At the Commissary, a New Chef, a New Burger
When the Commissary first opened, John Tesar's burgers were all the rage. Big, luscious hockey puck-shaped patties, cooked a rosy crimson all the way through, helped earn the him a Best New Restaurant award in D Magazine. The burgers were so good the Jedi of self promotion even got a pass on his notably terrible service, according to the write-up.
This January, however, Tesar announced his split from his partners at the Commissary, citing a tight space and a sporadic crowd. Later, news that David McMillan, the chef from fellow One Arts Plaza's Screen Door, would be taking over operations at the Commissary. He's gotten right to work revamping some of the Commissary's offerings and adding brunch.
Some changes are small. A large communal table never attracted customers, so it's being replaced by a set of smaller tables that can be pulled together for large parties and separated for smaller ones. Others changes are more substantial: McMillan is re-working those famous burgers.
Tesar famously cooked his burgers via CVap, short for controlled vapor, which is basically a fancy oven that uses steam and a heating element to create an accurately controlled, stable environment that slowly brings meat up to a desired temperature and then holds it there until it's ready to serve. The device was designed to meet the demands of high-volume food operations.
According to McMillan, though, the CVap process touted by Tesar and celebrated by his fans actually wasn't optimal for burger prep. The device can't really hold a burger at a constant state. Patties keep cooking if left in the machine too long, so they need to be held somewhere else while waiting for a customer order.
The second problem with the CVap was the exact characteristic Tesar leveraged to market his super burgers. The raw color of meat sets almost permanently when cooked in high-tech, low-temperature environments like the one produced in a CVap, or an immersion circulatory. Tesar "CVAPed" his burgers to 140 degrees, a temperature most chefs would consider "medium," but the color of the meat inside the patty was still the rosy-red most diners would associate with raw.
Time on a flat grill raised the temperature even more. A burger cooked to 140 degrees, and then seared on each side for a minute or two, would undoubtedly increase in temperature significantly, but the flesh inside would still appear red. This created a problem for Commissary customers who understandably knew little about the science of coagulating proteins and demanded their burgers be cooked until the center was the color of wet newspaper. At that point a CVaped burger's temperature would be up in the stratosphere, and the burgers would end up stiff and dry.
To deal with these issues, McMillan has slimmed down the patties featured in a Commissary burger. They're still the same 7-ounce patties, but he presses them into a thin, wide disk that will yield more surface area for crusting and minimize the visual effect of biting into an inch thick puck of blood-red meat. He's also instituted a 15-minute rotation system to reduce the amount of pre-cooked burgers sitting idle. Finally, if you really want your burger cooked well-done, he's ditching the CVAP altogether and throwing a raw patty on the flat top till it's dead.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work for a simple burger, it is. McMillan says the CVap has some great qualities when cooking certain cuts of meat, especially large roasts he wants to cook with precision. But, he says, the machine also has some significant drawbacks. I asked him whether he would employ a CVap if he were to open up a new burger place from scratch with all new equipment.
"No," he replied.