It’s been just over a year since the culinary world lost Anthony Bourdain. The celebrated chef and his strong -- often profane -- opinions helped bridge the gap between kitchens and the world of entertainment. His first book, Kitchen Confidential, is essential reading for any chef. I received my copy from my first executive chef and immediately tore through it on late night train rides, beer-filled patios, and smoke breaks. Bourdain’s ability to so accurately nail the joys and frustrations of the restaurant business resonated all the way from a Michelin-starred chef to a dive-bar dishwasher, instantly making him the voice of an entire industry.
What made him so accessible was his ability to speak with the same reverence and eloquence (guttural eloquence, but eloquence nonetheless) about The French Laundry as he would a midtown hot dog cart. In this regard, he was truly singular, and his resume gave it an authenticity unmatched by any other food writer or celebrity chef.
In a 2016 interview, the chef sat down with Tech Insider to go over his rules for the perfect burger. Now, there are few chefs whose words carry as much weight as Tony’s did, but if anybody would be ok with a little rule-bending it’d be him. With that in mind, let’s break down those rules, and maybe break them a little bit.
Keep it Simple, Stupid
Tomatoes, lettuce, onions, pickles, and a few others.
You want your burger to be comprised of common, everyday ingredients. If you want caviar, foie gras, or shaved black truffles, there are plenty of amazing dishes you can choose from; a cheeseburger is not one of them. There is no reason for a burger to cost more than a car payment.
Get that Bread
Classic soft, squishy potato bun.
Okay, I won’t disagree with Bourdain that potato buns are unbelievably delicious. They’re quite possibly the perfect canvas for most sandwiches. However, I need something just a bit sturdier to hold up to the grease and weight of a burger. A griddled brioche bun has just enough squish to it while possessing the strength necessary to handle a slab of beef. The rich, buttery flavor is an added bonus that works with the salty fat to hit even more taste buds with each bite.
Where’s the Beef?
Keep your sirloins and rounds out of here. You want your burger fatty, and those cuts just don’t bring enough punch to this fight. Chuck, brisket, and even short ribs are your 1988 Mike Tyson heavyweights. Grind your burgers in house to control the fat content and flavor. Never, EVER, use frozen beef.
Keep it Cheesy
Processed, meltable cheese.
Listen, I’m not one to disagree with the masters, and processed cheese certainly has a place on a burger, but so do natural, decadent cheeses. The right cheese can elevate a good burger to something special. I will take a slice of Gruyere, Gouda, or Tillamook cheddar over some pre-sliced, plastic-wrapped cheese-like substance any day.
…And Keep it Easy
The burger is the perfect dish not just because of how delicious it is, but because of how accessible it is. You can eat a cheeseburger in the car, on the couch, on a park bench, in a booth, or wherever the hell else you want to. Don’t treat your burger like the Lego towers you built as a kid and go sky high. One hand should be all you need to eat one, because you need the other one free for fries, drinks, or the steering wheel.
Perfectly Balanced, As All Things Should Be
Every bite should be a “perfect” bite, containing every element of the burger. There’s nothing worse than running out of patty when you still have a bite of bread left. Well, maybe bread, sauce, and a sliver of onion.
Mapping out your burger, ensuring that the ingredients all match up size-wise, can make the difference between a perfectly executed dish and a sad final note of an otherwise delightful experience.
Easy on the Sauce, Dude
Yes, ketchup and mayo are the standard bearers, but are they the only acceptable condiments? No way. As long as your sauce serves a purpose and compliments the other elements, put it on there. BBQ sauce, sriracha ranch, Hollandaise? If it fits the flavor profile, don’t let anybody tell you it’s too extra.
To Bacon or Not to Bacon?
Yes. Bacon makes everything better. Feel free to play fast and loose with the definition of bacon, however. A couple rashers of Irish bacon or a slice of Taylor pork roll can give you a similar hit of salty goodness while experimenting with different textures. They’re not right for every burger, but if they fit the theme you’re going with, don’t be afraid of change.
Are You Making Your Burger Better?
All of Bourdain’s rules really come down to one final question, and it’s one that we can apply to any dish: Are you improving your burger? Will caramelizing your onions make the burger better than a raw onion? If so, caramelize away. If not, move along. Will a fried egg really improve the taste of this burger? If you ask yourself the same question no matter what you’re doing, you’ll never go wrong.
That’s one rule not that’s not meant to be broken.