The Search for the Imperfect Burger

by Ari Weinzweig

You did read that right. And I actually wrote it right too. Sounds strange but it really is what’s been on my mind.

It’s a new thing for me, this interest in imperfection. It just sort of happened. It’s strange how stuff can come together like that sometimes; fate finds funny ways of furnishing the material I need to make mental moves forward: things that unexpectedly open intellectual and emotional doors, stuff that helps me stay away from the stagnation of sitting with the status quo for too long. In this case it was a funny bit of nonfiction; burgers inserted themselves, unexpectedly, into the writing of a business book. One of the best things for me about writing as I get to do it here is that I move very freely from food to business and back again. Usually I have at least one essay on each in the works at the same time. I like that a lot—I live the food and the business work every day. And not that many people get to go from mission statements to wild mushrooms the way I do.

Burgers first came to mind last month, not because we were working on new menu items, but as part of the writing work I was doing. One of the eighteen or so essays in the forthcoming Zingerman’s Guide to Good Leading, Part One: A Lapsed Anarchist’s Approach to Building a Great Business is on our “12 Natural Laws of Business” (an essay from which is on page four of this newsletter). Although we’ve been using these “laws” for many years now, I wanted to reground myself in business basics, so I took a few hours out and reread one of my favorite books: Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. It’s a great resource—down to earth, easy to read, right on, and, not shockingly (I already told you how much I like it), very much aligned with what we do here at Zingerman’s.

Anyways, I was reading it with our 12 Natural Laws (many of which he hits on in his own Hawken-esque way) when I come across his ode to the hamburger. While I remembered the book, and how I felt reading it, very vividly, I’d completely forgotten about this little bit he’d put in on burgers. It’s only a paragraph, but there it is: burgers getting big billing in a business book. “Take a prosaic, everyday, kick-around sort of product,” Hawken wrote, “and make it real again. Hamburgers, for example. There are so many bad hamburgers in this world I venture to say that anyone with a hot grill who makes an honest one with generous portions and fresh fried onions will never lack for customers. In other words, take a product and reduce it to its essence.” I’m sure someone somewhere will argue with Hawken’s hypothesis, but not me. What he described in the book is a huge piece of what we’ve been doing here for nearly thirty years: burgers, bagels, rye bread or brownies, it’s all about taking stuff people know well in mediocre, mass market form and making it into something really special by using ingredients eight steps up from the ordinary.

And that Hawken anecdote is a good lead in to the second of my hamburger happenstances. While I was working on the Natural Laws essay I got a call from Alex Young, chef and managing partner at the Roadhouse. He wanted to share his excitement about all the work he was doing at our farm to take the restaurant’s food quality up a notch. Mind you this wasn’t about developing some new sauce for a special (though that’s good to hear about too), but rather about going back to the basics—actually raising beef: live animals, real feed, and all that fun farming stuff. Alex had bought some steers and was hard at work doing the same sort of stuff with them that he’s done so amazingly well with vegetables over the last four or five years. All that homework to learn about feed, care and animal husbandry . . . it’s work that most of us who cook for a living have heard of but are anything but experts in. We know a wee bit about what to do with good beef once it’s been brought into the kitchen, but raising the animals isn’t something they teach in very many restaurant kitchens. To Alex’s great credit, he’s taken the idea of going back to the roots far deeper than most any other chef around.

Of course everyone reading this—food professional or caring consumer (they do actually overlap of course)—will know, as I do, that the better the beef you use, the better the burger you make with it is going to be. And what Alex is doing is essentially the older style of ranching. He’s headed back to 100 percent grass feeding and the meat is truly tasting fantastic. Interestingly though, it’s not like the beef we’ve been using all along is bad. Fresh Niman chuck we’ve been getting for nearly seven years now is certainly no slouch. It comes from old breeds of English beef cattle, raised mostly on grass and without the now-standard-in-the-commercial-world use of added growth hormone and/or antibiotics, finished on corn, and handled humanely (certified by the Animal Welfare Society out of NYC according to codes crafted by the appropriately well-respected Temple Grandin, who’s been all over HBO of late).

Alex and I have tasted the grass-fed beef from Cornman and the grass-raised, corn-finished stuff from Niman Ranch that we’ve been buying for the Roadhouse since we opened in ‘03. Surprisingly (in a good way), both of them were delicious. Excellent, actually. Not that I need to, but I couldn’t really even say that one was my favorite. The corn-finished is more the flavor that I—and really most of us who didn’t grow up in Argentina, where grass-fed is the norm—were raised on: a touch sweeter, a bit more buttery on the tongue. The grass-fed beef, by contrast, tastes a tad leaner, the finish a bit cleaner. Honestly, they’re both really good. It’s like farmhouse cheddar from England and a comparable one from Wisconsin. Same basic approach, both are good cheeses; some of us like it one way, others another, but either can be excellent.

In both cases we start with fresh whole pieces of chuck, which are ground daily in the Roadhouse kitchen. We like it a bit coarser than most, the better to actually chew, the better to taste the full flavor of the beef. It’s then formed into patties by hand. Too much pressure packs the meat too tightly: most commercial burger meat is almost extruded into a sausage-like paste. When you come in and ask for one, we cook it to order on the grill, over heat generated by real oak logs. The finished burger goes quickly onto one of those really nice little “New Jersey” (soft, square onion rolls) from the Bakehouse and gets served with those double-blanched, freshly made every day fries (which, by the way, you get free refills on).

The third part of the mental trilogy of burger events, the one that pushed me into deciding to actually write this piece and to openly identify as an imperfectionist, was something that came to my mind while I was working on another essay for the business book. This time it was a piece on systems that got me thinking. Burger cooking, in the context of my systems work, is what we call a “craft system.” One in which, no matter how closely you follow it, there’s still a strong element of craft, in essence a bit of art, in the final piece of the work. Where, no matter how hard a mass-market machine-tooler might work at it, there’s just no way to get every product to be 100 percent perfect. You can systematize up to a certain point but there’s still the skill of the artisan, the nuances of nature in the raw material, etc. that bring a bit of variation into play. This, I have to admit, is where my new angle on imperfection comes in. The craft, the beauty of the imperfection . . . . it’s the poetry of the product. Burger preparation and the consummate cooking, the way we do it, is an art to appreciate. We do have a drive up window at the Roadshow for carryout, but the burgers people pick up aren’t in the least industrial.

One way they get the art and imperfection out of the mix in the middle and low end of the food world is often to simply avoid asking how you want your burger cooked—you get it well done, or you don’t get it. I doubt that too many people ever send anything back at a chain restaurant because the burger was “overcooked.” Most of us seem to just accept it as the norm. In any case it’s actually far easier to deliver accurately because restaurants purchase machine-pattied meat, (often frozen), and then cook it on an easier to manage gas-fired (not wood-burning, open flame) surface. Sadly though, you don’t get that nice subtle smoky flavor we like from the oak. Add to that the reality that pre-formed burgers don’t taste as good, the texture is too tight, and at the cost of flavor and transparency, no one (at our end at least) knows where the meat comes from without running something akin to global DNA testing (according to the NY Times, Fast Food Nation, etc..).

Here at the Roadhouse, we’ve opted for a more difficult culinary course, which is to ask the customer how they’d like their burger cooked, and then attempt to deliver it. The challenge is that there’s just no way, perfectionist though I am, to have 100 percent, perfectly cooked-to-order, hand-pattied burgers from the oak-fired grill the way we would handle systemizing the proper packing of a box on our Mail Order production line. The reality is that the hand-pattying, the temperature variation from the wood, the number of other items on the grill, etc. all impact the outcome: the grill cook really has to be skilled at what they do to get the burger properly cooked. In fact, the burger can easily be cooked properly on one side but be a bit under or overcooked on the other, perfect on the left side, slightly too rare on the right. This, I’ve come to realize is the beauty of the beast—the art of the artisan hamburger.

The funny thing is that while in general I’ll probably always strive for perfection, I really pretty perfectly made peace with the reality that traditionally made food is full of what the industrial world would call “faults.” Brown spots on antique apples, slight variations in crust color on artisan bread, the subtle shifts up and down in the flavor of farmhouse cheese from one day’s production to the next. Industry rid us of this problem by producing strictly middle of the road product—everything is the same, every box identical, every apple almost alike. Our work here has been to go back to what the food was like—often imperfect in one way or another but actually far more flavorful; I’ve actually long since come to love the subtle nuances, to bear with and actually appreciate the slight shifts in texture, color, and character that are always there. I know, and we appropriately teach, that every single day’s production and every year’s harvest is actually different. While I still want every loaf at the Bakehouse to be a 10 out of 10, I know that they’re made by hand, baked on the stone hearth, and that the loaves are always more or less special, subject to the vagaries of the weather, whim, and the slightest swings in the hand-speed of the bakers. Same is, for sure, true for cheese, cured ham, artisan salami and smoked fish.

But, somehow, having lived, breathed, cooked, taught and led this artisan activity for nearly thirty years now, even I had failed to realize just how much I’d fallen prey to the mindset of perfectionism when it comes to burgers. I can admit now, in hindsight, that in the inner-workings of my mind, I was still stuck on what is really a mid-20th-century, all-out industrial, fast food mindset about burgers. It’s an image that we’ve long since left behind in other areas; in the bread world we smile and say it was a “Wonder;” in cheese we chuckle and know it’s called “Kraft—with a ‘K’—singles.” The R & D folks get the product just right, then send the formula over to the factory where they make it exactly the same exact way every single day. But with burgers I’d failed to really appreciate the daily variations in texture, a touch of difference in the heat from the wood-burning grill, the slight difference in density that one person prepping might deliver in hand-pattying the freshly ground chuck from the woman who did it the day before.

Honestly, I’m not sure what I was thinking! Truly, this was sort of one those moments where something really “obvious” clicked on with exceptional clarity. What struck me straight upside my very active, if often odd, or maybe inaccurate, intellect is that although most of us, me included, have clearly long since left behind that mass market image of industrially consistent culinary consumption, somehow I was still sort of thinking of burgers as something that should come out with near total—almost unnatural now that I think about it—consistency. But now, thanks to the fates and the three burger appearances in my life last month, I actually see the light. Handmade hamburgers, I now realize, can hardly be expected to turn out identically any more than one ear of heirloom corn is going to come off the stalk exactly like the one opposite. Seriously, it’s actually inhuman—or maybe “impossible” is the right way to write it. (It was in the interest of that identicality that seed companies came up with all those varieties we’re now working very hard to get away from.)

Mind you, this acceptance of imperfection is not an endorsement for inconsistency, nor a back-handed way to say that bad burgers are actually OK. Having a hamburger my way still means that well over- or well under-cooked isn’t alright, and neither are burgers made from mediocre meat or less than great toppings. What we need to do is get the best possible ingredients together, teach the best possible techniques for prepping and cooking, and then follow them as fully as we can. And then, finally, eat each burger with relish (I mean the emotional kind, though you’re welcome to stick a spoonful of the green stuff on there too) and an appreciation for all its little wonderful imperfections. While you obviously want to have consistency—artisan doesn’t mean “anything goes”—that variation is part of what makes it so special. Every time I take a taste of say, Jamie Montgomery’s English farmhouse cheddar, I look forward to finding out what flavors will unfold as I eat. Each day’s cheese is a bit different, most are very good, every once in a while we hit one that knocks my scoring socks off and I give it a ten. The latter mind you, are few and far between. Randolph Hodgson, the man behind Neal’s Yard Dairy scores cheese all day. They do it there on a scale of 1-5 (we use 0-10). In all the years I’ve gone to taste with him I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him score a full-on five. A fair few four and a halfs, a lot of fours, a mess of threes (they don’t make the cut). But fives (or in our case, tens). . . they just don’t happen very often. And when they do, damn, I want to remember them for a long time to come.

With my attitude adjustment has come a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude. This is my new mindset. The burger cook, like a master baker, at work every day on the grill, putting to work his or her skill, a talent to be cared for, a craft to be appreciated for all its small subtle nuances. To appreciate fully the way the cheese melts off the side or stays slightly firmer, for the feel of the also handmade bun from the Bakehouse as you smush it down around the just off the grill burger. I now look forward to the nuances, appreciate the little things, the subtle changes in color, texture and flavor from each burger the way I do with artisan cheese. Life is richer and more rewarding for it.

I’ve always liked a good burger, far more than, say, filet mignon. I have high respect for foie gras and other fancy foods, but the reality is that I just don’t eat them all that often. What I like to focus on most are the dishes that I could eat daily, or almost daily, stuff I can enjoy with equal relish on a Monday night as I would on a Friday night, with family and out of town guests four days before Christmas. For me, burgers come in near the top of that list. Like a good grilled cheese, a great corned beef sandwich, a perfectly sauced bowl of very al dente pasta, a good fried fish sandwich or hot crispy oysters on the soft, well-dressed, bun of a po’boy… I like to take the foods that people take for granted and get them to a level of goodness that causes people to pause when they experience them; you open your eyes wide, shake your head slowly side to side, smile a bit and then go back, with gusto, for another bite. All the while appreciating the complexity, the interesting flavors, the aroma, the texture. The whole thing sounds like a glass of good wine or a carafe of aged cognac. But in this case, I’m thinking about cheeseburgers.

To check my own reality, as I like to do regularly, I ordered one the other day—Pimento Cheeseburger with Arkansas Peppered Bacon, medium rare (that’s how I like ‘em but you can of course get whatever cheese you want and have it cooked any way you like). You would certainly have grounds to say I’m biased for our burgers, but that said, I’ll tell you that I’m actually consistently one of our harshest critics. This really was a great burger. Mind you I don’t personally feel any need to say it’s “better” than any others—I’m not that competitive. I just want to know that when I (or you or your cousin from Kansas) eat one, it tastes pretty terrifically excellent. I took the first bite, hoping for something really good, and . . . I got it. Warm, clean, fresh tasting beef, a touch of smoke from the oak wood over which it’d been cooked, the creamy spiciness of the pimento cheese (not really melted—just softened a bit from the heat of the burger), and the lightly toasted New Jersey roll from the Bakehouse (it’s nice to have a bun that on the one hand, actually has flavor, but on the other hand, never dominates or intrudes on the flavor of the burger).

The thing with the burgers at the Roadhouse is that people who are eating them for the first time can’t believe that we don’t put something in the meat to make it taste so good. But we don’t—all we add is a touch of salt and pepper but no other spicing or seasonings whatsoever. Which is why their shock at how flavorful the burgers are usually just causes me to smile—it’s a testament to our long standing belief that if you start with really good ingredients your food is going to taste really good. Long time Roadhouse burger eaters are at the other end of the spectrum. Most tell me that they rarely eat burgers anywhere else. (I don’t begrudge if they do and I certainly don’t ask them—it’s just information that they seem to offer up, but I certainly don’t think we’re the only place in the world one can get a good burger.) What I do know is that these really do taste pretty darned good, and that once you get used to eating them, it’s very hard to go back to less flavorful beef.

So write this one down for your next business book. Really good burgers taste really fantastically good, and people really like them! Made by hand, cooked to order, inspiring in their delicious imperfection; the heat of the meat, the softness of the bun, the creaminess of the cheese, or whatever else you put on there, all coming together to make for one really good meal. You can linger over these. Take two bites and stop—eat nothing else for half an hour and I’ll forecast that you’ll still be tasting good things on your tongue. It’s what my friend Randolph Hodgson calls “a thirty miler”—something that still tastes good thirty miles down the road (he spends a lot of time driving, from one cheese farm to another). It’s a good thing. A really good thing.

To quote from one of my favorite food writers, John T. Edge, “We are at this very moment, in the midst of a burger renaissance. Here’s to a healthy appreciation of artisan imperfection, craft foods, a constant drive to improve (thank you Alex!), good grass grazing, and building a great business.

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