The fact that Brooks Headley used to play drums in Born Against is not the coolest thing about him; somehow, neither is the fact that he has "a kelp guy," though that is extremely cool. It's not his alumni status as the former pastry chef of Del Posto. It's neither the brilliant writing and photography featured in his insanely charming first cookbook, Fancy Desserts, nor is it the Zen-level humility with which he approaches his successes in both the musical and culinary arts.
No, the coolest thing about Brooks is whatever mysterious quality it is that connects this multitude of personalities to make one extremely inspired and dedicated chef.
"This is the perfect arena for us to fuck around with seaweed and try to make it so people can get psyched about it," he says. "Whenever we get it, we always sell out. It's totally nuts."
Last week, Brooks ran a kelp special at Superiority Burger, his mere-months-old vegetarian burger joint in Manhattan's East Village that was recently named the Best Burger of the Year by GQ, in addition to receiving a beautiful two-star review from the New York Times. The kelp—akin to shrimp scampi with its garlic, parsley, reduced white wine, and chili flakes in a non-dairy cream sauce—seems almost like a freakishly adult iteration of the first meat analogs one encounters as a young, likely touring vegan. As such, it's perfectly understandable for people to be psyched about it.
"Oh my god, I've had so many seitan sandwiches. Just think about how bad they are for you. I think we actually went through a phase going to the Seventh Day Adventist hospital cafeterias just to eat fake meat."
His hardcore past, documented in the tour food diaries that pepper Fancy Desserts, informs his palate just as much as his fine-tuned gourmet's understanding of kelp possibly not working because of its foreignness to most Western palates. "It's too fishy, or too mineral-y," he says.
The same incredibly heightened palate that created a riff on a traditional Italian eggplant-and-chocolate dessert for a place with a Michelin star is now creating delicious and consistent $6 vegetarian In-N-Out style burgers, as well as meat-free Philly cheese steaks and sloppy joes, beautiful sides that often highlight uncommon ingredients and heirloom vegetables, and inventive gelatos on par with the ones he served at Del Posto.
The kelp scampi will soon be rotated out, as all SB sides are, via removal of the handwritten printer-tape sign from the specials board. Sometimes this happens mid-shift. Sometimes, as specials disappear, new dishes are created and taped up on the wall (as well as photographed and captioned for the hilarious and often disarming @SuperiorityBurger Instagram account. There, you might also catch SB insider secrets, like when you might get free food for wearing the best band shirt they've seen all day).
It all truly depends on what's in season. Brooks has a thing about that. Yes, thank god, there will be a Superiority Burger cookbook—not any time soon, but eventually—and the availability of fresh local produce might dictate the publication schedule.
"I'm kind of a complete control freak about cookbooks that claim to be about using seasonal local produce and then there's photos in the book that obviously aren't. So I actually went ahead and did a bunch of photography for the book already, at the end of this summer, just to make sure that I got the stuff that was in season during and at the end of summer. Maybe I'm the only person who would notice that, but yes, that strawberry is in-season."
Truth is, he's far from the only person to notice the care and consideration that go into his food. People fucking love this place. By quarter to 6, a line is already forming at the door and ribboning down the block. Some customers—even the "almost-kind-of-jerks" who first showed up thinking a gourmet veggie burger would be a novelty gag, "and then they'd get that and some other stuff and get really psyched and keep coming back, and now they're our buddies"—return several nights a week.
"There are these two skater kids who come here all the time. Neither of them are even vegetarian but some weeks, they'll come every day. They brought their friend who had never been here before a couple days ago, and we love them, so we just kept giving them extra stuff. The younger kid had never been here before and the one kid was sitting in the middle, and he was like, 'You know what he just said?!' pointing to his friend. 'He said, this is the first time I've ever thought food was awesome!'"
And it is awesome, largely because, from the burgers to the JV-soccer Superiority Water Cooler that he refills several times a night, it's exactly what Brooks wanted. This includes keeping the menu prices laughably low, which feels like a practice in keeping with the mythological $5 punk show, or selling a zine for the cost of shipping. Undoubtedly, food that's already really fucking good tastes even better when it's reasonably priced and eaten standing up, out of a little paper boat.
"I'm very pro- putting massive effort into something and not necessarily gaining the same amount out of it. I've always been that way. Friends of mine, restaurant people that have never listened to a punk record, come here and they're like, 'You're fucking nuts, this can't last longer than six months because you can't sell food like this for cheap. You just can't do it. You're gonna drive yourself crazy.'
"And I'm like, 'That's false.' The reason why this stuff is cheap is because this shit is important to me and I want to sell it for cheap, and I don't care if I have to work twice as hard to do that. It could be fleeting, too. It's 2015, we've found this little sliver of a place in Manhattan, the rent could get jacked up like crazy and we wouldn't be able to do this, but for now we can. We'll keep doing it because, like I said, if that one kid was like, 'This is the first time I've ever thought food was awesome,' that alone is worth continuing."