The Process: Brooks Headley, The Superiority Burger

In which an artist discusses making a particular work

The Process: Brooks Headley, The Superiority Burger

In which an artist discusses making a particular work

The Process: Brooks Headley, The Superiority Burger

Sam Korman
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He’s not going to like it if I write this, but Brooks Headley is a lot of people’s hero. For some of you, the hero worship might have started as far back as the early 1990s, when Headley played drums in Born Against, Universal Order of Armageddon, Skull Kontrol, or one of your other favorite hardcore bands. But the music world is not the only place he would have earned your admiration. Perhaps you became a devotee after eating at Del Posto, a high-end Italian restaurant in New York City, where he drew attention as the restaurant’s mischievous pastry chef. His were desserts in the expanded field—dolce, for Headley, included vegetables, as in his infamous dish involving chocolate and eggplant, or gelato paired with carrots. In a definitive way, he became everyone’s hero with the publication of his cookbook, Fancy Desserts, which collects his jaunty, punk-inspired recipes into a gastronomic portrait of the underground. Take, for example, popcorn with nutritional-yeast pudding, a dish whose origins include a punk house he shared with bandmate Mick Barr and the tasting menu at Coi, a Michelin two-star restaurant in San Francisco. Though Headley was already in possession of a James Beard Award at the time of its publication, the book nonetheless cemented his status in the food world at large.

Today, the reason you still keep a framed picture of Headley on your nightstand has to do with Superiority Burger, a monastic six-seat restaurant built around the humble veggie burger. The eponymous dish is a pretty simple concoction: the ingredients top out at chickpeas, walnuts, caramelized onions, fennel seeds, chili powder, cracked pepper, carrots, quinoa, olive oil, and potato starch. It is served on an industrially produced bun. But the straightforwardness is part of the trick. Since it opened, in 2015, Superiority Burger has earned a cult following, not only for the burger, but for a particular ethos ingrained in Headley’s vegetarian cuisine. You find it in his menu’s inquisitive and reverent attitude toward ingredients—during the 2019 holiday season, the restaurant celebrated the arrival of a festive, ruby-colored winter-greens salad, imploring on its Instagram, “almost xmas? eat salad!” Indeed, it’s this idiosyncratic, almost self-deprecating sense of humor that keeps the place from being dogmatic.

After our conversation, which focused primarily on the burger, Headley became my hero too. Accessibility, both in terms of taste and price, is no small feat in New York City, a place where success often depends on your ability to distinguish yourself from others. But herein lies the humble virtue (and eccentric humor) of his approach to food. To borrow the slogan of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: there is no wrong way to eat a Superiority Burger.

—Sam Korman

THE BELIEVER: I heard a story about one of the bands you were in, Men’s Recovery Project. I really hope it’s true, because it seems to foreshadow your current role as a purveyor of the high-fiber delicacy, the Superiority Burger, which is what we’re here to talk about. My friend told me that the band was supposed to play a show in Tempe, Arizona. They were really late, but they kept calling the venue to reassure everyone they were still coming. They kept telling them, “We’ll be there. We’re on our way,” until it got really late. Eventually, the band pulled up outside the show. The crowd had waited hours to see them. All of a sudden, the doors to the van fling open and all the band members jump out. They pull down their pants, start to rub their stomachs, and chant, in unison, “I’m digesting. I’m digesting.” After a few moments, they jump back into the van and drive away. That was their whole set.

BROOKS HEADLEY: [Laughs] Unfortunately, I wasn’t on that tour. I was only in the band for one record. They were a very special band, though. I love everything about Men’s Recovery Project. Very visionary name too. I can definitely say that I wish it had been me.

BLVR: Dammit. Let’s just talk about the burger, then. I want to discuss it soup-to-literal-nuts.

BH: When people ask what a Superiority Burger is, our main register person, Christina, describes it as a vegetable croquette. I like it. Describing the veggie burger as a croquette sounds kind of silly. But, more or less, that’s what it is. After four years, Christina still gets asked what it is every other order. When you actually get one in your hands, though, I want you to be able to pick it apart and see what’s in it. Part of how we figured that out was by going through the cupboard and mashing a bunch of household ingredients together. There’s a carrot. That’s quinoa. Mashed-up chickpeas are what hold the thing together. There’s toasted, ground walnuts. And a lot of flavor comes from slowly caramelized onions.

Most veggie burgers use some billion-dollar lab vial of fake meat essence that people agree tastes like the real thing, which is why the really techy Impossible Burger tastes the same as the frozen Boca Burger I ate in 1993. With the Superiority Burger, there’s no seitan, wheat gluten, or texturized soy protein, none of the stuff usually associated with veggie burgers. It doesn’t flake apart like an actual burger does. I wanted it to be recognizable as food.

BLVR: Sometimes I think of it as an updated workers’ lunch.

BH: The idea is that the burger is six dollars and you can get a burned-broccoli salad for four dollars. With tax, that’s ten dollars and eighty-nine cents for a very filling meal. In 2019, that’s cheap for real food.

BLVR: There’s the burger at the restaurant and now there’s the burger as a recipe in a cookbook. I’ve been eating at the restaurant for years, but only after I made a batch myself did I realize how French the thing is. I thought of it strictly as an imitation of a hamburger—that’s why I always ordered the larger version, the Megamouth, because I expected a giant burger. But the way that you use the onions, chickpeas, and spices to build up a fond on the pan, deglaze it, and reincorporate all those toasty flavors into the mix—these are the principles of French sauce making. At every step, you’re building and compounding all of these layers into a multidimensional thing.

BH: People ask me, “Why did you open up a restaurant to sell veggie burgers? That’s weird and kind of silly.” But that always makes me feel good, that someone would actively tell me I was doing something stupid. I sort of agree with them, because a vegetarian burger is sort of silly. I ate a ton of them growing up. But after sixteen years of working in fancy restaurants, I knew I could do a better version of the veggie burger. That is why I ended up cooking the burger.

The fancy-restaurant stuff is definitely on the works cited, like the twelve-hour Bolognese they made at Del Posto. I worked there as a pastry chef for years, and even though I wasn’t on the line, prepping sauces, I constantly watched what the line cooks were doing. I’d always ask them, “What’s the purpose of cooking the celery, onions, and carrots for eight hours before you do anything else?” That’s a totally crazy amount of time, but sweating them for that long brings out all the flavor those vegetables can provide. Then they add veal, pork, and mortadella—basically a pretty traditional sauce Bolognese, but done carefully over a long period of time. The Bolognese is as far from the actual Superiority Burger as you can get, but I would watch them layer the flavors, and that is definitely how we make the patty.

I also thought about how clinical and industrial it feels to open up a package of frozen veggie burgers and see the icy, texturized wheat protein. I wanted to do the opposite of that, which is using the best olive oil I can get my hands on. It’s freshly toasted walnuts. It’s the flavor that comes from toasted fennel and chili and freshly ground black pepper. And unlike a fancy restaurant or an industrial operation, we don’t waste anything. I don’t care if it’s a little grotesque, chewy, or full of stems. That’s what the food is. I’m more concerned about the impact of the flavor.

BLVR: That’s part of the joke, right? Your website lists your core value as humility, but the title product of your restaurant is called the Superiority Burger.

BH: The whole enterprise is definitely layered in stupid jokes. You have to be a little bit of a psychopath to eat at Superiority Burger.

BLVR: I want to talk about your relationship with recipes. In general, you’re pretty open about your inspirations and influences and aren’t afraid to say where you lifted a recipe from. One of your articles even taught me the Yiddish word yentz, which means “to cheat someone out of something.” Taking that stance pretty openly demystifies the character of the genius chef, which seems pretty pervasive.

BH: In terms of cooking, very little is new. Most of it is just something someone revised or repurposed in a different way. Most of the bands that I really love are collage artists. They’re actually inspirational to me, whether it’s Throbbing Gristle or even Cheap Trick. Taking all these disparate things and mashing them together, making music that maybe didn’t exist before. But as a listener, you can piece together where the parts came from and see them in a different context. Because of that, I can’t handle the cult of the chef as the tortured genius. At this point, it’s a disease in the restaurant world. You didn’t invent anything. You pushed some stuff together and you made it taste good. Or maybe you pushed some stuff together and it was weird and it didn’t taste good at all.

I have a really hard time following recipes myself. Which is funny, since I’ve written two cookbooks. I tend to always immediately want to adjust them, even before I know the recipe itself. The cookbooks that I love, sometimes I don’t make anything out of them at all. I’m reading them for great, succinct headnotes to tell you what a recipe is about. There’s an Italian restaurant in London called the River Café, and most of the headnotes on their recipes are just a single sentence. There’s a no-bullshit quality to it that comes through in the food too. I love that they’ve published a ton of books, but they’re always the same. They remind me of Motörhead. Every Motörhead song kind of sounds the same, and they’re all kind of great, you know?

BLVR: Can you talk more about how the burger relates to the rest of the stuff on the restaurant’s menu? I suspect the main, title dish is merely an anchor.

BH: Since the recipe is set, the burger is the one thing at the restaurant we can make in bulk. That means that financially, and even mentally, it floats all the other stuff we get to do. It’s common for me to go to the Union Square Greenmarket three or four times a week. We get the best possible chicory from Campo Rosso Farm, the best possible dried beans from Quarton Farm, the best possible strawberries from Berried Treasures. These are all farmers I have dealt with for four years now. So you have the burger, but your side might be a salad with the same exact ingredients used by the fanciest, most expensive restaurant in the city. Maybe the expensive version of those same ingredients appears in the context of a three-or-four-hundred-dollar tasting menu. We take that same produce and serve it in a disposable paper boat. I love that so much. It makes me giddy when I come to work in the morning. When we do pasta salads, I’ll order literally the best dried pasta from Italy, the kind of stuff other restaurants charge thirty bucks for. We charge seven dollars, using the same exact ingredients. There’s something so ridiculous about that. We basically sell that stuff at cost.

I always say this: had I not been such a fan of Dischord Records and Fugazi and everything Ian MacKaye has ever done, I’d probably have the most expensive vegetarian restaurant in New York. But accessibility is really important to me. I know so many people that own or work in fancy restaurants in New York City or in other parts of the country, and I can’t imagine being in that world anymore. Especially now, with Donald Trump as president—how can you work in a fancy restaurant? It’s the grossest. It’s really crucial that I sell things as cheaply as possible. It’s not because I don’t see value in it, but Fugazi only ever charged five bucks for their shows. They used to say something like: It’s five dollars, that’s nothing. If we suck, who cares. It’s five dollars. I like that attitude. They downplayed the fact that they devoted their entire lives to being in this band, but when they played, they never sucked.

BLVR: I have to admit, I was pretty skeptical of Superiority Burger at first. It was the name. I didn’t get the joke yet. I thought, What are these vegetarians trying to sell me on?

BH: For the most part, the burger is a way to rope people into the whole cult of Superiority Burger. If I happen to be near the register, I’ll recommend a bunch of stuff, especially if something really seasonal is on special. But I like it when first-timers say, “No, I’ll just have the burger.” They’ve heard about only the burger.

BLVR: That was me.

BH: So that person comes back to get the burger again, and this time gets a salad, and then something else. We have lots of regulars, and they usually get to the point where they never get the burger again. There’s beautiful, wonderful people that are now my friends from being regulars at the restaurant, who I never would have met if I had a really expensive place. They eat all the other stuff we come up with. I like the fact that we’re hard to define, because we’re a vegetarian restaurant. It’s called Superiority Burger, but I think it would be funny if, at a certain point, we didn’t even sell the burger anymore.

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