So what did I get up to this weekend? Well, not much, really. I just worked the very popular Burger Bash event at the NYC Wine & Food Festival. Oh, yeah, and the restaurant at whose stand I was helping out just happened to win first prize judge’s choice for their French Onion Soup Burger!
Here’s how I got involved with this. A week or so before the event, I reached out to a friend of mine who was coordinating the cooking and set up for the chef competing in this. She’s one of the people who helped to train me when I was a very green culinary student. (Piece of advice for current students: volunteer to work as many events as possible. It will make you faster and more adept at your culinary skills.) So, when I found out I wasn’t scheduled to work at my other three jobs, I offered to pitch in to help out. You’ve never seen an email returned so quickly saying, “Yes!”
I reported to the restaurant at 11:00 a.m. on Friday. My first task was to start getting things together to load them up into the large tubs that we used to transport all the burger fixings to the event site over at Pier 92. Our meat was being delivered directly to the venue by the distributor, Pat LaFreida Meats. We were sponsored by Thomas’ English Muffins, the same kind that is used for this burger when it is served in the restaurant. The English muffins were piled high on the table when we got there, ready to be toasted and paired with their burgers.
We arrived at the venue at about 1:00 p.m., and it was just prepping our area and getting everything set up from there. My first task – slicing in half the large pile of English Muffins and getting them set up on sheet trays to be toasted. Then, walking through with our coordinating chef the set up for our stations and figuring out the flow for the evening. These events are gobs of fun to work, but they take military-style precision to get the team to function in the most effective and efficient manner possible. The word “multi-tasking” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
When you walk into one of these events, you might generally have an idea of the equipment you will be working with for the next several hours. Things that can’t be controlled like the weather or power shortages only add to the fun and dynamic aspect of the day. Fortunately, we packed enough ice when we left the restaurant, as the bins for them hadn’t been filled when we arrived. We reorganized our speedracks and tables to work with the flow that the chef thought would be the best to cook, finish, and plate our dishes. The cooking took place outside of the main tent where the guests would be sampling the various chefs’ burgers. Given the smokiness of the grills, especially as the evening wore on, that was probably a smart decision. We all reeked of bbq grease and essence of cooked burgers at the end of the evening. I’m not sure that all the smell is still out of my clothes.
Once our area was in order, it was time to fire up the grills and get cooking. The containers of caramelized onions, this was, after all, a French Onion Soup Burger, were dumped onto the griddle and heated up to temperature before being held in a pan to be added to the burgers. English muffins were toasted on another griddle after being brushed with clarified butter. Then, there came a delivery of another component to our dish, one that I’d been looking forward to trying very much. We had Jacques Torres’ chocolate potato chips, salty, sweet, creamy, chocolatey, crunchiness to place alongside the very rich burgers.
The VIP guests started arriving at 6:30 p.m. Prior to that, we were told that the judges would be coming through at 6:15 p.m. All of the set up had to be done with the first set of everything: buns, burgers, fixin’s all ready to go to start pumping out plates of our dish. It’s like a starting gun going off at a race with it just taking off from there and everything flying at greater that full speed for the next 3+ hours until it comes to a complete and total stop or the station runs out of food, whichever happens first.
My task was to get the completed burgers sliced into quarters (our serving size for this event) and onto the serving dishes to be put onto the tray and then garnished with a few chocolate potato chips. After that, a culinary volunteer would run the tray into the event tent to our table there, where the chef would serve them to the guests. It was a continual, frenzied pace to continually get the burgers put together, sliced, and plated to go out. We had a lot of hungry guests to feed and folks really seemed to enjoy our food, coming back for seconds and thirds.
Smoke and grease filled the air, the grills were firing on all cylinders, and we just kept pounding away, moving as many burgers as we possibly could with everyone on the team jumping in to work as quickly as possible to get the trays out to the table. We each took turns plating, adding chips to the dishes, slicing, and running the food to the guests. I even manned the grill for a few minutes, toasting English muffins to give one of the other chefs a break and to let the smoke clear from his eyes.
Finally, when the chef gave us the “all in” (meaning we could quit cooking and start to clean up our area and pack everything to go back to the restaurant), I had a chance to run to the bathroom and to walk out the kinks in my back and knees (one side effect of moving in a limited range of motion for several hours while working these events). I made my way through the crowd of well-fed, happy guests who were all enjoying the music, the venue, and the great crisp fall weather. When I got back to our tent, I started clearing up and was barely listening to the background chatter coming from the judges’ podium. Our coordinating chef ran up and said, “We won! We just won Burger Bash! Did you hear that?!” We all ran into the main tent to see our head chef with his trophy and a giant smile on his face, as his industry peers had awarded him the Best Burger for Burger Bash 2013.
Winning or losing, it is always so much fun to work these events (although, it was pretty awesome to win this one). The adrenaline just flows, and it all comes together in some magical way to get the food prepped and on the table to feed people. It’s crazy, hectic, smelly, smoky, dirty, and madly frantic, but at the end, that beverage that you sip to celebrate the finish of another evening is the sweetest tasting thing you’ve ever had, and you go to bed completely spent but utterly satisfied that you did your job the best you could that day. Then, you sign up to work the next event, whatever that may be. In our case, we were back on again the next morning to work the Greenmarket Brunch.
Thank you so much to Angela Dimino for letting me help out with this event. It was a pleasure to work with her, Chef Paul Denamiel of Le Rivage, and the rest of the team. To make the winning burger at home, here is the recipe card that the folks at Thomas’ had put together for Burger Bash. You can also find the recipe here on their website. The chef created a Monte Cristo using Thomas’ English Muffins, too. We served that at the Greenmarket Brunch on Saturday. Here’s looking forward to next year’s competition!