Max Sussman on Joining the Cleveland and Taking Control of the Kitchen

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"My approach to it was to pretend like I'm opening this place, from the kitchen to the dining room." Photo: Melissa Hom

After leaving his high-profile job as chef de cuisine of Roberta's in January 2013, Max Sussman did what many chefs dream of: He took a full year to learn what it's actually like to live in New York, travel, and work on a passion project his cookbooks with his brother, Eli. When Sussman decided to get back in front of the (professional) stove, he made the unexpected choice to become the executive chef of a low-profile, 36-seat Nolita restaurant, the Cleveland. At the time, the Cleveland had been open for a full year and was better known for a charming garden and fashionable clientele not its ambitious food. (Before Sussman, the owners had already gone through two other chefs.) It turns out that the restaurant's a great match for Sussman's produce-driven, ever-changing menu, and it's become a destination restaurant for food folks without losing any of its neighborhood charm. Grub sat down with Sussman to talk about how he transitioned the restaurant.

To start, can you explain why you decided to leave Roberta's?
I was ready to try something on my own terms. I was at Roberta's for almost three years, and was really fortunate to have worked there through such an amazing time of transition. If anybody's really familiar with Roberta's, they know it's gone through different phases: I was there for a really exciting and important one. But I wanted to see what else was out there. I hadn't done a lot in New York besides that, and I didn't want my entire experience here to be based on New York through Roberta's.

Why did you decide to take a step back, instead of jumping back into another restaurant job?
I've been living in the city, but I hadn't been living in the city, because when you're cooking, you really miss out on everything that's going on around you. It becomes your world. I also really wanted to focus on my other project at the time, which was cookbooks. I'm writing the next one right now with my brother, Eli. We had a cool opportunity to go out and promote the one we'd just finished, and also [to] start writing the next one. It felt like a good time to take that risky plunge. And then, you know, spring turned into summer. I did a pop-up called Monkeytown 3 with the ex-pastry chef at Roberta's, Katy Peetz, and then, towards the end of the summer, I was introduced to the guys at the Cleveland. I came here to cook, so I wanted to jump back and be in front of the stove, creating stuff again.

How'd you guys meet?
I don't remember the exact sequence of us getting in touch, but they had seen the book that Eli and I wrote, and that was how our relationship started. It turned out that they were looking for somebody to be the new chef at the restaurant. The chef that they had at the time was moving onto another project, and I was looking for a place to call home. They had opened in January, and I started a little over a year later, on January 15.

Why was this particular place appealing to you?
They were interested in the kind of food that I do and wanted to do there, and I was interested in the space itself. I maximized the time I had to think about what kind of menu I wanted, and I did some testing there on-site with the facilities. The kitchen isn't huge, but it's a good size compared to the size of the dining room. It was a really comfortable, warm place where I felt I could cook.

The Cleveland feels like a true neighborhood spot, but the menu is still ambitious. How do you walk that line without isolating either audience?
Ninety percent of my day is spent thinking [about] the balance. If you go in one direction, it seems boring to me. And if you go in the other, it's not really satisfying food just a cerebral, intellectual exercise. And so finding and being in the middle there to have people say, Wow this is really good, and it's also thoughtful and creative and technically well done, is what we're working on all the time. We come up with one component, and it might be pushing the dish in one direction, and then we try to balance that out with something that's a little more technical.

I like to make food that's comforting, but not overly so. A lot of times, people equate comfort with heaviness. I think you can have food that's comforting and makes people feel good without making them think, "Okay, I'll come back in a month, when I've digested that meal." Coming from Bushwick to being in Nolita, it's a world apart. It took a little adjusting. But the Cleveland stands out in its neighborhood because of how low-key the place actually is, I think, whereas everything else is highly designed and more elaborate. The Cleveland is almost a little more like your home that's what really drew me in.

You're changing up the menu almost daily, right?
Yeah, and they were completely open to me coming in with a menu and having creative control. I like to try dishes and see how they play and adjust them on the fly. There's a static-ness where you wait for a dish to be perfect before you put it on the menu, and then sometimes nothing will ever change. I like to be in the habit of changing things really fast because, with the local produce, the seasons are really short here. You have to be ready and comfortable to introduce a new dish and then take it away. Sometimes the quality of your ingredients varies from day to day. You might order the same thing two days in a row, and one day it's awesome, and the other day, you might not want to use it at all. Like, the eggplant's got to be a champ for that entrée to work.

Anything that will stay constant?
The chicken on the menu is exactly what I wanted it to be. I don't see that changing. And the pita with the lentil-pistachio dip I really like that a lot. I don't think I'm going to change it.

The halva dessert better not disappear, either. Are you the pastry chef, too?
I do all the pastries as well as the savory stuff. The halva we do is totally homemade: We start with tahini and whip it with a sugar syrup that's cooked up, so it's candied slightly. Then we cool it and fold it into chocolate, and marble it as it's cooling. I love halva, and I've been trying to recreate the halva that you buy in a package in the store for a really long time. It's funny because it turns out it's not something that people are so familiar with, which is a bonus.

During your yearlong break from restaurant kitchens, did you think about becoming a chef-owner?
Yeah, I think everyone's always thinking about that! But there's so many things that need to come together at the right time in the right place, so you can't rush that process. One of the things that I learned that year is that you talk to people, have things come up, and go away. It's not something to enter into lightly, or just because you think it might be that time. But it's definitely something I'd still like to do.

Was it strange to inherit a staff that you didn't hire?
You just have to be really clear about what you're doing, and for me, when I walked in, it was very clear that I'm not concerned with how it was before. This is how it's going to be now. My approach to it was to pretend like I'm opening this place, from the kitchen to the dining room.

Some owners might have tried to totally re-brand and change the name.
I feel like it has a new identity because, obviously, the food is very different. We had some talks about what was really important for them to keep, if anything, and that was another important part of my decision to go there because they weren't trying super hard to keep any of the identity of the cuisine from the food that was there before. They were like, We really want to have a burger, and I said, "Okay, I like burgers."

You have another cookbook coming out in the fall. It's rare for a chef to write a book that's not tied to a restaurant, but to his personal identity and family.
That's why writing the books is a cool thing for us, because usually chefs' cookbooks are essentially their restaurants' cookbooks and, like you said, it really ties them to that. For us, it can be a more all-encompassing way of cooking and approaching food. It's really cool. And Eli and I are super honest with each other and have the ability to bounce back quickly from what would be this horrible, withering criticism. From anybody else, you'd be like, This is the worst thing anybody's ever said about something I created.

How does your experience at Roberta's inform your work at the Cleveland? Will we ever see a pizza on the Cleveland's menu?
The short answer is no [laughs]. I did all the the non-pizza stuff at Roberta's. I love pizza, though. I took a lot from my time there: the approach to ingredients as the start of a plate, and using the best stuff. We always got to start with the best version of what we could get and go from there ... When I started at Roberta's, the staff was a lot smaller. It's kind of like the staff and the kitchen at the Cleveland is the size of the staff at Roberta's kitchen when it started. It's not that different. Of course, by the time I left, it was a much bigger operation.