Photo: Marcus McDonald

Eli Sussman isn’t on the payroll at Gertie, the Williamsburg nu-diner that calls itself “Jew-ish” — it has bagels and bialys and a popular turkey-pastrami club topped with bacon — but when I met him there on a recent afternoon, a few minutes after they’d locked up for the day, he was in his white cook’s shirt and apron, getting to work. “They’ve got me doing this for free,” he jokes.

It’s the kind of comment that might appear on Sussman’s Instagram account, which has amassed a giant audience in the past couple years with its regular stream of memes that target the reality of working in the food world today (“Say ‘this is how we did it at my last place’ one more time,” reads a caption above Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction). But this wasn’t a case where his labor was being exploited. Instead, Sussman was in the back of Nate Adler and Rachel Jackson’s restaurant during off-hours because the three are working together on Gertrude’s, which Adler describes as “sort of a Jewish bistro.” When it opens in Prospect Heights this month, in the space that had been James for a decade and a half, it will offer “a good burger at a good price, and a martini you can actually afford,” Adler says. Except at Gertrude’s, you can get the burger with a latke instead of French fries if you’d like.

The three say they got together because they share similar interests in classic deli and appetizing foods, but they similarly don’t want to lean too heavily on the schmaltz, so to speak. “I’m still fighting for the tongue,” Sussman declares. He’s been working on crispy beef tongue that’s first brined in chicken stock and caraway. He’s aware that two nearby restaurants, Sofreh and Maison Yaki (which recently reopened as the French-leaning Petite Patate), both had tongue dishes on their menus before dropping them. “These are the debates you have,” Sussman says. “You never know what people will order and what they’ll gravitate toward until you try to run it.”

Gertrude’s is the latest spot to offer a contemporary take on classic, Ashkenazi Jewish–leaning dishes. Adler and Jackson found success with that formula at Gertie, and Sussman first gained local acclaim around 2013 when he was the chef at Mile End in Boerum Hill. They hope that this latest endeavor can be something along those lines in terms of cuisine, but they also mention reference points such as Sammy’s Roumanian and Blue Ribbon Brasserie as inspiration. “We’re trying to create this experience in which you feel like you are in a room where you know everyone,” Sussman says.

Rachel Jackson and Nate Adler at the Gertrude’s bar. Photo: Marcus McDonald

Besides an interest in classic, artery-clogging recipes and comforting vibes, all parties involved have become unofficial spokespeople for the state of the hospitality industry, both where it’s been and where — hopefully — it can go. In November 2020, Adler and his restaurant were turned into the public face of the COVID struggle in a New York Times story focused on Gertie’s “desperate fight to survive the pandemic.” Although Gertie, like any other place, is hardly out of the woods, Adler says opening a new restaurant is “a really big moment for us, because it’s been a struggle.” Of course he wants it to succeed instantly, but adds, “The reality is we will tinker and fight until the three of us can make a living off it and continue to grow.”

Just as Gertie was struggling during COVID, Sussman was stuck at home and worrying about his livelihood, how he’d provide for his family and also keep the doors open at Samesa, the Rockefeller Center shawarma spot he co-owns with his brother, Max. He found therapy in an untraditional way: “Memes,” he says. “They became a format for me to distill down big thoughts into a succinct delivery mode. When everybody in hospitality was scared about their health, their jobs, the future of their businesses, I was interacting with all these people who were in different points and parts of the industry, channeling my own fear and general rage.”

This wasn’t the initial intention of the account. The handle is plural — @thesussmans — because Eli and Max had become local celebrities in the early 2010s, two young brothers working at some of the city’s hottest restaurants — Eli at Mile End and Max at Roberta’s. They were something of a Brooklyn brand name who got a cookbook deal before they opened a restaurant. But after a decade of seeing, hearing, and experiencing all the horrifying parts of restaurant life, Eli needed an outlet. “There were so many problems that were occurring, and they weren’t being taken seriously.”

It took off among chefs, owners, line cooks, bussers, bartenders, and anybody else who’d ever worked a brunch shift. In September 2020, he posted a few memes making fun of the paltry PPP loans versus the massive crush of greedy landlords and the oncoming second wave of COVID, and another of two people in hazmat suits with the caption “Me and my bro bout to crush some yums at our 8PM rez @ Carbone on Sep 30th.” Other posts take on the toxic environment restaurant kitchens can be, while some simply poke at the trends of the day. Famous chefs, and Thomas Keller especially, are regular targets for Sussman: “I just don’t understand why these restaurants that are the busiest, most decorated restaurants in the entire world that charge exorbitant prices can’t just pay people.”

He says the jokes aren’t personal: “I would hope people understand that it’s done from a place of us being in the same industry, and I’m trying to make a point; you do that by utilizing tools that everyone will recognize.” (He adds that he doesn’t have any specific animosity toward Keller or “the top five or so” chefs — “I don’t even know them.”)

All three partners want Gertrude’s to be good in the traditional ways — a neighborhood place that is nevertheless upscale enough to warrant the purple marble bar — but they understand there are now heightened expectations as well. “Hopefully the memes keep me honest,” Sussman says, acknowledging that he knows there’s added pressure to run a business that upholds the values his account champions. “I would love to be an example as a chef and owner within the restaurant, and not just by being a guy with memes that make people say, ‘He’s got a good point.’”

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