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Wicked Good Lecture!!

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On Saturday September 14 of this year I attended a 2 1/2 hour class that turned out to be the best cooking lecture/cooking demo class I have been to. It was called Wicked Good Burgers and was given by Chefs Chris Hart and Andy Husbands, two of the three authors of the book of the same name. Last year these two also authored Wicked Good Barbecue where they shared the recipes and secrets that helped their iQUE BBQ team, made up of a bunch of Northern Yankees, take the 2009 Jack Daniels BBQ Championship. I started making recipes from these two books this year and 8 of the recipes from these two books placed in the 15 slots in my three Top 5 lists for this year. By the time this lecture had rolled around, I’d already made some of the items on the menu that day. I wondered if I would learn much more than what I’d already picked up from making the recipe for myself. I needn’t have worried, I learned a lot, had some great food, and enjoyed the experience immensely.

For those of you not from the New England area, “wicked” is local slang for “awesome”. Before I talk about the class, let me mention what I had already learned from making recipes from the two Wicked Good... books. First and foremost, these guys know their food. They are also very creative chefs, imagining new ways to prepare many of these dishes. I have never heard of ribs being cooked like their WICKED GOOD RIBS, but these prize winning ribs were totally amazing. They are also very detail oriented. It seems more and more cookbook these days are half-assed efforts. A celebrity chef has a staff that collects recipes and the chef puts their name on the end product. It seems like many of the recipes never actually get made by a real person before the book goes to press. This is painfully evident when the end-user tries to make the recipe: There is missing information, mistakes and sloppy editing. These two books had great attention to detail. There was no missing information and when you cooked something, the approximate times in the recipe were right in the ballpark. I would soon find that their traits carried through to their class, where no detail was too small.

The class was held at the cooking school at Stonewall Kitchen, about an hour away from me in York, ME. The school couldn’t be easier to get to. You get off the Maine Turnpike in York and the exit comes in perpendicular to US 1 where there is a traffic light. A left or right gets you onto US 1, but straight ahead of you is Stonewall Kitchen’s headquarters housing the cooking school. The headquarters is home to the the cooking school, a company store and a cafe that is said to be very good. Stonewall Kitchen makes jams, and syrups and other products. These are all available at the company store with other food prep tools and kitchen electrics. If you are there for a class you get a small discount on some of the products in the store.

The class facility is a large (about 40x60’), well lit room with a high ceiling. It is the building in the center and just to the right of the sidewalk in the exterior picture above. There is a continuos bank of windows running along the right side of the room facing the southwest. The left side of the room and back wall display some of the companies products as well as kitchen prep tools, some of which are for sale. The classes are limited to 36 people. There are 4 rows of high topped tables, with 3 seats per table on one side of the room and 6 seats per table on the other. Like many such facilities, there is a large island counter with gas cooktops, a sink and lots of prep counter space. The back wall is host to a wall to wall counter with additional ovens, refrigerators and freezers, sinks, warmers/holding units and various types of storage. There is an exhaust hood over the island cook top that houses a camera(s?) pointing down at the main cooking area. There are 2 large flatscreen HDTVs suspended from the ceiling facing the class and 2 smaller flatscreen HDTV’s facing the cooktop so the cooks can see what the class is seeing-a nice touch. There is also a wireless sound system to help you hear the lecture. It is one of the nicest facilities of this type I have been to and there really isn’t a bad seat in the house.

I was immediately impressed by the classroom facility and a bit dismayed by what was going on within the room. The scene was a bit of organized chaos. There were Stonewall Kitchen cooking school employees acting as sous chefs helping prep the dishes. I got the impression that while the two chefs had arrived the night before to start getting ready for the class, they were a bit late getting back to the classroom on the day of the class. It also seemed to be the first time they had given this lecture. My first thought was: “Oh no!. Not another lecture that starts late, is disorganized and has to leave things out to try to finish up on time.” Cutting to the chase, the food was finished on time, the class started on time and although Andy Husbands and Chris Hart were dividing up tasks on the fly the entire time, the class was well organized. It was immediately clear that either of them could easily teach the entire class, so they were just deciding who would take a particular role during the various parts of the class. I was very happy to be proven wrong. I have been to far too many lectures that are total chaos from start to finish. I have also had the misfortune of attending boring overly structured lectures. With the overly structured lectures, if you had a printout of the PowerPoint slides used for the lecture, you could have stayed home you would learn no more by being in the room. As it turns out, this class was the best class I think I have attended. It was loose without being disorganized, while at the same time being structured without being too rigid. You just had to be there I guess to make sense of what I am saying.

I will list the topics covered as shown in the outline for the class and talk about a few of the many interesting things I learned. The topics are from the course list, any
italicized descriptions are my synopsis. During each of the segments the Stonewall Kitchen employees would bring sample-sized portions of the items being covered to the students. The topics this day were:
  • Wicked Good Burgers - the keys to making a great burger.
  • Wicked Good Sides: Best Mayo Ever, Pig Candy Spiced and Creamed Shemiji Mushrooms - no additional comments required.
  • Salmon Burger with Dill Mayo - a discussion of great non-meat burgers.
  • Lamb Juicy Lucy - a non-beef burger with the cheese on the inside.
  • Salted Caramel Frappe - a Wicked Good frappe (thick shake).

Even though I had the book and had made some of the recipes, I still learned a lot. This includes the recipes I’ve made, where they would discuss tools or techniques and filed questions on the fly. The two chef/authors would take turns cooking and speaking and their attention to detail was obvious. When they covered making a good burger they had some interesting points. First they wanted you to use a meat that had a decent amount of fat in it 85/15. They felt it was silly to use lean beef which tends to be dry and bland and then you turn around and do things to add fat and flavor back in. Instead you should use the 85/15 and just cut down on the total amount of fatty burgers you consume each month. They feel the best burger meat is fresh ground at home. They showed you how to do this as well as the proper way to prepare the meat for grinding and how to season and shape the patties. They talked about the equipment you could use and how to prep the equipment for the best results. For example with the grinding attachment for a Kitchen Aid stand mixer, they have you refrigerate all the metal parts on the grinding attachment. Another thing they often do is add the seasoning when grinding the meat to get the best distribution throughout the ground meat. These are all the little things that you need to get right in order to have a truly great burger.

Frankly I was a bit shocked when they discussed seasoning the patties with salt. As they were discussing this topic they were salting the burgers. From my seat I could see the heavy layer of coarse salt they had put on the burgers as they went on the grill. It looked like the top was 33 percent covered in salt. If I hadn’t seen it with my own two eyes, I might not have believed it. The two main points were salting the burgers is important for the best flavor. They had a similar position on salt and health issues as they did on fat content. Salt is key to a great tasting burger. They realize many people need to limit their salt intake. But they feel it is better to salt the burgers with lots of salt so they taste great, and just eat less of them every month. The explanation regarding the surprising amount of salt on top of the formed patty was this is the only surface you cans season, but when you bite into the burger your teeth with drive some of this salt deep into the interior of the burger. This will help flavor the interior of the burger.

Another interesting discussion was the best way to cook a great burger. The two chefs disagree on the best method and are convinced they are right and the other is absolutely wrong. Chris Hart favors using the griddle, while Andy Husbands insists the grill is the only way to go. Each chef presented their case during the lecture. The best thing about the cookbook is they discuss both cooking methods and let the user decide which they like the best. The chef’s attention to detail was in evidence again when they discussed the sound the meat should make when it goes on the grill. They also discussed judging the proper doneness for a burger and the multiple ways it could be done. The samples distributed to the class during the course of the class served to illustrate these guys know what they are talking about.

Throughout the lecture the two chefs stopped for questions on a wide range of topics. Unlike many classes I’ve attended, the class ended on time with all of the material being covered and time for Q&A. The WICKED GOOD BURGERS cookbook was offered for sale and the chef/authors stayed after the class to sign copies of the book and answer any remaining questions. From start to finish this class was an excellent experience. If you like burgers and Chris Hart and Andy Husbands are giving their Wicked Good Burgers lecture in your area, you owe it to yourself to attend. This lecture is good enough to travel out of your way to see actually. Regardless of whether the lecture comes to your area, run out and get yourself a copy of WICKED GOOD BURGERS. You will NOT regret it. A couple last interesting little tidbits: First both of them have Big Green Eggs in their grilling arsenals and enjoy using them very much. Secondly and even more interesting to me: Several times Chris and Andy mentioned they are working on a book on grilling. I for one can’t wait!

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