things that come out looking and tasting good, but they don't want to spend several days and 50 ingredients to get there. Max: We tried to fill in the gap with recipes. There's a vegetarian chapter, seafood, and hors d'oeuvres. Eli: We're really looking at this as a cookbook for entertainment purposes. This is about cooking with friends and having them over. Dishes are slightly larger format. They're good for sharing at a family-style potluck. We're centering this book around the idea of getting people together.
Any lessons from the first book that applied to the second? Was this one easier to write? Max: Oh no, we made exactly the same mistakes. LIke every single one. We said, "We're going to plan every recipe out, do our shopping at once, test in an orderly fashion, and not wait until the last minute and make a million trips to the store." And we did all of those things. Eli: We waited longer to start this one, and we also tested more recipes in a shorter period of time. There was a three-day span where we tested 18 recipes.
You did this sort of backwards. Why do the cookbook before you have your own restaurant? Eli: Well, no one asked us to open a restaurant, but someone asked us to write a cookbook. Max: That's the most straightforward answer. But because it's not a restaurant cookbook, it's more useful. It doesn't tell our life story -- it's a light-hearted book. We have a lot of restaurant cookbooks, and they're amazing. But since we didn't have to write a memoir, well... Eli: We got to fill the pages with recipe. Max: It's also not as grand a format as those books. Those are art books or coffee table books -- this is smaller; you can carry it around, and it's not so expensive that if you spill something on it while you're cooking you're going to feel like an ass hole. It's not like, "Oh, no, I spilled guar gum on my Noma cookbook! This is so terrible!" Eli: Do you think anyone's going to spill guar gum on our cookbook? Max: Probably not. Maybe olive oil. Eli: When people pick up cookbooks, they say, "I could never make that." We made everything look like they could wrap their head around it.
What do you guys want to do from here? Max: My goal is to have a place where we can cook good food and have people come and hang out sometimes. Eli: My long-term goal is to have my own place, and I have a very specific idea as to what I want it to be with the menu and vibe. But right now, my main goal is to make Mile End on Hoyt the best that it can possibly be. We changed the concept there, and we have a changing, rotating menu and an amazing beer-heavy beverage program. This is my first opportunity to be in charge, and I'm really relishing it. I'm much more focused on that than anything else.
Where do you go for a beer or a cocktail? Eli: I drink whiskey. Noorman's Kil. Max: Yeah, that's a good place. For beer, you kind of have to go to Torst. That's a crazy place.
Best spot for late night eats: Eli: Kellogg's Diner. I'll sit by myself and it will be so weird. There are awesome people at a 24-hour diner always, but it's especially good late at night during the week. And I get a turkey club, and it's average, and I eat it, and I'm happy, and I go home. Max: You're also doing something silly if you're not getting a taco from a taco truck past a certain point. Eli: Oh yeah. The Bedford taco truck is really solid. Max: And the one off Lorimer.
Best spot for a hangover cure: Max: Roberta's. Not that they need more business at brunch, but it's really a good brunch. They have everything you want to eat, but pretend you don't. Eggs with bacon, ham, and chorizo, and also pizza. Why would you not go? Eli: Mile End. The smoked meat hash is the best brunch food ever. Also, if I'm hungover, I'm definitely at work.
Best neighborhood joint: Max: Fritzl's Lunch Box. A great restaurant for the neighborhood. Everyhitng takes great. Dan really cares and he's cooking most of the time. REally cares about making sure you have a good time. Great prices, specials, other stuff, great chicken sandwich. Eli: St. Anselm is my favorite restaurant in New York.
Who would you most like to cook for you? Eli: Like in the world, ever? I will choose Charlie Trotter. I was never at the restaurant, and that opportunity is no longer. Everything that I've read recently in terms of his influence makes me sad that I never had the opportunity to visit that restaurant. Also, Yotam Ottolenghi because Jerusalem and Plenty are two of the greatest cookbooks I've ever seen.
Who would you most like to cook for? Eli: It's definitely not a chef. Max: Chefs are the worst. Eli: My family, I think. We cooked for our cousin's wedding, and that was really fun. So our next cousin's wedding. Max: Great. You just signed us up for our next cousin's wedding. You just gave us away for free. She asked you if you could cook for anyone, who would it be, and you said our cousins, which means we're definitely going to have to do that.
Dish you could eat forever: Max: I feel like I could eat ma po tofu forever. I hope to. Eli: A perfectly cooked hanger steak. Really, really crappy orange chicken from really bad to-go Chinese places -- that's my guilty pleasure. Shawarma. Really good shawarma is pretty tricky to find, but it's my favorite sandwich.
What's the hardest thing about working in NYC restaurant industry? Max: There's so much going on. You're doing your absolute best, but it's challenging because there are a lot of other people doing that. Eli: You can put in so much time, but everyone's putting in so much time. Everyone is working hard. It can feel like you're not doing that. So you do more. It never feels done. You think you get to a good place, and that's the day the ceiling starts leaking and someone quits.
How did you find time to write two cookbooks while working in restaurants? Max: This Is a Cookbook was written when I was neck deep in Roberta's and Eli was not as deep in Mile End. Eli: I did a lot more of the initial first drafts of things. I did a lot of the heavy lifting on the first one to get it shaped. And on this, Max did a lot of the lifting because he's working on his own restaurant project, and I've become significantly busier. He did a lot of the testing. Testing was not a 50-50 split on this one.
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