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The “Top Chef” Burger Curse

“Top Chef” never has been a burger fan, and never less so than during this 10th season, which begins its two-part finale this week. As happened with past burger creators, both contestants who prepared burgers this season packed their knives and left as a result. Talk about a risotto curse if you want, but burgers have an equally unhappy history on the show.

The Pork Crumpet Burger that got C.J. tossed this season.

In Episode 5 at Pike Place Market, Chris “C.J.” Jacobsen lost after serving up a Pork Crumpet Burger with Fried Spicy Dill Pickles. Sneered Head Judge Tom Colicchio: “You couldn’t think of a better thing to do with pickles than to put them on a burger? How friggin’ original! I got a burger with pickles on it! Wow!”

Colicchio’s low respect for burgers is odd considering he offers a TC Burger with Drunk Onions, Pecorino & Chips at his Colicchio & Sons restaurant in New York City–and charges $18 for it.

John Tesar was challenged to remake C.J.’s losing burger in a tiebreaker in this year’s Episode 9. Tesar created a Lamb Burger with Fried Egg and Spicy Pickle, Tomato, and Pomegranate Salad. Set up! The judges scoffed and sent him packing.

Burgers don’t get you compliments on “Top Chef.” Judges are so put off by Elia Aboumrad’s over-hyped “Best Burger Ever” (and other offerings) during Episode 10 of Season 2 that no winner  is declared for Restaurant Wars. Fabio Viviani was eliminated in Episode 9 of Season 8. Why? A burger with melted Cheddar cheese sauce and fries. Burgers are OK on “Top Chef” only when part of a kids meal: Tracey Bloom prepared a chicken burger as part of the school-lunch challenge of Season 7′s second episode. But in the very next episode, Bloom foolishly ventures back into burgerland with an Italian Sausage Slider and, sure enough, she gets the boot.

Because the Slider loses, chef Kelly Liken survives despite serving a bison burger. But she was thisclose to going home: Colicchio dismisses the burger as bland. Judge Gail Simmons sniffs that it’s nothing a home cook couldn’t create.  Liken beats the curse on a technicality.

The Big Stuff Bacon Meltdown at Season 4′s Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery.

Burgers were the subject of the Quickfire Challenge in Episode 9 of Season 3, but only because the Red Robin Gourmet Burgers chain bought/sponsored the segment. As with love, burger adulation doesn’t count when it’s paid for. Same goes for Padma’s 2009 Western Bacon Thickburger TV commercial for Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s.

For burger fans, there’s some consolation in knowing that Fabio includes a Tavern Burger (fontina cheese, tomato jam, baby arugula, crispy pancetta and herb aïoli on rosemary brioche) at his just-opening Siena Tavern in Chicago. And John Tesar’s Spoon Bar & Kitchen in Dallas features a signature Spoon Burger (6-oz., grass-fed beef patty with applewood-smoked bacon and Cheddar on an English muffin).

What about the show’s other contestants? Does the “Top Chef” burger curse keep them away from offering a great burger when they open their own restaurants? A look at the menus of alums’ restaurants finds burgers fairly well represented.

Season 1
Winner Harold Dieterle’s Perilla in New York City menus a Spicy Duck Burger with Jack chees, avocado and spiced fries ($16).

Season 2
Betty Fraser
’s Grub in Los Angeles has a terrific selection of burgers, including the $14 Hot Flash Burger with Pepper-Jack and Cheddar cheeses, spicy sriracha garlic aïoli, sliced jalapeňos, guacamole, tomato, lettuce and Sweet & Sassy Bacon on a toasted Brioche Bun.

Winner Ilian Hall’s The Gorbals in Los Angeles offers a Dry Aged Burger with “onion seven ways” ($15).

Season 3
Round and bald Howie Kleinberg took some ribbing but the Bulldog Burger he’s opened next door to his Bulldog Barbecue in North Miami does burgers proud. For $11, Howie’s The Heat burger packs on bacon, jalapeňo marmalade, fried pickled jalapeňo, pepper-Jack cheese and house hot sauce.

The La Mesan Burger at Gingham, owned by Season 3′s Brian Malarkey.

Burgers don’t fit with Dale Levitski’s Sprout but his smaller Frog n Snail in Chicago offers a $16 BLD Burger that’s an 8-oz. prime Angus patty topped with bacon, lettuce and tomato plus buttermilk-fried onions, boursin cheese Worcestershire sauce, a sunny-side-up egg and house “frog sauce.”

But the revelation is Brian Malarkey. Now a judge on “The Taste,” Malarkey also has built a string of “Fabric of Social Dining” restaurants around San Diego. Seersucker in San Diego has a Two Hand Burger with house-ground beef filet, Gruyère, onion Jam and Baconnaise; the house burger at Burlap also has Baconnaise, plus tomato jam and aged Cheddar ($12); a Short-Rib Burger at his Herringbone gets applewood-smoked bacon, Cheddar, onion jam, mayo and arugula; Gabardine’s Cheese Burger is topped with sweet tomato jam and, yes, Baconnaise; at Gingham (in La Mesa, Calif.) the star is the “La Mesan” Burger topped with pulled pork, bacon, fried onions and a fried egg.

Season 4
Remarkably, Season 4 of “Top Chef” produced two of the most influential leaders of the “better burger” movement. Richard Blais’s Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta and Spike Mendelsohn’s Good Stuff Eatery in Washington, D.C., announced that taking burgers seriously could still be fun. At his second concept, The Spence, Blais offers a Juicy Lucy burger on the lunch menu. Spike’s latest is We, The Pizza.

There’s more. Winner Stephanie Izzard, who opened Chicago’s Girl and the Goat, has recently added a more casual Little Goat Diner. Its “Burger Shoppe” menu includes a half-dozen burger builds, including a Korean Burger with kimchee, bacon, spicy mayo and “squish squash roll.”

Finally, there’s Manuel Trevino, who has opened several restaurants since Season 4. At his latest, Marble Lane in New York City, the $18 Dream Burger gets French Comté cheese, applewood slab bacon and hervbed frites.

Season 5
This season had memorable characters in Fabio Viviano and Stefan Richter. Fabio’s Siena Tavern was mentioned above. Among Stefan’s many projects is Stefan’s at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica, where he prepares a Piedmontese Burger with Swiss and smoked Gouda cheeses, arugula and onions ($17).

Richard Sweeney only lasted the Episode 3 but he’s still cooking. He runs R-Gang Eateryin San Diego, where the signature R-Gang Burger is an 8-oz. ground chuck patty with crumbled blue cheese, thick-cut bacon, house-made steak sauce and tempura’d jalapeños on focaccia.

The BLD Burger at Season 3′s Dale Levitski’s Frog n Snail.

Season 6
This was the year of the high-energy Voltaggio Brothers, Bryan and Michael. They’re not big burger fans, though Bryan includes a burger with avocado, arugula, bacon and Cheddar on the bar menu at his Volt in Frederick, Md.

Season 7
Angelo Sosa
, a runner-up to winner Kevin Sbraga, operates Social Eatz in  New York City. The $13 Korean-style Bibimbop Burger is topped with a “60-minute egg” and Korean pickles. That burger won Eater.com’s “Greatest Burger in America” competition in 2011.

Arnold Myint may be little recalled but he has opened a handful of restaurants in Nashville. At Asian-influenced PM, the house Char-Grilled Burger has lettuce, tomato, red onion and wasabi mayo.

Timothy Dean opened TD Burger Bar in Upper Marlboro, Md.

Season 8
The All-Stars season. No new contestants.

Season 9
It’s too soon for the many of the last crop of chefs to be opening restaurants. Keith Rhodes operates Catch in Wilmington, N.C.; Ed Lee gets raves for 610 Magnolia in Louisville; winner Paul Qui of Uchiko in Austin, Texas, is expected to add Qui. No burgers on any of their menus. Yet.

Season 10
So we arrive at the finale of “Top Chef: Seattle” this week. I’m pulling for Brooke Williamson since the Hudson House in Redondo Bach, Calif., where she cooks menus the Hudson Pretzel Burger (grilled onion, bacon, Jarlsberg cheese, wild arugula, pretzel bun). She competes against Sheldon Simeon, chef at Star Noodle in Lahaina, Hawaii, which just isn’t a burger-friendly concept.

The third finalist—winner of the Last Chance Kitchen–will be either recently eliminated Lizzie Binder of Bar Bambino in San Francisco (no burger) or Kristen Kish of cooking school Stir in Boston.

So, Brooke, darlin’, you’re the only one with burger connections. Beware the curse.

1 comment to The “Top Chef” Burger Curse

  • Just An Opinion

    I’m not one to rush to the defense of things often, but this is moderately hysterical. CJ was tasked to create a dish that centered on pickles, and he made a burger. A burger does not center on pickles, it centers on a burger. So, he didn’t follow the challenge, and poof! gone. John Tesar’s elimination was a head-to-head burger-off with fellow contestant Lizzie, who made a superior burger to his and therefore he was eliminated. I appreciate your burger-centric views and love burgers, but come on. Look into what you’re typing.

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