As their mom, Lynne, tells it, the cooking careers of New York City chefs and cookbook authors Max and Eli Sussman started during a family vacation on Cape Cod. “They were being real jerks,” she says, laughing, of her active young sons, then ages 10 (Eli) and 12 (Max). As any fed-up parent might do, she and her husband, Marc, left the boys to their own devices to blow off some steam. “We just had to get out of there,” she recalls. When they returned later that evening, they were stunned at what they found — a scene that would hint at her sons’ future career paths, both individually and eventually together. The bratty behavior had been channeled into a culinary adventure, and Max and Eli had prepared dinner — sautéed fish, salad and dessert. “They had dredged the flounder in flour and sautéed it really nicely, making a sauce with lemon, butter and pan drippings,” she recalls with a smile. While Max, the eldest, had done most of the work in the kitchen, Eli played the role of front-of-house man. “He had the towel over his arm and everything,” recalls Marc.
Years later, Eli, now with sculpted beard and wearing one of his trademark vintage NBA snapbacks, is continuing the role of face man for a Sussman Brothers culinary collab. We’ve met at Threes Brewing, an upstart brewery and restaurant located on an industrial stretch in Gowanus, Brooklyn. With a fully functional kitchen — including two roaring pizza ovens — but no chef signed on to run the show, the owners have wisely organized extended chef residencies that have featured menus from on-trend restaurants like Brisket Town, Roberta’s and the Meat Hook, as well as a couple of guys who formerly cooked at a couple of on-trend spots: Max and Eli Sussman.
Free agency is how Eater described the Sussmans’ current job status, which swiftly went into effect this February when Eli left his role running the show at Mile End Delicatessen — which followed the shuttering of the Cleveland, Max’s well-regarded Nolita restaurant. “Eli is liked by the people that work with him, which in turn makes his style effortlessly persuasive,” says Mile End owner Noah Bernamoff, who describes his former chef as having a natural propensity for balancing the cost-saving side of the commercial kitchen with the ego-driven creative side, which is crucial to success in hypercompetitive New York City. “Running a business is tough, but I think Eli and Max are ready to give it a shot,” Bernamoff says. “You can’t truly learn how to do it without doing it.”
While Max slaps away prepping the hundreds of pitas the team will be firing that night, Eli — seated in an adjacent coffee shop — explains that breaking out on their own isn’t just a natural progression, the culmination of years cooking together as kids and while counselors at a Jewish summer camp in western Michigan — it’s well calculated.
For months the brothers have been on the hunt for a space in Manhattan to house a soon-to-be-named Middle Eastern restaurant that will serve shawarma, a few fried things and fresh juices. “The chicken shawarma is ready for prime time,” boasts the chef, adding that his popular Mile End special, crackly baked sweet potato topped with a Yemini hot sauce called zhug, will have a place on the menu. Eli estimates that there will be six core menu items with specials added. The brothers have teamed with 39-year-old Jeff Jetton, an investor in Washington, D.C.’s Toki Underground, Mockingbird Hill and Eat the Rich. Prior to getting into restaurants, Jetton worked for Marriott for 15 years.
While no brother will reveal the restaurant’s name, he certainly has some options in mind. “It sounds sort of like sesame and it looks really good – the a’s and s’s have a really nice shape to them,” teases Eli, who in a previous life worked in advertising and hired branding agency MP Shift to help with the name. As he describes the restaurant’s concept, the cooking will be less focused on re-creating the foods of specific cultures (it will not be a Lebanese or Israeli restaurant, in name at least) but instead feature modern takes on the incredibly delicious Middle Eastern food they grew up eating in suburban Detroit. “In the same dish we’ll use ras el hanout, cumin, za’atar, coriander and paprika, things that are used in many different types of cuisine,” he says of the Americanized takes on Iraqi, Lebanese and Israeli foods found in Dearborn.
“We’ve all become flavor junkies as diners in New York, and Middle Eastern food is so packed with flavor,” says Devra Ferst, an associate editor at Eater New York and former food editor of Jewish Daily Forward, in summarizing the recent popularity of chefs like Einat Admony (Bar Bolonat) and Mike Solomonov (Zahav) and the Jerusalem cookbook. Ferst, who has followed the Sussmans’ careers in New York, credits the brothers with forming their own style, which creatively uses foods grown locally. “What makes Middle Eastern food so special is that there are certain ingredients that are only available in the region, and the Sussmans have been smart in incorporating things like locally grown beets into their hummus,” she says.
Indeed, Middle Eastern flavors are hot, finding their way onto the menus of restaurants both casual and refined around America. And the Sussmans’ pop-up at Threes, which has been packed since day one, has been a major hit. But that doesn’t mean the new venture is a sure bet. Hardly. “We’ve been looking at an insane amount of spaces,” says Sussman, shaking his head, of his hunt to secure a location on the Lower East Side. “I would say you have a better chance of doing anything in any city than opening up a restaurant in New York. It’s pretty much the hardest thing to do. You can have all the press in the world and still—”
He trails off and takes a long pause. Had the recorder in front of him reminded him of the hundreds of interviews he’s done since the Sussman brand hit the streets in 2008 with the release of the first of the brothers’ three cookbooks? Was he thinking about the 14-hour days working the tiny counter at Mile End in Brooklyn, or the struggle to run a small restaurant in the country’s most competitive restaurant market? “Max and I are really looking at it as a business, which I’m sure most people do. We want it to be a thriving, functional business, not a vanity project. This is a project that we want to scale up so that we could potentially…”
We interrupt, asking the chef if he thinks about the recent Shake Shack IPO, or David Chang recently landing a cool $20 million for his food-delivery startup Maple. Perhaps he could retire at 45 on the back of a badass shawarma chain? Sussman thinks over the question. “We could put out a bunch of food that’s really good, but not necessarily have to be in the kitchen 19 hours a day for the next ten years.”
It’s an honest answer and refreshingly modern. Sure, most chefs with a recorder in their face would never admit that they don’t want to cook in their kitchens all the time. The kitchen is sacred! And of course, if you ask any elder-statesman chef, years and years of repetition — and working through the brigade de cuisine — is the only way to the top. But the Sussmans have always excelled beyond their relatively young ages (Max is 31, Eli two years younger). But then again, they are a special tag-team superpower. “We always got along, but working in business with someone close is always going to be superdifficult,” says Eli, describing the upcoming restaurant as by far the team’s biggest project to date. “And the great thing about working with Max is that I can say anything to him about anything and I’ll get an honest response.”
Being at the top in a kitchen can be an extremely lonely place, where no cook dares to tell you if the braising liquid is too salty or the pickled daikon is weak. “But if your brother shares equal responsibility, and neither of you wants things to fall through the cracks or go to shit, then you both keep each other in check.” Sussman excuses himself from the table. His brother needs some help with the evening’s pita service.