Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Food: To be a better cook, buy the right knives |

I had the pleasure of working with Andrea Weigl from the News and Observer on this piece. It was originally published in that paper and has since been picked up by the Charlotte Observer and Cape Cod Times.

Food: To be a better cook, buy the right knives |

Smashburger Comes to the Triangle

The plethora of burger options in the area has made discerning one from another increasingly difficult. So, when Smashburger opened its first Triangle store in Durham (and only the second in North Carolina), I was curious to see what (if anything) would set this chain apart.

Upon entering the fast-casual eatery, I received a pleasant surprise. A smiling team member greeted me: “Hi, welcome to Smashburger. How are you today?” Walking to the service counter, I felt appreciated and at ease. After a few moments of small talk, she asked, “Have you dined with us before?”  When I told her I hadn’t, she explained the menu, the technique used to cook the burgers, and the company philosophy.

Smashburger’s menu features seven composed 100% certified Angus beef burgers (including one local, seasonal special), a vegetarian black bean burger, five composed chicken sandwiches, and three salads in addition to the option to create your own burger or chicken sandwich. Naturally, Smashburger offers the usual assortment of cheeses and a variety of sauces, but the toppings and salad ingredients are outside the norm. Here, they are fresh and either prepared daily (the raw red onions, jalapenos, grilled onions, and grilled mushrooms, for example) or to order (like the fried eggs, guacamole, applewood-smoked bacon, and sliced avocado). Further surpassing burger chain expectations, Smashburger serves its sandwiches on artisan buns. Customers can choose between egg, multigrain, spicy chipotle, or gluten-free. Additionally, the menu not only offers traditional fries but also Sweet Potato Fries; “Smashfries” – seasoned with minced garlic, olive oil, and rosemary; “Veggie Frites” – flash fried green beans, asparagus, and/or carrot sticks; and “Haystack Onions”- thinly sliced onion rings, battered, fried, and seasoned.  Then, to go along with the typical soft drink options, Smashburger sells wine and local craft beer as well as hand spun shakes, malts, and floats, made with Haagen-Dazs ice cream.


My new friend then explained the “smash” in Smashburger: “Every time a burger is ordered, we take a loosely packed ball of fresh, never frozen, 100% Certified Angus beef and place it on a 400 degree butteredgrill. Then, we smash the burger with our signature smashing utensil, hold it for 10 seconds, and sprinkle it with our special seasoning mix. By doing this, we create a sear on the bottom of the burger that ultimately forces the burger to cook in its own juices and locks in all the flavors. The result is a consistently delicious, juicy burger that, we hope, will keep you coming back for more. This technique also enables us to cook your burger in less than four minutes, which is about half the time of a normal restaurant.”

After you place your order, the food is delivered to your table. So, unlike other burger joints, you don’t have to stand around awkwardly waiting for it to cook. Plus, Smashburger serves all its food in metal baskets, not in bags or wrapped in paper, and, if you’d like a knife or fork, you are given stainless steel to eat with, not prepackaged plastic.

Smashburger’s mission, to offer satisfying, affordable, fresh, high-quality food in a place with a burger soul, has definitely struck a chord. The Denver, Colorado-based company has more than 220 locations in 29 states and four foreign countries with new stores opening every month. If that’s not impressive enough, Forbes ranked the chain sixth on its list of Most Promising Companies.

The d├ęcor and atmosphere at Smashburger are atypical, too. Eye-catching local photos hang on the walls, and frosted glass separates the dining room from the entryway. Modern design, soft pendant lighting, cushioned booths, and wooden tables and chairs define the space.

How’s that for differentiation?

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

With a little help from my friend...

I know, I know. It has been a ridiculously long time since my last post. I’m sure some of you are asking, “What have you been doing?” or “What made you decide to start blogging again?” The first question is easy. I’ve moved twice, started writing for OKRA Magazine, and taught over 2500 students in my cooking classes. As for the second, …

I recently had the pleasure of sharing lunch with the generous, kind, inspiring, amazingly talented, and always gracious Nancie McDermott. Nancie urged me strenuously to blog again. Her last words to me that afternoon were “1 post, 1 week, don’t over think it, and don’t make it too long…or I’ll have to yell at you.”

In the days that followed our lunch, two of Nancie’s insights kept playing in my head. The first was an old Chinese saying: “The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second best time is today.” That is, don’t lament what you haven’t done. You can’t change the past, but you can get started (or restarted) today. Just show up every day and take baby steps. You’ll get stronger along the way.

The other was that we, as professionals, have a lot of knowledge that we take for granted. The techniques and tidbits we have stockpiled may be common practice for us, but they could be what motivates someone else to get in (or back in) their kitchen. As a culinary instructor, that hit me hard. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen something on Facebook or Twitter liked or shared a thousand times or called “genius” and thought, “Really? There are people out there who didn’t know that?” So, please, don’t take your talent, expertise, or experience for granted. Celebrate and share them. As Nancie reminded me, “You never know what someone else doesn’t know.”    

Thank you, Nancie! Here is my first baby step, my first post in over two years. And, by the way, I’ve already begun writing my next!

P.S. On top of being such a wonderful person, Nancie is the author of 10 cookbooks chock full of delicious dishes (including Southern Cakes, Quick and Easy Thai, Southern Pies, and Quick and Easy Vietnamese) with another on the way. Please read more about her and keep an eye out for her new book at Nancie also runs her own blog  You can find her on Facebook and Twitter @nanciemac.