It’s not hard to track down Brooks Headley on any given day.
“I am always at the restaurant,” the chef and owner of Superiority Burger says recently on a call from, of course, his restaurant. “They have to force me to take days off, I don’t like it.”
Headley lives a block away from his East Village spot, which enables this lifestyle.
“There are months at a time when I go nowhere except for the restaurant and my apartment to sleep in, and Union Square to go to the markets,” says Headley, 45.
This month, the James Beard Award-winning chef is stepping out of the kitchen to promote his latest cookbook.
“Superiority Burger Cookbook,” out this week, is a document of the vegetarian restaurant, which in just three years has become a destination for meat and non-meat eaters alike for its inventive, flavorful fare.
The restaurant’s bestseller is handily its namesake — a quinoa-chickpea patty whose fans range from David Chang to Cate Blanchett — and is the first recipe in the cookbook.
“I think the key thing about the burger is, everything is made by hand,” Headley says. “We don’t even have a big mixer to mix the burger. Everything’s mixed by hand. Everything is hand-formed. This isn’t something that we’re buying frozen. It’s not getting packaged in a factory somewhere.”
The recipe took some testing before landing on which grains and beans to use and how to best bind them. (Eggs were replaced by a potato starch slurry to make it vegan.)
“What I realized in opening up a vegetarian restaurant, what you’re actually doing is opening up a vegan restaurant,” Headley says. “You can’t open up a vegetarian restaurant and not have 100 percent vegan options for people.”
About a month in, Headley ditched eggs in the burger as well as from the ice cream on the dessert menu, which helped in more ways than one.
“It’s actually kind of a relief not to use eggs because they’re hard to store and they take up a lot of space, which we don’t have,” he says.
With just 300 square feet to work with, Headley and his team have to be efficient about their use of equipment and ingredients. That includes no deep fryer for French fries.
“I don’t have a beef with French fries — I love French fries — but we would probably mess them up so we don’t make fries,” he says. “A place like Balthazar does amazing fries, but we don’t have the space or manpower to do fries.”
Instead, Superiority Burger offers different sides to pair with your burger, from warm and cold salads to a variety of crunchy potatoes.
The more than 100 recipes in the cookbook have at some point been served in the restaurant, whether as a menu staple or a special.
“Cookbooks don’t make any money — I was compelled by a higher force to document what we’re doing,” Headley says.
Superiority Burger doesn’t stop innovating; since wrapping up the manuscript a year and a half ago, Headley and his team have come up with another 100 recipes.
“Through the process of writing and figuring out the recipes, we usually write them on printer tape from the order machine — you’ll find them taped all over the walls and hanging off the ceiling,” he says. “We have crazy scraps of paper taped everywhere.”
“Superiority Burger Cookbook” is as much an ode to the restaurant as it is its regulars.
“Superiority Burger is very much a community thing,” Headley says. “We have tons and tons of regulars who come almost every day, even though there’s only six places to sit.”
Since opening, Superiority Burger has drawn a “psychotic devotion” from its regulars, the chef notes, which he attributes to the ever-evolving menu.
“We change things around a lot — there’s always something new on the menu,” he says, from specials to daily gelato and sorbet flavors. “We have people that come here all the time and show up to be able to try a new experiment.”
In honor of the restaurant’s devotees, the cookbook devotes nearly as many photographs to its regulars as it does the recipes.
“All the human beings in the book are all regulars,” Headley says. “We didn’t do a photo shoot — we actually sent out an invite to all of our regulars to just show up at a couple different sessions. Our regulars are the ones who keep us going. They get credit just as much as anyone else.”
Some of the recipes are even named after regulars; the Sloppy Dave, a meat-free take on a Sloppy Joe, is named after artist and Our/New York partner Dave Ortiz, who comes in several times a week.
“I was like their first customer,” says Ortiz, who lives around the corner from Superiority Burger. “The sandwich was originally called the Sloppy Joe. I complained — they couldn’t call it that because that was a meat sandwich. I told them to make it Sloppy Dave, and they did.”
Here’s the recipe for the sandwich:
- 2 large Spanish onions
- 3 celery stalks
- 1 green bell pepper
- 3 scallions
- 3 pickled cherry peppers, stems removed
- 4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp. tomato paste
- 3 tbsp. chili powder
- 1 1⁄2 tbsp. ground cumin
- 1 tbsp. Korean chili flakes
- 1⁄4 cup cider vinegar
- Two 15-oz. cans crushed tomatoes
- 1⁄4 cup ketchup
- 2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
- 2 tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 3 tbsp. Bragg Liquid Aminos
- 1 1⁄2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 2 lbs. extra firm tofu, drained
- Toasted sesame seed buns
- Frizzled onions (recipe follows)
Roughly chop all the vegetables, including the cherry peppers, and process in batches in a food processor until finely chopped. Heat 3 tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat in a big pot and add the processed vegetables. Salt. Cook until the veg is totally soft and takes on a little color, about 20 minutes. Add the tomato paste and spices and cook for another 10 minutes, stirring frequently. It is OK if it sticks to the bottom of the pot. Add the cider vinegar and scrape the bottom of the pot to get off all browned bits of vegetables and tomato paste.
Add the tomatoes, ketchup, brown sugar, mustard, 1 tbsp. of the amino acids, and the black pepper and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for as long as you can — 30 minutes will do. While the sauce is simmering, crumble the tofu. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the remaining 1 tbsp. oil and the tofu and brown. Once the tofu is mostly brown, pour in the remaining 2 tbsp. amino acids and let cook a bit longer, until the tofu absorbs all of the sauce and begins to caramelize. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Roughly grind the tofu in the food processor. Add the tofu to the pot of sauce and continue to cook. Season with salt and black pepper. Serve on a toasted sesame seed bun. Top with frizzled onions.
For 8 Sloppy Daves
- 2 Spanish onions
- 1 cup Wondra flour or rice flour
- 1 cup all-purpose flour
- 8 cups grapeseed oil for frying
Peel and cut the onions in half. Use a mandoline to cut paper thin. Mix the Wondra and all-purpose flours and season with salt and pepper. Heat the grapeseed oil in a heavy deep pot to about 350 degrees. Put the onions into the seasoned flour, toss to coat, shake off the excess flour, and carefully drop into the hot oil. Do not add too many at once — the oil will overflow and ruin everything. Using a slotted spoon, agitate and stir the onions until they are golden brown. Drain on paper towels and season with more salt. Repeat the frying process.
Recipe from “Superiority Burger Cookbook” by Brooks Headley. Copyright 2018 by Brooks Headley. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
IF YOU GO
Brooks Headley celebrates the release of “Superiority Burger Cookbook” with:
- A chat with TV/radio host Ian Svenonius at The Strand on June 4 from 7-8 p.m., $15 (gift card) | 828 Broadway
- A class on cooking with beans at the Museum of Food and Drink on June 7 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., $25 | 62 Bayard St., Williamsburg
- A chat with Peter Meehan at Books Are Magic on June 26 from 7:30-8:30 p.m., FREE | 225 Smith St., Cobble Hill