The Brothers Sussman: How Cooking With Family Works

Not long ago, no one in New York knew who Eli and Max Sussman were. The elder brother, Max, rolled up in 2010 from Michigan and about a year later, was followed by Eli. Max runs the kitchen at the popular pizza joint Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Eli works the meaty line at the prevalent Jewish deli, Mile End. Though they don’t work in the same space, they live together in Williamsburg and cook as a team at home. Max likes local, seasonal, and wholesome ingredients, and Eli is addicted to sandwiches (he loves Court Street Grocers, Graham Ave Meats & Deli, and Parm’s turkey Sammie). Together, they are the Sussman brothers, stars of summer camp kitchens, successful before turning 30, and now, authors of their second cookbook, This is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life, which comes out today.

Why should we buy your cookbook?
Eli Sussman: The goal of the cookbook was always for it to be a useful tool and never be a coffee table book. We wanted it to be user friendly and inviting, which is why the antidotes are in there, not just to fill space, but to know where we are coming from so you know you can trust us.

So, why should we trust you?
ES: Well, writing a cookbook isn’t about knowing how to cook well, which we both know how to do, but more about making the user comfortable with the recipes you select for a cookbook. We know our audience, and we are the people that would want to buy our book. Meaning, we love food, are adventurous, and we want to learn to make things at home. So, you can trust us not only because we work at awesome restaurants and cook at home, but also because we know how to craft an awesome recipe for our audience, and that’s a really difficult task, to write recipes that are user friendly.

Why did you decide to write the cookbook with your brother?
Max Sussman: Eli and I have complementary styles, and also, I cook better, but he is slightly funnier and writes faster. So, it only made sense to write it together.

It’s rare that two brothers, with no formal training would be as popular as you guys are. Why do you think that is?
ES: I honestly don’t know if we are popular, but it think it could be due to several factors. First, the culture is very obsessed with food right now, so people want to know more and more what the food is, and the people behind the food. Max is the executive chef of arguably the most popular restaurant in Brooklyn for sure, and in the top 10 for New York. I am a line cook at Mile End, which is also everywhere, and since people like knowing their food and who is making their food, we have been in the right place at the right time.

As far as no formal training, in this day and age doesn’t seem to matter much. I have worked at Mile End for a year now, and I look at it as my college culinary career. I learned how to butcher,  how to make stocks, how to make chopped liver—it’s as good as culinary school. Of course, there are a million things you would learn that you won’t learn in a restaurant. Like making master sauces and soufflés. But, more and more, I think people are forgoing that expense and interning, staging, and going the less expensive, more hands-on route.

What’s it like to work so closely with your brother? 
MS: Eli and I have a really great working dynamic and actually get along surprisingly well. We make sure to agree on the overall vision of what we’re working on and then any disagreements are just about details, so it’s never a big deal to try to figure out what to do.

Have you guys always done stuff like this together?
ES: The first cookbook was born out of us working at summer camp together. Max was the head chef and I was like his sous chef, though it wasn’t called that. The camp was based on kibbutz, which is a socialist style of living in Israel, so it’s communal, and everyone has to do something. So, we had a garden and really stepped it up. At the beginning of the summer, Max said we were making nothing frozen, which was hard, but it was fun because making everything from scratch. We started writing down the recipes and when we got back to college, people were always asking us random cooking questions so we wrote a book proposal and sent it around.

So Max, how did you transition to dumpster diving to one of the hottest restaurants in Brooklyn?
MS: Well it was about a ten-year process, but my interest in food, cooking, and constantly trying to improve [myself] led me here. I always loved cooking and a big turning point was when I took a job as a line cook at eve, a restaurant in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was the first time I was exposed to really good food in a restaurant setting, and I learned about all the little things and immense personal effort that goes into creating a great meal. I worked at a lot of different places between, but coming to Roberta’s was the next opportunity I have had to make great food without sacrificing quality for anything. 

And Eli, why Mile End?
ES: I made a list of the style of food I wanted to work in and Mile End satisfied every request on my list. My brother knew Noah [Bernamoff] and I got a trail, and now it’s the only place I have worked here.

Though both places are hip, they are very different…
ES: I think our choices mirror our personal style. I love delis and diners, and I think if one day I was to open up a restaurant, it would be very close to a diner-slash-deli.

Do you guys hope to open a restaurant?
MS: One day yes, but I’m actually super happy at Roberta’s since we do everything I can think of wanting to do, like have a garden, bake amazing bread, and make really great food.
ES: I definitely want to, but I think our visions for what we want to do is incredibly different.

Finally, Max, what’s your favorite recipe in the book?
MS: Linguine with anchovies, parsley, and walnuts. It’s so simple and so delicious and also really easy so how could you go wrong?

A Little Jewish Deli For Everyone: Q&A With Mile End’s Noah Bernamoff

Yesterday, Mile End owners Noah and Rae Bernamoff released their first cookbook, The Mile End Cookbook: Redefining Jewish Comfort Food From Hash to Hamantaschen. The finished product took about a year to compile, and, with the culinary efforts of Michael Stokes, Rich Maggi, and Dave McAnnich, the couple produced a nostalgic cookbook filled with their restaurants’’ staples like smoked meat hash, beef on weck, and pickled beets. After Mile End opened their second store this past year, and plan on doing more beyond the cookbook, we thought we would catch up with Noah and see how they managed to make Jewish comfort food and Mile End such a popular brand.

Wow, you guys have grown like crazy since you opened the tiny shop in Brooklyn. Did you have any idea it would be so successful?
We had a very simple mission at first, and it wasn’t necessarily tied to being abundantly successful.  We wanted to follow our passions and experience something truly valuable in life. Of course, no one sets out in business to not make money. While we feel very fortunate to have such amazing staff and customers now, our initial motivation to start Mile End came from a place with much lower, traditional business expectations.

Why do you think people have such a hankering for your smoked meat?
I think people appreciate authentic food, food that speaks to their soul and has meaning. Without trying to be nostalgic, I created something personal and quirky that also touched others. I don’t completely understand the psychology of it, but people have a very deep-seated connection to the delicatessen, and obviously, Jews in particular.

When did you start thinking you wanted to do a cookbook and why?
We never actively thought about writing a book. The opportunity to pitch the concept came our way and, only then, did we begin realizing how much we had developed and created. The reality is restaurants rarely release cookbooks for financial gain, we do it because of something deeper and, in our case, and it’s a belief that the Mile End playbook is a valuable tool in the much-needed discussion of modern day Jewish cooking. To attempt to make Jewish food relevant and to inspire others to start cooking it at home is the goal of the book. To tell our story and to augment the status of the brand is secondary.

Did you know Jewish comfort food would be such a sought after cuisine? 
I don’t know that a handful of new restaurants, a deli and an appetizing shop serving Jewish food in a city of nearly a million Jews and tens of thousands of eating and drinking establishments necessarily qualifies Jewish comfort food as a sought after cuisine, but, to answer the question, no. This is a cuisine that is all but forgotten, so what remains, and what is new, is merely filling a tiny corner of a massive void.

What are the top five classic Jewish comfort foods?
Pastrami or smoked meat on rye with mustard, full-sour pickles, chicken soup, chopped liver, and a bagel with cream cheese and lox.

This is a selfish question because I love your bagels. Why are Montreal bagels so good, and why doesn’t anyone else sell them?
Montreal bagels are the best bagels in the world because they’re made the exact same way bagels were made a hundred years ago: high-gluten dough, hand-rolled, par-boiled in honey-infused water, covered in seeds, and baked in a smoky, seething hot deck oven. No corners cut, and no part of the process falling victim to convenience.

Now that you have the cookbook out, what’s next for team Mile End?
We’re always on the move, as you know. We’ve got some cool projects in the works for 2013 and excited to keep broadening our food program. We’re also excited to launch our shiny new website, which will have a growing editorial component along with an online store so fans from across the country can get their hands on Mile End products. In the short term, we plan to launch a house-baked bagel program at both locations and a fun dinner menu at the sandwich shop, and, of course, to get out into the world to promote the book and spread the gospel of good deli.

[Read our interview with Noah Bernamoff from our 2010/2011 New Regime Issue!]