“Well, but this is perfect!” I tell Max Sussman. “This is just the best idea ever.” Max, who—until just a few months ago—was chef de cuisine at Roberta’s, smiles at me from across the kitchen, hands me half of a luridly red strawberry, and then pops the other half in his mouth. “I know,” he said. “I’m glad you like it.” “It” is a recipe I happen upon when flipping through the cookbook that Max and his brother Eli, who is sous-chef at Mile End, published last fall. In This Is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life, the Sussman brothers managed to create something that, yes, is as literal as the title suggests, but is also so much more. Full of witty asides and divided into sections like Midnight Snacks, Lazy Brunch, and Night In (“this chapter is about sex”), the book works for anyone from a home cook who barely knows how to boil water, to one who is ready to tackle the perfect roast leg of lamb. And unlike some cookbooks which work better as decorative coffee table books than as actual guides to cooking, This Is a Cookbook is full of recipes that you actually want to make and then, you know, eat. The recipe that I couldn’t help but exclaim over was one for a classic chicken schnitzel that incorporates salt-and-vinegar potato chips into the breading mixture. Which, well, that’s just brilliant. It’s the kind of tweak that can elevate a dish to a whole other level, and it’s the kind of recipe upgrade that most home cooks could never think of themselves, but which just about anyone could pull off.
The brothers are working on a follow up—This is a Cookbook Too—which will be released this coming fall, and so they're in a frenzy of recipe-testing and experimental cooking, all of which they do in the spacious, light-filled apartment they share in south Williamsburg with their canine friend, Murphy. Eli explains to me, “It’s basically making really good food accessible—it’s for people who cook alone or for people who entertain. Nothing in here is going to be an eighty-step process. It’s not a restaurant cookbook and it’s not a chef cookbook.”
On the day I visited Max and Eli, they were trying out two recipes; a rye berry salad with strawberries, parmesan, and fried shallots, and a watermelon salad with a sesame oil, ginger, and sriracha dressing accompanied by scallions. I stuffed my face. It was heaven. It was so easy to imagine perfect meal after perfect meal at the long, wooden table in the Sussman apartment, and so for a second, I was lost in the fantasy of having the kind of life where two brothers who also happen to be amazing chefs could just throw me the scraps of whatever inspired meals they happened to be whipping up. To torment myself with the thought of all the amazing food I was missing, I asked Max and Eli what kind of food they are most likely to cook at home. Their answers brought me right back to reality.
“Oh, I never cook at home,” said Max. “This is one of the worst cities to force yourself to cook in.”
“Right,” agreed Eli. “We’re testing the recipes, I don’t really consider it cooking.”
Which, in my experience, tends to be the across-the-board sentiment of most chefs. Cooking is their profession, cooking is their passion, but it isn’t something they do for pleasure. Or, at least, not for their own pleasure. Max has been hosting an at-home supper club recently, and the ever-evolving menu is scrawled on a chalkboard that leans up against a kitchen wall—for example, dessert is deep-fried tahini ice cream—and I slip once again into the fantasy world of having the Sussman brothers cook like this for me every night. But even if that fantasy never becomes a reality, I can at least be satisfied with the knowledge that I now know to add salt-and-vinegar potato chips to my schnitzel breading and that, for one afternoon, I got to perch myself at the best seat in the house and fill my mouth with the salty, sweet flavors of sesame and watermelon, strawberries and parmesan. And, cookbook in hand, I am confident that I can make the same dishes at home for myself. Although if I ever get another invitation to the Sussman brothers’ apartment? I’m taking it. You should too, because, deep-fried tahini ice cream? You don’t want to miss that.
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At Home with the Sussman Brothers