It's the thyme, really, that puts Tavern Road's burger on another level. It's the only seasoning the restaurant adds to the patty, besides a little salt on top. Otherwise, the burger is 100 percent Creekstone Farms chuck flap, ground fresh by Tavern Road's chefs a day before it's on your plate. Vermont cheddar, smoked in-house, as well as sous chef Ken Rogers' signature savory bacon, add additional flavor. And then there's the aioli.
"We make our own aioli, add a little garlic to it, finish it with some Sriracha. Then, I take some pickles, chop them up, and fold them into the aioli. We make all the pickles in-house," Tavern Road chef and co-owner Louis DiBiccari explained. "All the components together are really essential, but that's the one that really gets your salivary glands going."
DiBiccari has been getting Boston's salivary glands going with this burger since his days as chef de cuisine at Sel de la Terre, a title he held from 2008-2011. He brought the recipe with him when he and brother, Michael, opened Tavern Road in Fort Point in 2013, "because if it’s not broke, don’t fix it," DiBiccari said.
"It’s something that makes people really happy."
"Since we’ve had it on the menu here, people have thanked us for it. 'Thank you for bringing this back.' We try not to think of the burger as something that’s pulling away from the sale of other food," he continued, expressing an opinion held by some chefs that ordering a burger is a waste of a decent dinner. "Instead, it’s something that makes people really happy, and it brings more people in. I just want people to leave Tavern Road psyched about what they had. I don’t really care what they eat."
Perhaps DiBaccari should have rephrased: He cares deeply about what his customers eat, which is why Tavern Road has an extensive whole animal butchery program. "It's a very responsible thing to do," the chef said during a recent media event that Tavern Road hosted with the American Lamb Board. For about 25 minutes before serving a four-course, lamb-centric lunch, DiBiccari talked about Tavern Road's commitment to its meat-forward menu, while a sous chef and butcher broke down a 150-pound lamb on a huge, wooden table behind him.
The restaurant installed two broad farm tables in between Tavern Road's open kitchen and dining room so that guests could have the chance to see them freshly butcher the meat that will be on tomorrow's menu. "It’s important to us for you to see what we’re doing. We want the 'wow' factor of those people that are finishing up their dinner at 11 o’clock at night," DiBiccari elaborated during a later interview. "We go into the walk-in and bring [whole animals] out and start butchering them. You don’t have to get up and watch, but it’s important for you to know that we know where your food’s coming from."
And there's so much meat to enjoy at Tavern Road. In honor of Burger Week, Louis DiBiccari discussed the restaurant's whole animal butchery and meat program.
In every bio out there about you, it talks about your "nose to tail" style of cooking. How did that develop? Was it from your family, or ...?
No, it developed from my second family, which was L’Espalier. L’Espalier was a unique kitchen, where at 11 o’clock, when you put out that last dish, you’ve scrubbed the kitchen down and the place was perfectly clean and sparkling, we’d go to the walk-in and bring out lambs and bring them out and mess the kitchen up. We did our butchering at night, while the cooks were leaving their restaurants and going out to Silvertone or wherever they were going. We were doing late-night prep, which was butchering all the animals.
This was early on [in my career]. I basically learned how to make salad, and then I learned how to butcher lamb. They instilled that in you. You need to know how to wash lettuce, how to shuck an oyster, how to make an emulsification, how to toast garlic, and you need to know how to fabricate an animal. These are all things that are really important parts of your culinary world. Those are things I wanted to do anyway. I became the first person to run to that walk-in when we had them. We used to get the lambs from Lovejoy [Brook] Farm in Vermont, from Lydia Ratcliff, who is legendary for farming in New England. She was the farmer who provided a lot of large animals back in the day. I started [at L’Espalier] in ‘98.
When we started to develop the plan for Sel de la Terre, whole animal butchery was a big part of it. We always had a goat tart on the menu, and we’d always get in goats. We’d take the primals and use them as center-of-the-plate specials, and we’d take the rest of the goat and confit it and use it in the rest of the tart. We always worked with pigs also. We worked a lot with whole animals, but our charcuterie programs never went as far as the one at Tavern Road has gone.
Why are you drawn to that kind of meat program?
For one, I love charcuterie. I think it’s really fun. I think it’s challenging. Also, I think it’s responsible.
One [event] kind of changed my mindset, and I think that of a lot of cooks here: A friend of mine brought another couple in [to Tavern Road] one night. They were farmers; they said they were raising pigs. They said, ‘Would you be interested in purchasing pigs from us?’ I asked what kind of pigs, how are they raising them, that kind of thing. They said they’re raising saddlebacks. That’s my favorite kind of pig. They are a great charcuterie pig, maybe the best. Their ratio of meat to lard is kind of perfect for charcuterie. I said, ‘I’d love to work with you on them.’ They said, ‘Why don’t you come up to the farm?’ So, I did. I brought a couple of line cooks with me, and the deal was we were going to lead [the pigs] onto the truck where they were going to be taken for slaughter. So, we’d be spending some time with the pigs, then we’d send them to be slaughtered, and we’d receive them in two days. I wanted them to see that, to get that experience. Hey, you just fed it with your own hands, you spent time petting it, and it’s here now. Treat it right.
When [the couple] dropped the pigs off, they sat there and had lunch and watched us. We had three pigs on this table and three separate people working on them. I said, ‘Do you want to come up and watch what we’re doing?’ And they said sure. The woman came up and I asked can you identify them? And she did. But I could tell, there was sadness. They felt attached. These were pets. I guess I always realized it, but it was never as aggressive, not as in my face.
That’s when we really turned the corner. I said, I don’t want to do charcuterie anymore; I want to do artisanal charcuterie. We went from doing cures that were really on point, to, say, let’s introduce burnt orange, lavender, and chili to this one; let’s overhaul this with herbes de Provence; let’s make this one spicy, smoky. We started to take that final product into a whole different direction.
"We wanted these tables three feet away from the first table in the dining room, because for us, this is show business."
This restaurant is borne of your idea to have this kind of program.
Yeah. We bought these farm tables. [DiBiccari gestures to two large, wood tables that separate Tavern Road's open kitchen from the dining room.] They’re here as a big, wide pass so we can get a lot of plates in the window at one time, but that wasn’t necessarily their intention. I could have bought any type of table for that. We wanted to butcher on them. The idea was we could get two, three whole animals up on these things at a time, and we wanted these tables three feet away from the first table in the dining room, because for us, this is show business. It’s important to us for you to see what we’re doing. We want that L’Espalier effect, where we go into the walk-in and bring [the animals] out and start butchering them. Everybody stops what they’re doing, they get up, they’re like paparazzi taking pictures. And it’s awesome. A few squeamish people don’t get up, but whatever. [Laughs] You don’t have to get up and watch, but it’s important for you to know that we know where your food’s coming from.
You said the last time we met that this takes skill, handling this kind of work. What physical and mental skills does it take to handle this kind of kitchen?
Time management is probably the most important factor. You need to fabricate it right away, and you have to have a plan, a strategy for all the different muscles and what you’re going to do with them. And that means a lot of the prep: the brines, the rubs, the salt cures, whatever we’re going to do for each part, the marinades, those all need to be made before the animal gets here so when it gets here, we can butcher it right away and get all the muscles into the right treatments. Also, what’s going to get ground, what’s going to turn into a pate, sausage, a hot dog, lamb burgers, what is the grind going to be, and get it so it’s ready to grind: Everything’s cold. And then, after we grind it, we let it bloom for a night.
Charcuterie comes down to a calendar. That’s true for any time you’re dealing with whole animals, and a lot of different components at the same time and a lot of different preparations, all coming from this one source. And it’s all time-sensitive because it’s perishable. That calendar could last a year if you’re making prosciutto [laughs] but that first week of the calendar is really important.
Now that we’ve launched into the street food menu that we’ve created, I’m really excited to see how it works out. You won’t see charcuterie boards with the street food stuff we’re doing, but you see a lot of influence of charcuterie in the food. We’re not going to stop making it, but maybe we’re going to stop putting it on boards with pickles and garnishes, and we might just start using it in recipes a lot more as part of the composition.
So, let's talk about the burger. You don’t butcher the cattle here.
No. In the past, I’ve worked with a side of cattle. It’s a ton of work.
How big are they?
Like, 300 pounds. They’re crazy.
How big is a pig or a lamb you butcher, for reference?
I’ve used a 300-pound pig, but that’s a lot of lard. Usually, we get in 100, 150-pound pigs. That’s a nice size for us. They can go to 200 and it’s pretty much the same thing. Once they start getting bigger than that, it’s a lot of sausage meat.
But, you have butchered a whole cow?
Yeah, it was so stupid. It was when I was with Sel de la Terre, and they did some demonstration with an organization in Boston. And after, they were like, ‘Do you want it?’ We’ll sell it to you for, like, a dollar a pound or whatever. Frank [McClelland, Sel de la Terre chef/owner] was like, ‘Yes! Send it to Louie.’ I was like, are you out of your fucking mind? I don’t want this.
What did you do with it?
I made kielbasa.
It was all kielbasa. I was like, I’m not dealing with this.
The chuck you get in from Creekstone Farms. Last time we met, you said you appreciate the "watchful eye" of the company.
That’s because from point A to point Z, everything happens in their facility. That’s an important part of what they do.
We pick lots of fresh thyme and fold it into the burger meat after we grind it, which is a really nice accent on the burger, which gives it a really nice grassy, herbal flavor. I love thyme. I think it’s such a perfect accent in steak, chicken, definitely goat, and definitely that burger. It’s so tasty in the burger. We season the outside with salt, but other than that, just thyme. The other thing is [sous chef] Ken [Rogers] makes that bacon, and you get all those spices on the burger when you’re eating it.
What are those spices?
[Speaking to Rogers] Can you talk about the bacon seasonings or is that a secret?
Rogers: No, I can talk about it. The way I usually term it is a savory bacon as opposed to sweet. It’s mostly herbs and spices. There’s garlic in it, black pepper, chili flake; then there’s rosemary, thyme, and oregano.
So, the bacon’s not the same as the Sel de la Terre burger.
We made our own bacon in-house there too, but I like Ken’s better.
[DiBiccari shares his process of cooking a burger, and talks about the aioli, described above. Without being prompted with a question, he says:] I tell these guys all the time, they go fucking bonkers: It’s no different from making a omelet. When you’re making an omelet, it’s got to be perfect. There can’t be any little burn spots, it has to be emulsified and beautiful, and the filling has to be a little bit loose inside, but warm, and the cheese has to be melted but not undercooked.
An omelet’s a very difficult thing to cook, but so is a burger. A lot of the simplest thing are the most difficult. If you don’t toast that bun perfectly, if it doesn't have that crispy seasoning on the outside circumference of the bun, and the bread isn’t soft enough, and if you put too much aioli on, you’re really fucking it up. If the cheese isn’t sliced perfect width — it’s gotta be No. 5 on the slicer — if it’s not on No. 5, you screwed it up, and we can’t fix it. The bacon has to be cooked perfectly. If it’s overcooked, there’s too much of a crunch in there. If it’s undercooked, it’s too flaccid, and that’s no good either.
There’s all these different components to it. It’s science. And you’ve got to have time to rest the meat. I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve watched cooks just take the burger off the grill and throw it on the bun. You would never, ever take a steak and throw it right on the plate. Science tells us it has to repose so that all the juices distribute, and they rest. Then you can slice, and when you put it on the plate, there isn’t meat juice on the plate. A burger's the same way. When I get a burger that has all the blood in it, some people are like, 'Look how juicy it is,' and I’m like, no, it just didn’t rest. All that juice is supposed to be in the burger, so when you bite into it, you get it. But when it’s in the bun, you’re going to start to that bulls-eye effect of medium all around it, and medium rare in the middle, because you didn’t let it repose. Even with this burger being four ounces, I say, just let it sit there for 60 seconds. Relax.
This is why you own the restaurant. You just talked for a full minute about the science of letting your burger sit on the counter.
[Laughs] That was something I didn’t realize when I was cooking. I only realized it once I started teaching. I started looking at burgers a little differently. I think we all can have a lack of interest in them sometimes, until you realize they’re a massive part of your revenue stream. You better nail these things. And people really care about them. People really give a shit about how good their burger is.
[I point to myself] Burger Week. Nationwide.
Talk about fueling the fire.