It’s 8:21 on a crisp September morning at the Union Square Greenmarket, and Brooks Headley, chef-owner of the East Village’s Superiority Burger, is already running late. Granted, that’s because he’s waiting on a pair of groggy reporters who have persuaded him to let them tag along on his shopping rounds and interrogate him about the impending relocation of his five-seat, cult-favorite, budget-friendly destination hole-in-the-wall to a much larger space around the corner on Avenue A, the former home of the Odessa diner.
For Headley, a punk-rock drummer turned Del Posto pastry chef turned produce-for-the-people restaurateur, there are few things worse than chefs who use the market as a prop to advertise their overblown local-and-seasonal quotient to fawning journalists and Japanese camera crews. In fact, he lambasted these chefs and their wily ways in an essay in his first cookbook, Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts, describing their modus operandi as follows:
He or she fondles a tomato, makes googly eyes at a crate of ramps, maybe bench presses a flat or two of strawberries. His or her hair is perfect. It’s Greenmarket chef porn destined for a magazine spread or an online video. It cracks me up. I’m working here for Christ’s sake. Get a room.
But he has submitted to our request because as much as he hates the poseurs, he does love the place. “No matter how tired you are, or frustrated, you come here and it all goes away,” he says. “This is the dream, going and buying all your own stuff from farmers you really respect and love. It’s the best.” The market and its vendors are the biggest influence on his daily specials: the seasonal salads and sides that make Superiority the best vegetarian (and, as Headley likes to say, “accidentally vegan”) restaurant in the city. Plus, we were able to finagle an invitation to a staff meal afterward, and we don’t want to miss that.
By the time we arrive at Union Square, Headley and a cook named Lauren Steffey have already procured a box of Lucky Tiger tomatoes and a flat of blackberries they plan to macerate overnight, then purée. Headley wears a black hoodie over a black t-shirt, black pants, black clogs, and a black-and-white mask. He looks like he might be going to a heist later on. Steffey, in baseball cap and KN95, an enormous pink tote bag strung over her shoulder, stands ready for action.
After a brief discussion of our route, Headley takes off, and like ducklings paddling after a mama duck, we follow him as he darts from stand to stand: Sycamore Farms for Jersey beefsteaks that he’ll slice onto his eponymous burgers (“We season them with olive oil, salt, and pepper and a little shot of vinegar. It always seemed funny to me that other places don’t.”), Fantasy Fruit for blueberries (“They’re insane!”), and S&SO for Mexican tarragon (“It’s so, so fruity. We’ll probably make ice cream with it.”).
Headley shops at one or another Greenmarket location six days a week. “I don’t go on Thursdays only because there isn’t a market that’s open and close by.” He estimates that during the peak summer season, he gets 50 percent of the produce he uses at Superiority Burger from Greenmarket. When we ask him why so much when he could just get it all delivered from suppliers, he pauses as if to remind himself what he learned in the third grade: that there is no such thing as a stupid question.
“I mean, I run a vegetarian restaurant and I’m within walking distance of Union Square,” he says. “I totally get the thing that as a chef, your job is to take somewhat average produce and through your technique and your skill, transform this okay thing into something beautiful. I totally get that. I’m not in any way opposed to that. But if I go to the market and I taste a nectarine or piece of cauliflower or spinach or garlic or something that is clearly vastly superior to anything I’d get from a commodity source for produce, I would feel weird not using that.” As for the figs on a plate argument, he’s pro-figs. “I actually love that. If you go to Chez Panisse, and you get, like, a perfect date and a perfect tangerine and that’s your dessert, that’s amazing,” he says. “We did stuff like that at Del Posto, and we tried to do stuff like that at Superiority Burger, but it didn’t work because we don’t have plates.”
Continuing our spree: We arrive at Cherry Lane where some late-season lima beans spark a bout of indecision. Headley likes these legumes all right but wonders if there’s room for them at the restaurant. “It’s all about space,” he says, a problem that should go away once he relocates. “We pretty much put everything in one oven, and there’s essentially a waiting list to get into that oven now.” He buys the beans anyway.
We get hung up at Mountain Sweet Berry, where looking down at us from the bed of his truck, farmer Rick Bishop holds forth, as is his wont, on the sublime density of the German Butterball potato and the relative ripeness of Tristar strawberries picked from two different fields. The seminar winds down and we head back to the Sycamore stand to retrieve the various bags and boxes Headley and Steffey have stashed underneath a display table for safekeeping. Before plopping everything down on the corner of 16th Street and Union Square West and calling an Uber, Headley sends Steffey down the block to Breads Bakery to pick up three baguettes for the staff meal. As we are soon to find out, this is one of the better things to emerge from the pandemic.
With social distancing impossible in the 300-square-foot counter-service space Headley has occupied for six years, he stopped indoor service during COVID and expanded his tiny kitchen, adding freezers to store the pints of gelato he’s been producing as a pandemic pivot. After the morning market and an hour and a half before the 1 p.m. opening for takeout, every available surface is laid with a plastic tray of the family meal, a task Headley took on when his staff was reduced to three people. (Since then, it’s up to 12.) Prior to that, people had ordered what they wanted and eaten in stages, but “this is more civilized,” he says. “It’s been my new thing.” Unlike the uninspired stuff Headley says is the norm elsewhere, the Superiority staff meal is a balanced, thought-out repast — in today’s case, “a really good” cabbage-and-pluot salad, strewn with dried cornbread crumbs; crusty, cheesy, “classic Olive Garden–y garlic bread” made with the Breads baguettes in vegan and dairy versions (half the staff is vegan, half omnivorous); a plastic pint container of linguine pomodoro that tastes like it was made by someone who had worked at Del Posto (and was). And, this being a Brooks Headley staff meal, there is even a somewhat fancyish dessert: malt cake with plum jam and a scattering of Tristar strawberries freshly plucked from the back of Rick Bishop’s truck.
By this time, we’re lobbying Headley to either hire us or add “staff meal” to the menu at his new location, where we walk after lunch. The space is exactly as it was when the owners of Odessa shut it down — swiveling counter stools, marbleized counters, bad art and all — and aside from some minor repairs and deep cleaning, Headley wants to keep it that way. “The thing I love so much is that this is not a liquor bar; it’s a soda fountain,” he says as he walks behind the counter gesturing at the empty display case. “We’re gonna fill this with cakes and pies and cannoli.” He shows off tables so unwobbly “you don’t need to stick something under the leg.” He leads us into the kitchen and directs our attention to an ancient dumbwaiter. “It doesn’t work, but I think we found a dumbwaiter guy, and he’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can fix it.’” We inspect a steam table opposite the stoves — “amazing because a lot of our food is stuff we make ahead of time and need to hold at a specific temperature.” Above the steam table looms a skylight. “Natural light in a restaurant kitchen,” says Headley, gazing up, as if he still can’t believe it.
When talking to Headley, you’re struck by his perpetually deadpan, almost Jeevesian demeanor, but at the diner he seems practically bubbly. He’s like the proverbial kid in the candy store. Back in the dining room, he takes a position behind the cashier station. “Look at this,” he says. “Can you imagine? You get your bill and you can pay at the register!” He slides into one of the red vinyl booths separated from one another by tall wooden poles with coat hooks, and pats the cushions as if to demonstrate the well-known fact that diner booths are the ne plus ultra of restaurant seating options, followed closely by cushion-back swiveling counter stools. The radio is playing softly, and Headley, ever the musician, points out the low-tech system’s perfectly unperfect sound. All told, the whole diner vibe fits Headley and his culinary and philosophical tendencies to a T.
“The more I think about our food, the more I see it as almost like diner food,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be fancy or plated, even though a lot of the ingredients are kind of high-end.” Cases in point: infinite variations on rice and beans, with the rice being an heirloom variety grown by California’s acclaimed Koda Farms and the beans sourced from legume superstar Rancho Gordo. Potato soup, anointed with crisped potato skins. Weekly specials like multitextured vegan hoagies and tofu-fried-tofu sandwiches that have become mini culinary happenings. And you can’t occupy a former diner space without serving breakfast, which means vegan pancakes and maybe scrambled tofu can’t be far off.
When Headley opens early next year, he’ll go from five seats to 70, with space in back for a private dining room. He’s been taking inspiration from old Odessa menus (“We might do a really good borscht and probably make some challah”) and plans to use some of its classic diner plates. Which raises the question, How will he be able to keep his $15-and-under prices low when he’s not serving small portions in paper boats? There will be no decline in ingredient quality, he promises, nor in accessibility for his loyal customers and local residents. “I want to have a certain section of the menu that’s really cheap, where someone can come in and sit at the counter and have, like, a bowl of beans, a slice of pie, and a cup of coffee. Maybe that’s under $15, which in 2021 is pretty cheap for high-quality handmade food,” he says.
However he manages to pull it off, Headley intends to maintain his trademark high-low balance, turning the stuff of fine dining into the everyday vegetable-centric fare of New York’s Everyman. “This sounds kinda corny,” he says, “but I want it to be a combination of Roll-n-Roaster and Chez Panisse. Roll-n-Roaster is kind of an amusement park, the way it always feels like a party, and Chez Panisse is, like, psychotic commitment to farmers’ markets.” The pairing of the Sheepshead Bay roast-beef-sandwich emporium and the Berkeley shrine to sustainable agriculture sounds a bit bonkers until you realize they’re contemporaries, each half a century old and its own fully formed, deeply storied world unmistakable for any other. In its own small way — and soon to be bigger — Superiority Burger has carved out its niche too: a short-on-space, long-on-charisma veggie-burger joint where the burger is almost beside the point but the veggies rule the show.