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Secrets From D.C.'s Hamburger-Obsessed Chefs

Eater asked a handful of chefs around D.C. to give their expert opinions on those key factors that take their burgers — and burgers overall — from good to absolutely craveable.

Spike Mendelsohn
Spike Mendelsohn
Facebook/Good Stuff Eater

Photo: Facebook/Central

"Everything needs to match."

Chef David Deshaies says this and then points to a ring mold that he's set down next to a cutting board full of raw beef and other prep items. The man at the helm of Michel Richard's kitchen at Central is serious about product uniformity, which means it's not the only time he'll utter the statement. When it comes to burgers, he says he can't stand when the meat sticks out of the roll and the structure created by the protein and toppings doesn't line up precisely.

So Deshaies uses the mold to form perfect circles out of the ingredients. His cooks have even calculated exactly how much the beef patty will shrink during cooking to be able to form it into exactly the right size to achieve a perfectly symmetrical, easy-to-eat sandwich masterpiece.

It's just one of the tricks of the trade for achieving a top-notch hamburger that 100 patrons order and scarf down daily, as they do at the iconic downtown eatery.

Eater asked a handful of chefs around D.C. to give their expert opinions on those key factors that take their burgers — and burgers overall — from good to absolutely craveable.

Deshaies didn't stop at one or two factors; he went step-by-step through the meticulous process of his French bistro's burger-making, explaining the role of each ingredient, since, in his mind, they all work together to create just the right taste, texture and overall burger experience.

The patty itself is a special blend that Central gets from Shenandoah Valley-based wholesale meat distributor Huntsman Game and then dry ages for 14-21 days. A quarter of the 7-ounce patty is fat and the rest is a blend of three cuts: neck, shoulder and bottom rump.

"Nobody does this," he says. "I'd say 90 percent of chefs just use one cut."

Of the cuts in Central's patty, the neck is the one least used by others and, to Deshaies, the secret gem. It can be a tough cut yet it's incredibly flavorful. The rump is almost the opposite, softer but without as distinctive a taste. Combined, though, the three are harmonious.

Complementing the burger, Central incorporates caramelized onion for sweetness and potato tuiles for crisp. Instead of a raw tomato slice, the chef's preferred approach is to confit a tomato, in which he takes a large tomato, removes the skin and bathes it in olive oil, garlic, rosemary and other herbs.

Olive oil and milk also are the differentiators in Central's 2-ounce, house-made brioche buns, because Deshaies says the roll won't become overly buttery. Then, once the bun's been toasted, the chef spreads a Central-unique ginger mayonnaise over the bottom portion.  To cook the burger itself, he favors a cast iron skillet for the ideal exterior crust and a simple salt and pepper seasoning to punch up the natural flavors.

"I'm not big on using the grill for burgers," he says. "What you want is that great roasted flavor."

Photo: Courtesy of The Source

Burgers might not be the first thing that comes to mind at Wolfgang Puck's Asian-themed The Source. But the restaurant's high-end Wagyu beef burger continues to be a top seller at lunch during the week, says Executive Chef Scott Drewno.

Drewno, a self-proclaimed burger enthusiast, says at the top of the priority list for any burger is the bun, which is why his staff makes their own.

"At its base level a burger is a sandwich so if the bread is bad it won't be a good burger," Drewno says. "It has to stand up to the meat."

A close second is the actual meat, which should have an ample, yet not excessive, proportion of fat. For instance, an entirely Wagyu beef burger would be too much. That's why The Source's 10-ounce patty is 25 percent Wagyu added to a special blend of brisket, short rib and shoulder meat courtesy of Pat LaFrieda Meat Purveyors. The patties then get a healthy sprinkling of a specially-created burger salt.

Drewno says, besides the meat grind and prep, the meat cookery is just as critical. The Source's favored technique is to set each mound of meat on an 1800-degree, "ripping hot" flat top and then finish up the job on the broiler. When he's off the clock and cooking for himself, Drewno goes the way of the rooftop grill, which he calls "part of the joy" of burgers, and his condiment of choice is mayo. As a result, Hellman's, due to his upstate New York upbringing, and Duke's mayonnaise jars are always in his fridge.

Where chefs over think the burger equation is in the cheese, Drewno says. "All that really matters is that you get a good, melty cheese," he says. The Source's go-to is a cheddar from Maryland that's highly meltable. The eatery also adds in an herb aioli and garnishes each burger with Gordy's pickles to add some acid to an otherwise rich dish.

Photo: Facebook/Nage DC

Photo: Facebook/Nage DC

Burgers are the star on Monday nights at Nage, located within the Courtyard Washington. As of the fall, Executive Chef Dwayne Motley began offering a new burger each week to patrons as a way of "spreading his wings" as a chef and to appeal to both locals and hotel guests. The resulting burgers have run the gamut from lamb to New Orleans-themed, with a French Onion burger proving to be "the one everyone wants," chef says.

No matter the kind of burger he's serving, Motley, too, believes the quality of the bread matters most and he insists on his kitchen making all of it onsite.

"You could have Kobe beef, but if it's served on a low-quality bun, it's not going to work," he says. And, on the flip side, as a meat lover, he says he's even experienced veggie burgers made stellar because of killer, scratch-made buns.

After that, he stresses the importance of using good lettuce, good tomatoes, good cheese, making as many of the elements one's self and grilling the meat.

"I don't care how cold it is, I'm making it on the grill," he says. "The char and the smoke are everything." Motley will grill a burger to whatever temperature a customer prefers, but he jokes, "I just don't know about a person who has it well done."

Photo: R. Lopez

Photo: R. Lopez

The man behind both Red Apron and The Partisan, Nathan Anda, is a definite fan of the grill. But when preparing burgers, as his establishments do often, he favors searing the meat in a pan. Flame flare ups on a grill can take control of the cooking process and overpower the flavor of the meat.

This would be bad, considering that, for Anda, the meat is of paramount importance. At Red Apron as well The Partisan, he said, via email that he uses a special blend with a 70/30 meat-to-fat ratio.

Photo: Facebook/Good Stuff

Photo: Facebook/Good Stuff

Another burger heavy-hitter in the D.C. area, Good Stuff Eatery owner Spike Mendelsohn, wouldn't reveal the blend of his burgers' meat. But he said, through email, the three key elements to making a burger sing are burger-to-bun ratio; delicious, textured toppings and great cheese. To supremely cook the meat, he abides by a simple rule. "Treat it like any other piece of meat you cook and let it rest."

Photo: Facebook/Clyde's

Photo: Facebook/Clyde's

And Clyde's Restaurant Group President Tom Meyer, says, unequivocally, the meat is everything in determining whether a burger cuts it. Clyde's uses a blend that's 15 percent fat and includes chuck, hip and round cuts.

"[The key is] definitely the beef that we use. Also, not overworking the meat when forming the patty so that it is tender and juicy," he says. "Never press down on the burger while it's on the grill, because it squeezes the juice out."

He should know. Meyer estimates that Clyde's sells about 560,000 burgers a year.