Inside job: burger chef

Columnist Paul Johnson tries flipping burgers for Blue Frog




Time Out columnist Paul Johnson tries every jobs in Shanghai. This month, he tries to flip burgers for Blue Frog.

Benny, a sous chef at Blue Frog asked me if I had much experience making hamburgers. I told him no, but that I did have a lot of experience playing the arcade classic BurgerTime. I concede the hamburger preparation skills may not be 100 percent transferrable, especially in terms of hygiene – the chef Peter Pepper has to walk over the top of the ingredients – but I like to think making those burgers while battling Mr Hot Dog, Mr Pickle and Mr Egg prepared me for the high-pressure demands of a restaurant kitchen.

The idea of cooking in the midst of battle may not seem far-fetched if you’ve ever watched a reality TV kitchen show. In fact most kitchens are organised according to the Brigade de Cuisine(kitchen brigade) system established by chef Georges Auguste Escoffier after a stint in the French army. Although the French are not generally remembered for their military victories, it’s worth noting their military somehow managed to conquer the world’s kitchens.

The brigade system streamlines kitchen operations by allowing each individual to focus on a single task and organising the kitchen into stations, e.g. fry station, grill station, sauté station. Disappointingly, not once during my day at Blue Frog does anyone shout, ‘Man your stations!’

I take a spot at the fry station in a narrow corridor of stainless steel counters, cupboards, fryers, grills and ranges, and Benny teaches me all the steps for the Montana, the most popular Blue Frog burger. Focusing on the ingredients for one burger instead of the sixteen available suits me just fine since the BurgerTimerecipe never got more complicated than three ingredients: a bun, patty and lettuce.

The wait staff send orders electronically to a printer, and when the senior-most chef yells ‘Montana’, everyone else must verbally acknowledge the order. When I hear ‘Montana’ I put on disposable gloves and assemble the ingredients: a bun, 180g Australian beef patty, two 1.5cm onion rings, beer batter, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickles, red onions, BBQ sauce, and sides of fries and garnish salad.

All these ingredients had been prepared in advance of the peak busy hours. The kitchen schedule is organised around anticipated lunch and dinner rushes– at Blue Frog these begin at midday and 7pm – and the windows before those peaks are spent planning the day and assigning tasks such as hygiene checks.

I sprinkle steak seasoning on each side of the patty, pour cooking oil on the gas grill and cook the beef 10-15 seconds on each side. Next I move the patty to the adjacent char grill, rotating 90 degrees one time on each side to create a perfect grid pattern across the surface. While watching and flipping the patty on the char grill I add a bun to the bun toaster and throw the frozen fries into a basket to drop into the deep fryer. I rotate the onion rings through a dish of flour before covering in the beer batter, shaking off the excess, and cooking in the deep fryer. They float across the surface and I use tongs to flip them over.

There is some pleasure in learning a clear process that allows one to juggle multiple tasks efficiently at once. I sense a familiar feeling as muscle memory takes over and I suddenly remember I spent a summer working at McDonald’s as a teenager and actually have experience preparing thousands of burgers. In my defense, I assume lots of people conveniently forget they once worked at McDonald’s.

Building the Montana would be immensely satisfying for anyone who enjoys stacking-related hobbies like Jenga. The Montana consists of a bottom bun, lettuce, two tomatoes, two pickles, two red onions, patty, two onion rings, BBQ sauce dribbled around the top onion ring resembling lava streaming from a volcano – of course Montana is famous for its volcanic regions – and a top bun lid. Fries and salad are added to the base of the volcano. As measured by height, the burger is impressive. You will need more than one napkin. You will need more than two napkins.

The brigade system organises kitchens into clear positions of authority like the military. Blue Frog has an executive chef in a central office responsible for menu and kitchen design and a senior sous chef at the central kitchen overseeing all the products and soups and sauces going to each location. Below the senior sous chef– but reporting to the executive chef – are two sous chefs who manage two kitchen managers responsible for three to four venues and each venue has a venue supervisor and each venue supervisor has shift leaders and shift leaders have a cook 1, cook 2 and cook 3. I assume I’m below cook 3. I don’t have a title but after a bit of time in the kitchen my chief responsibility is volunteering to get items out of the walk-in freezer. Kitchens are hot.