Like a rhinestone cow, boy

The official photographer looked a little miffed that I kept taking photographs of the photographers, especially with my $100 pocket camera, but I got a kick out of it. The most amusing thing, though, was the idea of being lined up in front of a repeating background to have my picture taken with people who’ve been on TV and stuff. I tried to strike a modest pose off to one side, and let the spotlight fall to more naturally beautiful people like Top Chef/The Chew’s Carla Hall (who feels tall as a giraffe when your troll self is standing next to her), Jeff Mauro (who clearly understood that becoming the Sandwich King called for hiring a really good personal trainer), Bon Appetit editor Adam Rapoport (who’s somehow as thin as an exclamation point), and River Roast chef John Hogan—OK, him I might look like, but he has the porkpie hat look going for him.

Illinois Restaurant Association prez Sam Toia, Carla Hall, and Adam Rapoport
  • Michael Gebert
  • Illinois Restaurant Association prez Sam Toia, Carla Hall, and Adam Rapoport

But on Friday night I was a momentary paparazzi target as an official judge at Chicago Gourmet’s Hamburger Hop. There would be 15 burgers to judge and six of us officially judging them—Hall, Mauro, WXRT’s Lin Brehmer, Mario Rizzotti (a regular judge on Iron Chef America), head brewer Patrick O’Neill of Lagunitas (a sponsor), and me.

Under the big white tent, the chefs’ crews each had a portable grill, an allotment of beef from Allen Brothers (another sponsor), their choice of bun type from Turano, and whatever other ingredients they wanted to use. As dusk began to fall, they fired up the charcoal and started making burgers by the hundreds.

The grillman from III Forks

Knowing that we would have to taste 15 different entries, we plotted carefully how to do that without being sick by the end. One bite would have to suffice—even then, as Brehmer pointed out, that was probably about four full burgers. The burgers would be delivered anonymously, and we would grade them from one to five in four categories—taste, creativity, presentation, and overall impression. It’s hard to know how to evaluate anything before you have a little feel for the field, though, so Brehmer—who’s done this five years in a row—had a smart suggestion: just put down a dot by a score for the first few, and then when you feel confident about how they’re running, adjust those scores to reflect their position in the overall field.

Delivering a burger topped with a red pepper

And so the burgers started coming. One thing I felt immediately: the toppings could be wildly creative, like the one stuffed with melted leeks or the one with “chicken skin bacon” on top, but if you didn’t nail the fundamentals of a burger, it didn’t matter. One was near raw in the center, some didn’t have any taste of the grill, and many were just too sweet. There are a lot of chefs making onion marmalade and bread-and-butter pickles in-house these days, and using things like balsamic vinegar on a burger, and without a countervailing savory condiment, they all tasted like candy burgers, not robust, beefy burgers.

When one came along with that perfect balance of savory and sweet—like a burger with ketchup and mustard has—we all knew it and liked pretty much the same ones. One was (we learned later) the Cousin Vinny Burger by Troy Graves of Red Door; it was the spiciest of the night, with Wisconsin nduja pimento cheese and giardiniera:

Adam Rapoport photographs my Cousin Vinny

Another we all liked came right after: John Hogan and Tony Mantuano, of River Roast, topped steak with house-made head cheese, tete de moine cheese, and an onion-pickle relish that was both sweet and savory, and crowned it with a piece of crispy pig skin, in what they called the Tete de Tete. This had the best and most complex meat flavor of the night.

Tete de Tete

For me the best balance of sweet and savory came in a burger from another Top Chef name, Spike Mendelsohn, who had been the smart-ass bad boy of the season Stephanie Izard won. I saw no sign of that behavior as he served up previews of his upcoming Good Stuff Eatery. (But then my neighbor, Carla, had likewise been portrayed as a goofball through much of her season, until she was suddenly a serious contender who made it to the last episode. You can’t trust video editors.) The original Good Stuff Eatery is in D.C., and his Prez Obama Burger had the dreaded sweet red-onion marmalade, but smartly balanced it with Gorgonzola and horseradish mayo. It was gooey and terrific.

Spike Mendelsohn serving good stuff
Prez Obama Burger

And, surprisingly, eggs didn’t make an appearance on burgers until the very end. Guillermo Tellez, of Mercadito Hospitality, made a burger called the Chimi whose citrus-tangy chimichurri gave it just the right savory aspect. Carla also noted that it was smartly presented with the bun pinned on askew, allowing you to see the quail egg:

The Chimi

Again, we didn’t know who they were from, but we seemed to agree on these four as the standouts and wrapped up voting peacefully and quickly. Carla talked about her recently announced plans to open a Nashville-style hot-chicken place in New York, which she said had gotten a lot of negative social media feedback from Nashvillians, to which Brehmer replied, “If Gandhi was on Twitter, people would have tweeted that he was an asshole for promoting nonviolence.”

At around 8:30 PM, the chefs and judges were gathered on stage—photographers again!—and the results were announced. The people’s choice was Hogan and Mantuano’s Tete de Tete, while our prize and a big bottle of wine went to Mendelsohn for his Prez Obama Burger. I don’t know if it will be on the menu, but watch for Good Stuff Eatery to open around November.

Mendelssohn, next to Mantuano and Hogan