Since meeting London-based Burgerac several years ago, CH has kept a close eye on this burger fanatic’s creative interests. From reviewing almost every hamburger he came across and putting it online and in an app, to creating his own Burgermat Show (a one-night-only art exhibition and pop-up dinner), to collaborating with artists like Rob Flowers and Crispin Finn on burger-themed products to creating our recent barbecue-inspired 4th of July playlist, he always seems to have something exciting cooking. The culmination of his dedication may very well be Burgershack, a laid-back burger joint residing within a newly renovated Marylebone pub. While in town for the London Design Festival, we were able to sample—or, more accurately, devour—almost everything on the menu. Each bite proved that his mouth is as discerning as his eyes and ears.
With Burgershack now fully up and running at The Royal Oak, we took a minute to ask Burgerac about his latest endeavor. Read on, but be prepared to salivate.
Where did this insatiable interest in burgers come from?
There’s no quick answer to this. I think burgers were kind of taboo for me as a kid. My folks would never take me for a McDonald’s so the only time I had one was when a friend had a birthday party at McDonald’s or something. So yeah, Macky D’s was a place with lurid colors, a life-size clown statue you could have your photo taken with, placemats to color in, a free toy with your meal. And hamburgers and fries and chicken dippers and stuff. The combination of all those things was pretty magical when I was six. Then, about 10 years later, as a teenager lurking around town either on my lonesome or with friends at the weekend, the routine was pretty simple: work up an appetite by working your way round as many record shops as possible. I’d pop in to see the clown, or sometimes the king.
Then I saw a TV show by Heston Blumenthal in 2007 where he basically researched and created an ultimate burger. But the lengths he went to to understand what it is about the hamburger that is so awesome really spoke to me. Not only did he decide to use three different cuts of beef (short rib, chuck and brisket, if my memory banks serve me correctly) to get the right balance of flavor, texture and good ol’ fat, but he even spoke to a university researcher who’d been measuring hundreds of people’s maximum bite—the widest distance between your teeth when you open your gob to stuff food in. The reason he did that was he knew that key to the enjoyment of eating a burger is your ability to actually fit it in your mouth. The program made an impact on me. I found myself thinking about all of the things Heston had thought about every time I chowed down on a burger. My critical faculties were awoken and they haven’t slept since. I’ve been eating my way through the burgers of London and beyond ever since and blogging most of my experiences on Burgerac.
What’s the key to a slammin’ burger?
It sounds corny, but you’ve got to have love in your heart—as well as the best quality ingredients you can possibly get your hands on, of course. And you have to have a decent fat content in your beef patty. At least 15% but 20% is probably more like it. Fat is flavor and juiciness. Then you need to look to balance different flavors and textures, just as you would with any other dish. And to make it really slammin’ you have to really want to blow the minds of the people you’re making the burger for. I think that’s the one thing that gets overlooked by a lot of places that have a burger on their menu just because it ticks a box. But a burger doesn’t just have to taste good or look all big and impossibly sloppy—it has to eat well.
Good quality meat is sacred. Cooking the joy out of it is just the saddest thing ever.
Architecture and structural integrity are just as important as the building materials, and the only way to know how to create a burger that eats well is to have eaten a shed-load of different burgers and worked out what works and what doesn’t! If you consider all those things and combine your favourite burger components you can’t go wrong. Unless you overcook the meat of course. That’s the cardinal sin of burgerology. NEVER OVERCOOK THE BEEF, MAN! I’ve been known to weep on encountering an overcooked, dry and gray patty. Good quality meat is sacred. Cooking the joy out of it is just the saddest thing ever.
How did you get linked up with The Royal Oak?
I’ve known Leo Walton for just over 10 years. When we first met we DJed a lot together with a bunch of friends and put on various club nights. These days he’s the co-director along with Patrick Marling of a new pub company based in London that have a simple goal: to buy, refurbish and run beautiful old pubs in such a way that they can be proud. Good food, vintage sound systems, well-curated music selection, and but-of-course, well-curated beer, wine and spirits. Leo and Pat’s company, Golden Age, has two pubs in London, one of which is The Royal Oak in Marylebone, formerly The Temperence. I’ve been loosely involved with Leo and Pat since they started their business, in that we’ve had several beers together musing over what makes a truly great British pub, and our combined enthusiasms and know-how essentially led to the idea of me coming into the kitchen and running a pop-up at the pub. Almost as soon as we’d voiced the idea we started developing the concept of Burgershack and working out how to make it operational at The Royal Oak.
Who’s chef-ing, and what’s your role in creating the menu?
The current Burgershack kitchen team is three-strong: Steve, Morgan and Karim. They’re doing a really great job. Morgan just developed an awesome black bean and feta veggie burger which I’m super excited to add to our main menu. My role is in working closely with a development chef called Marky, and we created the original Burgershack menu. Marky’s based down in Cornwall so since we launched I’ve been tweaking things with Steve in the kitchen to get things how I want them. But Marky’s been working with us from afar too. He developed a slow-braised beef chili for Burgershack’s chili cheese fries and it’s delicious! As for my role, I suppose i’m like the creative director / executive chef all rolled into one.
Who’s doing all of the artwork, and how did that come about?
As well as designing the menu food-wise, I just designed a new menu graphically too—we sent it to the printers today! We’re also working with illustrator Rob Flowers to make sure that there’s just a hint of the kind of illustrated madness that McDonald’s brilliantly cultivated back in the 1970s. Rob’s created awesome illustrated grease-proof paper that lines our serving baskets and wraps takeout burgers. He also designed the awesome text-free sauce bottle labels for our house hot sauce, barbecue sauce and mayo, and he’s working on a couple of art pieces for the “upstairs burger room” above the pub which is already full of graphic artworks by the likes of Crispin Finn, James Joyce, Serge Seidlitz, Andy Rementer and more.
You’ve been reviewing burger joints around London for a few years now, what have you learned from all of your critiques that you’ve implemented at Burgershack?
I’ve learned so much about so many things it’s ridiculous, but the main learning that I’m bringing, quite literally, to the table at Burgershack is that quality is king. My burger adventures have taught me that if you want to serve up awesome fare, you can’t take shortcuts. The thing I’m most proud of is that several of the suppliers I’m working with are in a position where they can pick and choose who they work with because they’re so highly regarded. So to be working with Nathan Mills of The Butchery, Abiye Cole of Big Apple Hot Dogs, Nick Vadasz of Vadasz Deli, Giorgio at Gelupo (their gelati is out of this world) and not one but two brilliant bakers—it makes me a really, really proud. Without being able to work with the very best suppliers, we’d just be another burger joint in a crowded marketplace. Obviously, I’m biased, but at the same time, I’ve been doing my homework for the last four years, so I know for a fact: what we’re doing is good. And the really exciting thing is that it’s getting better every week we’re open. I’m really psyched!
What song from the tunes you’re playing most accurately sums up the vibe at Burgershack?
Let The Good Times Roll by Alvin Robinson
What’s next for Burgershack?
Burgershack is going to stick around in The Royal Oak for the next six months and then we’ll see what happens. We’re definitely keen to build momentum and do bigger and better things—rather than just call it a day in a few months. Yes, this is one of those spaces that you should watch.
Burgershack is now open through March 2015 at The Royal Oak, 74-76 York Street, London W1H 1QN. Have a listen to the Burgershack playlist
Images by Karen Day