A new look at classics, including striped bass with curry

I’m always tickled when someone I knew “when” makes good.

These days, the famous people I knew when they were nobodies are not so much my own former neighbors or high school and college friends but young adults my kids knew growing up–like Max and Eli Sussman who went to school and summer camp with them.

Now the Sussmans are celebrity chefs with a great PR agent. Seems like every week their proud parents, lawyer Marc Sussman and artist Lynne Avadenka, are posting yet another article or blog about the boys (which is how I’ll always think of them even though they are now 32 and 30).

They’ve just published a new cookbook–their fourth–called Classic Recipes for Modern People. They describe it as “a collection of culinary favorites reimagined.”

I caught up with the Sussman brothers a few weeks ago when they were home for Passover from New York, where they live and work.

Both recently left chef jobs at trendy New York restaurants to open their own eatery later this year. The Mediterranean-style restaurant will feature homemade pita, non-traditional dips such as beet hummus and lentil pistachio dip, anchovy fattoush salad and other dishes still in the development stage.

Though they didn’t grow up dreaming of restaurant careers, the brothers have been interested in cooking since they were kids.

Talented kids

Their parents discovered their talent during a family vacation in Cape Cod when the brothers were 12 and 10. “They were not being cooperative, whining about food and about what was for dinner,” said Marc, “and Lynne just said, ‘We’re leaving!’”

The parents went out for several hours. When they returned, they found a gourmet fish dinner awaiting them.

Eli was the front-of-the-house man, greeting his parents with a napkin over his arm, handing them a hand-written menu and escorting them to their table. Max supervised the food prep. To this day, Eli wonders how he knew what to do.

Their first experience cooking together professionally was at Camp Tavor in Three Rivers, Michigan, where they were campers for many summers.

Max, then 21, was working on an American studies degree at University of Michigan and Eli,19, was studying international relations at Michigan State University. They were supposed to be counselors at Tavor that year but the cook threw his back out and they took over the kitchen.

Discovering haute cuisine

Through college, both brothers worked at restaurants. When Max took a job at Eve in Ann Arbor, his first experience with haute cuisine, he realized cooking could be a career and not just a hobby.

Max returned to Eve (which is, sadly, now closed) after he graduated, working his way up from line cook to chef de cuisine before moving to New York.

After a stint at The Breslin, he went to Roberta’s, helping it grow from a grungy neighborhood pizzeria to an innovative new-cuisine hot spot. The New York Times awarded Roberta’s two stars, and Max was nominated for a James Beard Award, won a Zagat NYC award and was named one of Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30.” Most recently he was executive chef at The Cleveland for a year.

Eli moved to Los Angeles after college and worked in advertising, but after five years he decided to return to cooking, At Max’s suggestion he moved to New York and got a job as prep cook at Mile End Deli. Within a few years he was executive chef, running two restaurants in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Eli was a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year and was one of Zagat New York’s “30 under 30.”

The Sussmans’ first cookbook, Freshman in the Kitchen, was published in 2008 while they were still in college.

“The point was to talk to an audience who had even less experience than us. They wanted to cook but didn’t know anything about it,” said Max.

That was followed in 2012 and 2013 with This is a Cookbook: Recipes for Real Life, aimed at young adults looking to up their cooking game, and Best Cookbook Ever, a collection of new recipes suitable for dinner parties, potlucks and cooking to impress a date or a spouse.

All kinds of classics

The new book features classic dishes that the brothers have, in their own words, reinvented, rejiggered, reordered and recreated. It includes childhood classics, “TV dinner classics” such as new takes on potpies and meatloaf, French cuisine classics, and more.

The brothers want their recipes to be fantastic but say they don’t aim for perfection. “I don’t want to think anything is perfect,” said Max. “There’s always a way to improve a dish.”

Max says he hopes this recipe for striped bass with red curry, from the “Worldwide Classics” section of the book, will act as an intro to cooking Thai food at home.