Hospitality Meme King Eli Sussman Shows Us How to Make the Perfect Martini
When I walked into Gertrude’s in Prospect Heights to meet chef Eli Sussman for a tutorial on the greatest lunchtime martini of my life, expectations were high. By day, Sussman dishes out “Jew-ish” bistro food on a bucolic Brooklyn block, as well as shawarma at his fast-casual spot, Samesa. But by night, he likes to unwind by talking shit on the internet. His official Instagram meme page has racked up almost 75,000 fans and a few high-profile haters, but it’s ultimately a dark-humored window into an industry rife with labor disputes and tough competition. When I stumbled upon a meme of his poking fun at overzealous bartenders and their bizarre (or just plain bad) cocktail creations, I wanted to see how Sussman, a restaurateur of eight years, could do it better. In search of the perfect Bond’s drink, and curious about both Sussman’s 2024 restaurant trend predictions and the reality of “yes, chef” culture, I wandered into the airy and welcoming Gertrude’s on a Wednesday afternoon to find myself in a surprising pickle.
ELI SUSSMAN: This drink is truly my business partner, Rachel Jackson’s, creation, but it’s the perfect cocktail in general, and it’s also the best representation of our restaurant. It’s called the Dirty Gertie.
MEKALA RAJAGOPAL: I love it.
SUSSMAN: My other business partner Nate [Adler]’s grandmother was named Gertrude, and Rachel and Nate own our sister restaurant, Gertie, in Williamsburg. Gertie was not a great cook, but she had this big gregarious larger-than-life personality, and the whole point of this restaurant is that it feels like you’re coming into our home and having a dinner party. This cocktail is a play on a martini with gin and vermouth, but there’s also homemade pickle juice and a dill aquavit.
RAJAGOPAL: Okay, so it’s a pickle martini. I’ve never really had one.
SUSSMAN: I hope you like it. First, the ice, and two ounces of aquavit. This huge glass is just to get it cold. I’m just stirring it for 30 seconds. Your goal here is to cool it down but not turn it watery. And then you’re going to strain the aquavit.
RAJAGOPAL: I saw your meme that was like, “Bartenders after serving you the craziest martini.” I don’t know that I’ve encountered a baked ziti martini.
SUSSMAN: There are all these takes on the martini now, but this one has all the proper elements of what I think makes a great martini. You want the vermouth and you want something acidic. I don’t drink vodka, so I want a herbaceous gin. The dill aquavit is a great stand-in for a straight up London gin or Beefeater. It’s perfect for the restaurant because a lot of Jewish cuisine has flavors like dill and caraway that we’ve integrated into our cocktail menu.
RAJAGOPAL: What’s the influence of your roots on the restaurant?
SUSSMAN: My family is Jewish, originally from Eastern Europe, and I’ve always loved Ashkenazi Jewish food. Lower East Side deli food was sort of my inspiration for the menu here. I try to create food that’s very comforting and not too fussy and maybe nostalgic, but also just really tasty.
RAJAGOPAL: It’s interesting that a lot of those foods are kind of viral TikTok foods right now, like the tinned fish and different pickled things.
SUSSMAN: Yeah, we have a tower with all these pickled vegetables and oysters and blue fish pâté, smoked sable and trout roe. We’re definitely cognizant of what the trends are. What’s popular is having a big spread of pickley things and some snacky items. I think people want simple food right now. They want to be able to look at food and know what it is. Our fish is a whole roasted fish, there haven’t been 25 steps to turn it into something you can’t recognize. It’s all stuff that they would want to eat as opposed to stroking my own ego by putting a bunch of weird stuff on the menu.
RAJAGOPAL: Familiar, just better than any version you’ve had before. How did you start in the industry?
SUSSMAN: I started out as a prep cook at this spot called Mile End, a Jewish style Montreal delicatessen. I had a desk job in L.A. and it wasn’t for me. I wanted to cook because I love food and there’s instant gratification there. Then the opportunity came about to work with my brother, who’s also a chef. We grew up in metro Detroit around food from Lebanon and Syria and Iraq, so we opened up Samesa, which is a shawarma restaurant, and it’s been open for about seven years now.
RAJAGOPAL: Do you feel like there’ve been big differences between running a fast casual operation and this one?
SUSSMAN: It’s a lunchtime restaurant. We’re really just ripping off the Chipotle model. We only serve beer and wine in cans and the focus is on speed, unfortunately. Here, we want you to tell everyone that your server was awesome and the music was good and the room looked cool. There’s a lot more to think about at a nighttime restaurant.
RAJAGOPAL: So, what’s the mistake that everyone’s making with these martinis?
SUSSMAN: I think people make a couple mistakes. Number one, they never get them cold enough. A martini has to be ice-cold.
RAJAGOPAL: So the glasses are in the fridge right now.
SUSSMAN: Yeah. Another thing that I think is important for a martini is that you don’t fill it up all the way to the top.
RAJAGOPAL: They always do that.
SUSSMAN: I think they’re trying to give you the full value of your drink, but it makes it so annoying to handle. You’re supposed to look cool drinking a martini. You’re not supposed to look like a doofus who spills on himself. It’s not really the vibe that you’re going for.
RAJAGOPAL: It’s supposed to be a classy drink. Why did you start making memes?
SUSSMAN: It’s something that I do to blow off steam and have a different mindset from being in the restaurant. When I’m here, I have to be serious and dig into the day to day minutia of the restaurant, and then when I make memes, I can just talk shit and say what I want to say about the restaurant industry. When COVID hit, I was scared about not being able to reopen the restaurant, and so much of my identity was tied up in it all. It was a real weird existential crisis. I was angry with the New York City government’s response regarding restaurant workers and owners, so I started talking shit about the mayor on Instagram. It made me feel better so I started making memes and following a bunch of meme accounts.
RAJAGOPAL: What were your favorite meme accounts?
SUSSMAN: Probably @northwest_MCM_wholesale and @namaste.at.home.dad. @allezceline is another industry one that is amazing. So what I was saying with the martini memes specifically is that people are just taking it way too far.
RAJAGOPAL: What’s the craziest martini you’ve seen on a menu?
SUSSMAN: I’ve seen one that is a pesto pasta martini. It used the residual milk liquid from the buffalo mozzarella with a splash of pesto, and they used vodka.
RAJAGOPAL: That’s disgusting.
SUSSMAN: I feel like some of that stuff is just clickbait. They make a fucked up drink so that people will say something in the comments and drive traffic. Whatever, I’m guilty of things like that as well. Everyone wants their post to go viral, but that one is not for me.
RAJAGOPAL: A milky martini is not something I care for.
SUSSMAN: You’re just begging yourself to feel like shit the next day.
RAJAGOPAL: What’s next?
SUSSMAN: We add an ounce of vermouth, and then a half an ounce of the pickle juice. I gave it a little extra splash because that’s what I’m into, and stir it all in.
RAJAGOPAL: Stirred, not shaken. How long do you stir?
SUSSMAN: No longer than 20 seconds. You don’t want it to dilute. And the pickle. That is the whole thing. It’s fairly simple and it’s perfect every time. The problem with these is that you can drink a lot of them.
RAJAGOPAL: What’s the perfect pairing with a pickle martini?
SUSSMAN: Our roasted half chicken.
RAJAGOPAL: Why a chicken with the martini?
SUSSMAN: The chicken is brined in the same pickle juice that we use in the martini, so you get the faintest taste of pickle. It has caramelized fennel, roasted apples, and a chicken sauce made with chicken demi-glace, thyme, and Dijon mustard.
RAJAGOPAL: Ooh. I feel like after The Bear’s buzz and all of these industry insiders coming out with exposés, there’s been a lot more interest from the general public about the behind the scenes drama of the kitchen. What’s the reality like?
SUSSMAN: I think reality is what the chef and the owner make. There are places that are unfortunately toxic and terrible to work at. I try to create an environment that’s safe and not that stressful, but it’s a hard job and the hours are long. I also think that people aren’t as shitty anymore because it’s so hard to retain people. Over the last couple of years, staff have gotten a lot more power to ask for more money and a better work environment, and people have realized that yelling and throwing plates makes people not want to work for you anymore. It’s a bit of a paradigm shift, but it would’ve been great if it came about in a more productive way.
RAJAGOPAL: And in a better economy. Is there an industry meme that you wish you’d never posted?
SUSSMAN: I don’t regret any of it. If it’s still up, I said what I said.
RAJAGOPAL: Did you ever have to delete any?
SUSSMAN: I got into a little bit of trouble with Chipotle once with an April Fools joke. I said that Chipotle had acquired Samesa, and the social media director of operations messaged me and said, “Can you give me more information about this? I haven’t heard anything about it.” And I carried it on with them for an hour or two, and then finally they said that I needed to take down the post. But for a while, a lot of people were congratulating me and were so thrilled that Chipotle had acquired Samesa.
RAJAGOPAL: Did Thomas Keller’s lawyer ever reach out to you?
SUSSMAN: I have not heard from TK’s legal team yet. I think I’m in the clear for right now, but I do occasionally wake up in a cold sweat thinking about whether or not today will be the day that I get the email that I’ve slandered Thomas Keller and I have to appear in some sort of courtroom facing some sort of defamation of character.
RAJAGOPAL: While they project your Instagram posts on a courtroom projector.
SUSSMAN: And I have to defend myself on the stand against Thomas Keller’s pain and suffering before he sues me for $90 million and I’m indebted forever. But this is the martini and the chicken with some french fry action.
RAJAGOPAL: Looks amazing. Chow down.
SUSSMAN: Wow, it’s so early to be drinking.
RAJAGOPAL: Actually, it’s not often that I have a gin martini that I enjoy, but this is perfect.
SUSSMAN: It’s dangerous that it is available to me at all times.
RAJAGOPAL: I saw that you posted an in-out list last year. What’s your personal in-out list for 2024?
SUSSMAN: Oh my god, you’re making me try to be funny on the spot.
RAJAGOPAL: You can be serious.
SUSSMAN: I am over tasting menus and I think I’ll always be over a tasting menu. I want to order what I want to order. White tablecloths at restaurants are out. It’s also out to play contrasting music to the visuals of the restaurant. And COVID is out.
RAJAGOPAL: COVID’s out? That’s a bold statement.
SUSSMAN: I think Jimmy Nardello peppers are out, even though I have them on the menu right now.
RAJAGOPAL: What’s in?
SUSSMAN: Cheap garnish is in. Normal herbs like dill and chives and scallions, and what’s out is fancy edible flowers and microgreens. Weirdly, I think chef coats are going to be back in 2024. I think that people are going to step up their fashion in the kitchen and get high-tech. I’m seeing a lot of chef clothing that is meant for chefs. And also in is work-life balance and communicating with people around you instead of keeping things to yourself.
RAJAGOPAL: I love it.
SUSSMAN: How are the fries?
RAJAGOPAL: Perfect. French fries and a martini is just–
SUSSMAN: At noon, what’s not to like?
RAJAGOPAL: What’s not to like.