The brothers Max and Eli Sussman live together in an apartment in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This statement could quite easily be the first line of a new Wes Anderson movie. The guys even look the part. But it’s not a new Wes Anderson movie. As much as you could imagine an Alec Baldwin voiceover proclaiming every mundane detail of the Sussmans’ lives, you are relegated to reality. No Kinks-heavy soundtrack, no Mark Mothersborough score, not a Wilson brother in sight. And if truth isn’t somehow stranger than fiction, at least it’s a better chef. Bill Clinton is probably a better cameo than Ben Stiller anyways.
The Sussman boys don’t exactly shun their ‘darlings of the indie-chef brooklyn hipster food scene or whatever you want to call it’ status, but at the end of the day they’re just a couple of siblings who really like to make great food. We had originally just intended to drop by Max and Eli’s pad to raid their fridge, yet as things usually go, we got sidetracked when we started talking about fishing, Hebrew camp and all sorts of other shit.
Jeff Jetton: Do you guys fish?
Max Sussman: We went fishing once as kids. It was fun.
Jeff: Where did you guys grow up?
Max: We’re from Michigan.
Jeff: From Michigan and you don’t fish? How far from Lake Michigan were you?
Eli Sussman: Not super close. It’s probably like a four-hour drive or something like that. Our camp that we went to while we were growing up, do you know Michigan at all? It’s like, close to the Indiana border. During the summer, we would always go with our family to Lake Michigan for like a week, and we would then go to our summer camp. So we would always be on the west side of the state. But Detroit is fully on the other side of the state.
Jeff: Is that like Hebrew camp, or…
Eli: Yeah. It was Jewish camp. It wasn’t like super-Jewish camp. It’s weird, every Jewish kid goes to summer camp. It’s just a thing. I don’t know why.
Jeff: It’s Yom Kippur today, right? So you guys can’t eat?
Eli: Actually, I already ate pork today. Please don’t write that.
Jeff: Oh yeah, that’s going in the article. Your mom’s going to read that. You’re a terrible Jew.
Eli: Max went to John Brown Smokehouse last night, and he brought me some back. When I got back this morning, I was out last night, and I went in the fridge and ate some pork.
Jeff: Tsk tsk. So which one of you works at Roberta’s?
Jeff: Bill Clinton was there the other day, right? How was that?
Max: It was cool. It was really fun. I mean, they were attending a birthday party. They bought the whole restaurant for somebody’s birthday.
Jeff: Who’s they?
Max: All three of them. Bill, Hilary, Chelsea, Chelsea’s husband…
Jeff: They’re still together, Bill and Hillary?
Eli: I don’t think they live together. Maybe they spend one day a month in the same….
Jeff: They probably don’t even sleep in the same bed, to be honest.
Max: They’re just married because it would have been worse publicity for their careers to divorce, basically.
Jeff: They probably have separate twin beds that they sleep in.
Max: They love each other so much. (laughs)
Max: It was weird, actually. As soon as Bill Clinton comes in a room you don’t really see anybody else. I think he was literally standing next to Chelsea and Hilary, and then he puts his hand out to shake yours, and you don’t even know what’s going on. It’s really weird. Even if you’re not a person who’s star struck, you see him on TV, you’re the president, you know what I mean? It doesn’t matter who is standing next to him.
Jeff: Did you read the article that the Clintons are hipsters, or something like that?
Max: Yeah, there’s some goofy shit in the New York Post. It’s funny because they were actually talking, we snuck out of the kitchen and listened to their toast, and they were talking about it the whole time. Like “Oh my god, we feel so cool, because we’re in Brooklyn right now.”
Jeff: That’s not cool. So how long have you been at Roberta’s?
Max: Two and a half years. I moved to New York almost three years ago, on January first and I started at Roberta’s in the spring, around May or June, something like that.
Jeff: And you’re at…
Eli: Mile End.
Jeff: Tell me about Mile End.
Eli: Mile End is a Jewish style Montreal delicatessen. So it is a reinterpretation of a classic Jewish deli, but the guy that owns it with his wife, is from Montreal. And Montreal has a distinct style of meat, which is smoked meat. So it’s brisket, similar to corned beef, similar to pastrami. Somewhere a little bit else in that realm, and that’s what we’ve made our name on from the beginning. That and poutine.
Jeff: So you guys do poutine?
Eli: Yeah, we do.
Jeff: And have you spent time in Montreal, or?
Eli: I have never been. No not yet.
Jeff: So how did you school yourself on Montreal cooking?
Eli: Well, I didn’t. Which just means I got schooled by working there, which I suppose is the exact equivalent of working at an Italian restaurant and never going to Italy. I mean, you can learn everything by absorbing what’s going on around you; I’d love to go to Montreal. Luckily, it’s not a pre-requisite for working there. I’d say it’s much more an homage, or re-imagining of a New York style delicatessen than it has to do even with Montréal. To be honest. It borrows a lot of things from classic places, but it’s a deli. It’s a Jewish deli, yeah. It’s awesome.
Jeff: So who could win in a fight? 12-year-old Eli or 12-year-old Max? What’s the age difference?
Eli: It wouldn’t matter. I couldn’t beat him. Never. Here’s the weird thing. I was always like pretty athletic, and I always feel like I’m in good shape, and max never really did anything. It’s older brother strength. That’s locked into DNA, I think. We used to always fuck around when we were younger. We would wrestle, I don’t know. There would always be rough housing in the house. I don’t think I’ve ever won.
Jeff: So is there competitiveness in your guys’ cooking now?
Eli: I would say yes and no but that’s not what we’re about at all.
Max: Yeah, that’s not really what characterizes us.
Eli: It’s more like we share in each others successes but we also…we’re competitive in the sense that we both want each other to do really well, but we both want ourselves to do very well.
Jeff: You’re like the Venus and Serena of the New York culinary world. Do either of you know how to Crip Walk?
Eli: We never really compare ourselves to each other in terms of cooking styles or what we’re currently doing, because he’s at such a different level than I am, professionally. But yeah, there’s definitely been some good-natured shit-talking about brunch. Because both of our places are so popular that there’s always some talking about that. Obviously Roberta’s is a longer wait…When I used to work brunch at Mile End, I’d be like Mile End’s brunch is way better than your brunch. And then Max started working brunch, so that was convenient. How he got really into Roberta’s brunch after that.
Jeff: Are you biting his style?
Max: No. We definitely have our own styles. But it doesn’t matter, because at the places we work, we each do different things. You can compare them, but it’s kind of pointless. It’s not like we’re each working at rival pizzerias.
Eli: And I’m not in charge, so it’s really completely different.
Max: But also we’re doing dinners together and stuff, and it’s like, you just try and come up with a menu that’s going to work with us.
Eli: When I help Max at Roberta’s with his backyard garden party dinner series, I’m very much his employee. But when we do dinners here, when we do something at Tasting Table, it’s really a full-on 50-50 collaboration. I mean, when we do stuff together and we do stuff with the book, I get as much say. But when I work for him, I’m just like anybody else. I’m working for him. You know? And if I have something to say I’ll definitely like whisper it. I’m not going to say it in front of a bunch of people just because I’m his brother. That’s the hierarchy of the kitchen. i don’t want to overstep my bounds, you know.
Jeff: Tell me about the book. I bought it the other day, I was at a Naomi Wolf—she was speaking at some bookstore in Brooklyn, and I saw it, I didn’t know who you guys were. And I didn’t know anything about it, but I was listening to her speak and she was really boring, so I started flipping through your book, which was sitting out, and I was like ‘this is awesome’. I bought it and got home and I was like Roberta’s!
Eli: That’s great, that’s exactly what we want out of it…I would ask you right now why did you pick it up? I’m just curious, what drew you into it?
Jeff: To be honest, it was within reach.
Eli: That’s a fair answer, but I mean if there were like eight other books within reach…
Jeff: There were, there were. I did judge a book by its cover.
Eli: When we first set out to write a cookbook, from the very beginning we had a very lear-cut idea of what we wanted this cookbook to be. We wanted it to be a very useful tool, but also something that appealed to people around our age that are really interested in food. So not necessarily people who cook every single night, and not necessarily people who only go out to dinner every single night, but all those people and everything in between. People that are just very interested in some capacity of the food world right now. And we are hoping that we could convince them to cook a couple things out of our cookbook. So it’s set up sort of a little bit in the style of a graphic novel, that’s the layout. It’s very visual with a mixture of illustration and words, anecdotes, and a lot of pictures. And we’re hoping that that’ll draw people in enough that they’re gonna cook from it. people with short attention spans, we’re hoping to keep them interested with the layout, and with the content.
Jeff: From the beginning, you wanted the graphic novel style.
Eli: The art director tried to explain to us over a phone call visually and she said have you ever seen a graphic novel, how the panels move you but there’s a lot more going on just than a normal comic book, right? They move out of the panels a lot in graphic novels, and there are full pages and things like that, and to help us kind of wrap our head around the idea of what it could be, and then we just filled in all the space with our words. We got a wonderful photographer named alex farnum out of san Francisco, who deserves a lot of credit because he shot it all in natural light, and he shot it pretty slam-bang, so max and I cooked this stuff, styled it, and then he just went with it pretty quickly. And I believe the style of photography is a little bit less composed than a lot of what you’ll see in cookbooks right now. And we think that that appeals to people as well. because it looks more like you can do what’s in a cookbook than in a lot of other cookbooks out there. And that’s on purpose.
Jeff: I noticed a lot of the pictures, are those your friends?
Max: We shot everything over a course of a week. We cooked everything in this space that had like two burners. You had to cook it all and bring it over there. There were two parts where we really wanted to bring out the idea of using food to entertain, and cooking a dinner party for your friends. So we literally just called all of them and said hey, do you want to have a dinner party at 9 in the morning on a Thursday? And you’ll eat everything that we cook you very very slowly and you’re gonna have a really good time. So people showed up for both of the
Eli: We did one dinner party at an actual real time, and people actually drank beers and hung out and it was great, and then we did another one that was really early in the morning, and then we made them eat like pork and roasted root vegetables at ten in the morning. The taco party was later on in the day. It was at a realistic hour.
Max: So it was just everyone we knew who didn’t have normal jobs, and could come out.
Jeff: All your unemployed friends.
Eli: The idea behind that wasn’t just to have some pretty people in the book which is nice, but it’s to lend it a sense of authenticity, of actually hanging out with our friends. and there are a lot of cookbooks that are just like recipe, picture, recipe, picture.
Max: And we wanted to move as far away from that as we could. And so within the physical copy, we do that by showing them real peoples’ faces, and not just showing close-ups of the dish. And showing the tables from a little bit far away to show you that part of this cookbook is about entertaining. And then the digital book, we take that step further and we have videos and some voice-overs, that sort of helps you continue down that path of realizing that this isn’t just a take it at very much face value …
Jeff: And how did the cookbook even come up in the first place? Did someone approach you?
Max: This is our second bookt aht we wrote together. We wrote a book five years ago.
Eli: it came out in 2008.
Max: That was similar to this, but the techniques were a lot more rudimentary.
Eli: It was very much an intro-level cookbook. This is the evolution of our cooking styles, and techniques, and skills. So it’s at a higher level.
Max: I was working at a really fancy restaurant, and he was working at a diner, essentially. And we were like “let’s meet in the middle and make a book that people can understand, we’ll bring the highbrow to the lowbrow.” And it was a little bit more like that. So this is kind of our ideas about food involved, and now it’s less about that distinction and more just about good food.
Jeff: How did you guys get into cooking in the first place?
Eli: It’s been a cooking family. Our mom is an artist, and her studio is connected to our house, it’s in back of our house. So she works at home. So a big part of—and our dad’s a lawyer, so he has an office. So we would all meet at the table, and talk about our days, which honestly doesn’t happen very much. I think even happens very much less now than 15 years ago when we lived at home. It was always a tough priority in our family to be there, and eat a real meal together. So we always had food being cooked int eh house, and we always grew up being around these big kind of Jewish-y brunch celebrations, which is a huge part of our family. So almost every type of interaction with our family is rooted in coming over for some meal.
Max: Our dad made bread, he made Challah every week, which is the traditional Jewish bread. It was like his thing. So both our parents were really interested in food. They kind of made it part of our upbringing. So it was kind of in our heads, and when we each moved out, we ended up getting cooking jobs because we both like food there.
Jeff: Did you guys do culinary school?
Max: No, we both went to normal school.
Jeff: That seems to be a trend these days, chefs coming from a variety of backgrounds, but definitely not cooking school.
Max: It’s weird, because at the same time you have that, more and more people are going to culinary school. I think you obviously learn a lot, but at the same time people who come out of culinary school, they almost know next to nothing. Once you get into a real kitchen, everything is different. All the things you took for granted are kind of like thrown out the window. You learn a lot of the history, you learn some foundations and stuff, and then you get to the real world and…
Eli: Without going to culinary school, I’d say it’s just like anything else that you could possibly study in college. You spend all these years studying you get your degree, and then your first job, you’re probably not really prepared for what it’s like to be in a x professional working environment, whatever it can be.
If you get a communications degree and then you work at like a TV station, are you really gonna be ready for everything that you’re going to do there? I don’t know. You know? I have an international relations degree. If I had gone into work in politics, would I be ready for everything that happens? No. but that’s why people go to college, people go to culinary school to get that great background. But max is right, everything that I learned everything currently at my job at Mile End, I honestly don’t know if it would have helped me if I had gone to culinary school. I still would have to learn it the same way.
Jeff: And what did you study in college? (To max)
Max: I studied American studies. Basically, I went to school for a while, and then realized that I was never going to graduate so I met with the guidance counselor and asked him what credits I had the most of. And he was like well you could do this! But actually it was really interesting, people who I was with in that program, had super varied interests and went on to be like all kinds of really wide-ranging things. So I feel really good, really lucky that I got such a well-rounded education.
Here’s to hoping one or both of the Sussman brothers learn to Crip Walk: