Max and Eli Sussman are brothers who aren’t afraid about “fucking up in the kitchen.” Born and raised in Michigan, they’ve gone on to open two culinary empires in Manhattan, Roberta’s and Mile End, respectively. Here, the two shed some light on their views on Brooklyn cuisine and the motive behind their recent cookbook This is a Cookbook.
Life+Times: Your motto is “Get into the kitchen. Use what’s in there. And don’t be worried about f’ing it up.” Do you have any kitchen horror stories?
Max: Everyone who has cooked for a long time has definitely made a ton of mistakes, there’s just no way around it. The things you expect of others as a chef, you need to be able to relate not only how to do it right but also how to not do it wrong, and it definitely helps if you’ve done it wrong before so that you know how to really explain it to someone. If only there was a dramatic horror story moment that you can look back on and say “that was the last big mistake I ever made.” But really it’s just a long process of making smaller and smaller mistakes as you go on, getting better and refining technique and getting better at tasting food.
Eli: There are plenty of days when things are going really wrong and one mistake can lead to more and those days are awful and you hope they never happen again. I’ve messed up sauces before service and burned myself badly during service. But it’s real life and everyone has bad days where shit falls apart. The best thing to do is to remember those bad days and keep them in the back of your mind at all times. Once you make a mistake once, don’t make that mistake again. That’s learning and cooking is all about learning because you can never know everything about cooking. It’s an unmasterable subject which is why cooking is so amazing. We’re trying to convey that you will make mistakes and that’s ok because we’ve made all those mistakes and more ourselves.
L+T: You’re brothers and cooking partners in crime. Have the two of you always been interested in cooking and becoming chefs?
Max: I’ve always been interested in cooking food but it wasn’t until I started working at eve in Michigan that I wanted to become a chef. I still remember the feeling of tasting the food and looking at the menu and deciding that how to cook good and interesting food was a mystery that I really wanted to dedicate myself to solve.
Eli: I’ve always been interested in food and we wrote our first cookbook while we were still in college. I held cooking jobs off and on but I didn’t start cooking full time professionally until I was 26 so I am pretty late to the game. I lived an entire life in LA with a totally different career in advertising before making the jump to NYC and cooking at Mile End.
L+T: Eli, you’re a line cook at Brooklyn at Mile End Deli. Tell us a little bit about this spot? What’s unique about it?
Eli: Mile End is a Jewish style deli with many traditional Jewish and Montreal dishes. My chef Sam Filloramo has a great ability to reimagine dishes and make them unique and perfect for our clientele. Breakfast and lunch are much more traditional Jewish deli fare with smoked meat hash, bagels and lox and sandwiches. Then at dinner it transforms into a more upscale restaurant with offerings you really can’t find anywhere else in the entire city. We use a lot of schmaltz and there are flavors that take on classic dishes that you may recognize from your grandmother’s cooking, but it always comes together as an entirely brilliant and new version of that classic dish. The smoked meat sandwich draws the tourists and the press praise but it’s what happens at dinner that makes me so exceptionally proud to be a part of the Mile End team.
L+T: How and why did you decide to put forth a book of recipes? Was this something you always wanted to do?
Max: This kind of came about in a response to our friends who were always asking us for tips. We had thought about doing a website or blog but a collection of recipes and instructions on how to cook really basic stuff ended up being our first book. With This is a Cookbook, we decided to take this further, reflecting our further experience but still making it fun and relevant to the home cook.
Eli: We love writing about food and conveying our passion to people who are up until reading our cookbook, reluctant to get into the kitchen and experiment and try new flavors. We have over the years acquired a lot of cooking related skills and we’ve found through our first two books and doing live demos that we also have the ability to teach what we’ve learned to people and that they immediately can put the recipes and techniques in the book into action. The most rewarding thing about writing the books is when people relay back to us that they tried a new recipe with flavors they’d never had and loved it.
L+T: In your book you bring readers more than 60 killer recipes that demystify the cooking process for at-home chefs and pack in tips for how to make life in the kitchen easier and frankly, more fun. What’s the key to fun in the kitchen?
Max: This goes back to the whole idea of making mistakes. It’s going to happen. So don’t worry. Invite your friends over, open some wine or just relax and when the food’s ready it will be ready. People have started taking their relationship to food incredibly seriously, which is good, because it invites a lot of thought and discussion about what you’re eating and where it comes from, and whether this is good for you and the world. But when it comes down to it, it’s a meal. We all have to eat, so just relax and enjoy yourself. Cooking is supposed to be a positive time where people come together and share stories, so remember that.
Eli: Here’s the secret combination – the alcoholic beverage of your choosing, some amazing music blasting and your friends to help out with the cleaning. You should be able to sit back after the meal and put up your feet and soak up a few compliments while somebody else does the dishes.
L+T: There seems to be a big culinary wave coming out of Brooklyn. What are your thoughts on this?
Max: New York is such a crazy vibrant place with a lot of people working on amazing food projects. Brooklyn is great for eating and cooking, and on a fundamental level I think it’s great that people have been centering food in their lives in a much more thoughtful and important way. The new stuff coming out of Brooklyn is just reflective of the huge attention that the food world has gotten in the last five years. It can definitely get a little out of hand at times but at its core it’s just people liking food.
Eli: There has definitely been a ton written about Brooklyn and the attention paid by chefs to details in terms of reverence for the ingredients and trying to push boundaries by using unique hard to find products and pioneering new techniques. But honestly that’s happening all over America and all over the world. Brooklyn has incredible chefs and talented food personalities at every level front-of-house and back-of-house. Obviously this is an interview so we’re part of that media machine but there are tons of other cities doing incredible things in food. When it comes down to it, Brooklyn has incredible food and I love living and working here. But there is so much other great food to experience coming out of other dynamic kitchens around the US.
Eli and Max Sussman’s new book This is a Cookbook is available now.