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On The House: The Creation of a Famous Burger

On the House is our regular column written by the owners and operators of the great food and beverage establishments of New York. Today, your proprietor is Mr. Adam Cohn co-owner of Seymour Burton.

2008_02_onethehouseA.jpg Chefs usually hate burgers on their menu because the sandwich is considered too prosaic to be a suitable vehicle for their craftsmanship, because they believe it will jeopardize their two-star aspirations, and because they cook for their peers. Restaurateurs love burgers on the menu because it’s a signal of casualness that can offset the pretentiousness of the surroundings, because no matter what other nonsense the chef is getting up to, the regular punters will have something to eat, and because they pay the rent. After the chef becomes an equity partner there is often a meeting of the minds.

At Seymour Burton we had the usual struggle with chef Josh Shuffman. In the early, (Pre-Meehan review) days we were not selling many burgers, but then we were not selling much of anything else, either. Not only were customers few but back then our burger was even more idiosyncratic: topped exclusively with a whole roasted poblano pepper, Monterrey jack cheese and aioli. It was for the few, not the many. Shuffman had it in for the burger and I had to fight a valiant rear-guard action in its defense.

His attacks came clothed in logic: thank God Thomas English muffins have the half life of radium but the meat was growing old in the walk-in waiting for someone to order it. I set about to undercut his argument by anglicizing the burger (roasted chili and Monterrey replaced with white cheddar and red onion) and by creating a menu receptacle for old meat, my beloved Texas Chili Con Carne. When Shuffman pointed out that I was now creating menu items merely to buttress a failed one I considered replacing him with someone who doesn’t speak English so good.

Fortunately Meehan reviewed the place and intervened on my side. A burger that was flirting with disaster was suddenly flirting with greatness. I was a partisan but even I was surprised that the burger got the close up. It was a valued member of the chorus, but a star? I had my hopes on the chicken I stole from the River Café (Hammersmith not Dumbo), my aspirations on the Oysters & Sausage.

We went from selling three burgers a week to selling thirty a day. I mercifully dropped the chili. Shuffman starting giving interviews in which he claimed that the burger recipe came to him while on peyote, free-climbing in the Andes.

One immediate effect of the burger taking center stage was a significant drop in our check average. Not only were customers ordering the $12.00 dollar burger instead of the $25.00 lamb, they were washing it down with a $3.00 can of Pork Slap Beer rather than a bottle of Cote Du Rhone. Ah, well, reasoned Shuffman, perhaps we will survive the recession. —Adam Cohn

· On the House: On the Virtues of Luck and Peter Meehan [~E~]