Psychologists can refute the actual effect of birth order until their pipes run out of pipe juice (That’s how pipes work, right?) but when it seems apropos, it does so to the max. The resolute, archetypal Quarterback Peyton Manning is foiled by his beta-male brother Eli’s ad hoc approach to winning. Emily Deschanel’s methodical career, with her very steady work of a primetime procedural, can be contrasted by Zooey’s manically pixie (or pixally manic) mix of Twee-Core singing and history of playing wide-eyed weirdoes. Max and Eli Sussman are similar, except instead of throwing footballs to other football players or pretending to be other people on TV, they cook at two of the coolest restaurants in town.
Max (29) a recent Forbes “30 under 30” selection in the Food & Wine category, is the Chef De Cuisine at Roberta’s, an arrestingly hip New York Times 2 Star pizza place in Bushwick that has evolved over the last few years to unofficially earn the title of New York’s highest end food in the lowest end setting. He got this very coveted position the only way he knew how, doggedly working at restaurants all his life, slowly learning more and achieving better kitchen assignments, until he earned this job. He put it in a very matter of fact manner, which is his default, “I had cooking jobs so I ended up just sticking with that.”
Eli (26), a line cook at the Boerum Hill contemporary Montreal-styled Jewish Deli, Mile End, has had a much less linear route. As he tells it, “I’m, for lack of a better word, all over the place in my interests. Max’s progression was a lot more natural to reaching his point and I took several years off.” Those years were spent in Los Angeles—a city crawling with dream chasing younger siblings—working in music and advertising and music advertising, all while writing freelance and working catering on the side. Though, by the time he decided to move to New York, he knew he wanted to cook. Eli admits, “Max was huge driving force behind having me move to New York and start cooking again full-time. I definitely wanted to do it, I just needed that last little nudge.”
Before either of their cool jobs, they both got their start in the Detroit suburb of their childhood. They were raised to appreciate food by an artist mother who cooked dinner every night and lawyer father who baked challah every Friday. As a result, instead of becoming counselors at their Jewish sleepaway camp, they ran the kitchen. Max as the camps head chef and Eli as his sous were put in charge of a $60,000 budget and the responsibility of cooking three meals a day for over 180 precocious Jews. As to be expected when inmates are asked to run the asylum’s kitchen, the brothers spent the summers having schmaltz fights, being caught cooking shirtless by the health inspector, and competing to see who’d keep their hand submerged in hot grease the longest. It wasn’t all half-naked chicken fat wrestling; the brothers also used the quixotic insanity of adolescence to bring a sort of ambition almost never found in cafeterias. Eli: “We cooked hard and from scratch and tried to use local ingredients at a summer camp before a lot of restaurants were even considering it. Max often rowed across the lake to buy produce.” It’s this mix of specifically young stupidity and world-beating determination that creates kitchen lifers.
Years went on but the chutzpah remained. They got their first book deal while still in college. The book, Freshman in the Kitchen: From Clueless Cook to Creative Chef, was born out of the incessant question asking of their befuddled, kitchen-phobic friends. With its simple recipes, the book was intended for the hapless young adult, new to having a working stove of their own. The brothers talk about it with a casual so what-ness, as to say, “doesn’t everyone write a cookbook before they’re legally allowed to rent a car?” They have a second book, set to come out on May 15th for William Sonoma, which will focus on more involved recipes aimed at the slightly less hapless, slightly less young adult. Despite this success, the brothers are refreshingly not looking for the fast track to food-world celebrity. Eli: “We’ve definitely thought about it before. In the right scenario it would be so awesome… but mostly we’re just focusing on making our restaurants the best they can be.”
If TV stardom did come about, it wouldn’t be entirely accidental; beyond getting two book deals before thirty, the brothers are very savvy about creating a brand. They have a heavily populated Sussman Brothers website and a Twitter account with over 3,000 followers. On both platforms they convey a particularly cheeky point of view on food and the restaurant industry. They Tweet musings like, “All i want for my birthday is one small lock of Mario Batali’s ponytail” or write blog posts like a list of completely absurd, satirical “Food Trends of 2012.” The brothers have squarely placed themselves in the Anthony Bourdain/David Chang lineage of earnestly food-loving firestarters. Not surprisingly, Eli does the lion’s share of the social media work. Partly it’s because Max doesn’t have as much time, as he is logging over a hundred hours a week at Roberta’s, but largely it’s as Eli admitted with a younger brother tone, “I just like to talk, I don’t care if anyone is listening.” To which, Max quickly responded, “Yeah, I was going to say that,” in a definitively older brother way that was both loving and mocking.
In conversation, their brotherly repartee is hard to ignore but is always decidedly harmless, in a very Midwestern way—in a very ready-for-TV way. The harshest it got was Eli teasing Max for, after ten years of working in restaurants, being “really used to people doing the dishes for him.” It’s the type of joke that makes you want to say, “Cut. Print it.”
Over dinner at Roberta’s a budding TV Agent friend of mine agreed, “The show writes itself: Two Jewish brothers live together, cook together, and laugh together.” They’re like The Neely’s but siblings or like The Voltaggio Brothers but Jewish. It’s a comparison they hope not to get but will be hard to avoid with the “it’s like _____, but_______” nature of Hollywood.
Until the Sussman brothers become The Sussman Brother, they are simply two nice Jewish boys with “very traditionally Jewish parents” who are both “very supportive and incredibly worried” about whatever they do, and who can provide a killer latke recipe (as soon below) to impress all your Hanukkah party guests.
The Sussman Brother’s Latke with Lox-Sour Cream Sauce & Spiced Apple Sauce
For the lox–sour cream sauce:
1 cup (8 oz/250 g) sour cream
3 oz (90 g) lox, diced
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
For the spiced apple sauce:
1 cup (9 oz/280 g) apple sauce
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 russet potatoes, peeled
1 yellow onion, minced
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup (1 1/2 oz/45 g) plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
1 garlic clove, minced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
1. Preheat the oven to 200°F (95°C). Fit a baking sheet with a wire rack and set aside.
2. To make the sauces, stir together the ingredients for each in separate small bowls. Transfer to serving dishes and refrigerate until ready to serve.
3. Using the large holes on a box grater, grate the potatoes into a large bowl of water. Put a colander in the sink, drain potatoes into the colander, and rinse under cold running water. Drain again thoroughly, pressing with your hand to remove as much liquid as possible. Transfer the potatoes to a clean kitchen towel and squeeze to dry even further, then place in a large bowl. Wrap the onions in a double thickness of paper towels, squeeze to remove as much moisture as possible, and add to the bowl. Add the eggs, flour, chives, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste and stir to mix well.
4. Pour oil into a large frying pan to a depth of about 1/2 inch (12 mm) and heat over medium heat. Using your hands, scoop up a portion of the potato mixture and shape it into a ball slightly larger than a golf ball. Flatten into a very thin pancake, still blotting with paper towels as needed to remove any remaining moisture, and place in the hot oil. Repeat to add 2 or 3 more latkes to the pan, making sure not to overlap them or crowd the pan. Cook until golden brown on the first side, about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spatula, turn the latkes and cook until golden brown on the second side, 2–3 minutes longer. Transfer to the wire rack on the baking sheet and place the baking sheet in the warm oven. Repeat to cook the remaining latkes, adding them to the oven as they are finished. When all of the latkes are cooked, serve right away with the sauces.