The burger: Someone ought to give Joe Rolle a radio show. Or a podcast. Or a lecture series. Something.
Rolle is the chef at the just-opened Il Foro – the latest incarnation of the Forum Cafeteria, the effervescent, pistachio-and-mirrors landmark that contemporary diners primarily associate with the former Goodfellow’s -- and he’s a born talker. In a really good way.
On Thursday morning, I spoke with him (that's Rolle, above, in a Star Tribune file photo taken in the still-under-renovation Il Foro dining room) about the extraordinary cheeseburger that he’s serving at his three-week-old downtown restaurant. Here's how good it is: it's a burger that has already developed a well-deserved cult following. By the time Rolle and I said our goodbyes 20 minutes later, I’d decided to chuck the usual Burger Friday framework in favor of a flat-out dialogue format (edited, and condensed). Here goes.
Hey Mr. National Register of Historic Places, what’s it like, bringing that beloved art deco setting back to life?
It’s funny, but it didn’t strike me until the process really started moving along, and we’d been working in there for about two months. But one day, it suddenly hit me: I was like, yeah, this is my office. I can’t believe that I work here [that's a Star Tribune file photo, above, depicting the room's one-of-a-kind chandeliers]. I have to pinch myself every day. I’m just lucky, I guess. I’m waiting to wake up one on these days and it’s not going to be real. But until then, I’m going to ride the wave, as they say, for as long as I can. [Below: That's the Forum during its cafeteria days, in a Star Tribune file photo, circa 1974].
Before we talk cheeseburger, can we devote a few moments to those two lunch-menu soups? You’ve got a minestrone, and what you call a spring onion soup, garnished with morels. They’re both so beautiful, and so very delicious.
The minestrone is a chicken consommé. In a few days I'm going to change it to a tomato consommé.
That consommé was amazing, such a lovely golden color, punctuated by a thousand tiny fat globules and a whirl of colorful, perfectly cooked vegetables. I loved the delicate ricotta gnudi.
Me too. They’re just whipped cheese, with herbs and shallots. We roll it into balls, and then roll the balls in semolina flour. They’re refrigerated for 24 hours, and then we slowly poach them in salted water. You can deep fry them – and wow, they’re incredible when they’re deep-fried – but I wasn’t going to do that to a broth that I worked so hard to make. That’s the little bit of French chef that’s in me; sometimes I can’t help myself.
The other soup, well, in my opinion, if I was going to have two soups, one had to be rich and creamy, to satisfy the Midwestern palate. But the fine-dining chef in me loves broths and pretty vegetables. So I figured that I can make the average Minnesotan happy with a creamy soup with mushrooms, and I can make me happy with something beautiful that honors all the local vegetables that I have at my disposal. I always bring everything back to my father. You know, if you can’t put ketchup on it, then it needs to be extremely rich. And that cream soup is basically equal parts beurre blanc and sweated-down onions, with some sherry wine and sherry vinegar. It’s the old butter-in-everything trick.
But now you’re altering the minestrone [pictured, above]?
In a few days. It’s going to be a smoked tomato consommé, it’s not going to be meat-based. It’s going to have those goat cheese gnudi, fresh Romano beans, dried cranberry beans and various summer squashes and zucchini that we’re going to blanch and then char on the flattop. Then we’ll add basil and copious amounts of my favorite olive oil. I really have an olive oil addiction.
Ok, since this isn't Soup Friday, let's talk burgers. You’re running an Italian restaurant, yet you’ve got a cheeseburger on the lunch menu. Why?
It’s not my first choice. But I am forever attached to that burger at Parlour [Rolle’s cooking alma mater]. That burger just seems to follow me. I saw people losing their minds over it, there was a line out the door at a place with $15 cocktails, just to eat that cheeseburger.
And I’m being cautious. I guess it’s the old, you’ve-gotta-have-a-burger-on-the-menu crutch. We didn’t know how our business would be, and we were really quiet about when we opened. That was deliberate, we didn’t want to get run over right out of the gate.
When I worked at Vincent, there were days when we’d have a really slow lunch, and a lot of those times we’d make our numbers just by selling Vincent burgers [chef Vincent Francoual’s famous short rib- and gouda-stuffed burger]. There are a lot of downtown gentlemen who go out for burgers for lunch, every day.
At the end of the day, this is a business, and without selling my soul, I’ll do what it takes to make people happy. This burger seems to make people happy.
I also had to have it on the menu because, well, I like to have it once or twice a month. It’s designed to be the best cheeseburger that Joe Rolle likes to eat. And other people seem to like it as much as I do, and that’s very flattering.
It’s a very cheesy cheeseburger, and by cheesy, I mean, saturated with cheese, and not trashy. I was mentally picturing you dipping the patties in a fondue-like cheese sauce, that’s how over-the-top cheesy it is.
It’s really all about the cheese. It has taken me eight years to find this cheese, and if it’s all right with you, I’m going to keep the details a secret. I suppose it’s an American cheese, but it’s a very, very special American cheese. My guess is that it’s made out of Cheddar cheese, water and xanthan gum [a thickener]. I mean, you can barely slice this stuff. It’s beyond American cheese. I call it nuclear cheese, because it could survive a war. It’s made in Wisconsin, I’ll tell you that much.
It has remarkable lava-like capabilities, doesn’t it?
It’s the nature of this cheese. When we flip the patties, we put the cheese on top, then we stack the patties on the bun. By the time the burger gets to your table, the cheese is very oozy and runny. They’re not really even slices. Here’s how we do it: We par-freeze it, and we scoop it with an ice cream scoop, then we smash it between two pieces of wax paper.
FYI, I highly approve of this cheeseburger’s noted saltiness.
I season the burger with a superfine sea salt. It’s a fine-ground salt. It has the texture of iodized table salt, but it’s really good sea salt. Then we toast Tellicherry black peppercorns, then grind them and mix them, on a 50-50 basis, with the sea salt. That’s it. There’s no special seasoning, it’s just salt and pepper.
Is this the same cheese that you used on the Borough-Parlour cheeseburger?
No. That’s why it’s called “the Burger 2.0.” I’ve also changed the grind of the meat. At Parlour, it was rib eye, brisket and chuck. This one is equal parts brisket, chuck and short ribs. With every 30 pounds of meat, I mix in two pounds of room-temperature melted butter. Once it’s all mixed, we form it into 5-oz. balls. We don’t put any additional fat on the flattop. We gently pat the patties down with our hands, to get a crust, then we smash them down. That’s when they get seasoned. We’re taught to season both sides of proteins but the patties are only seasoned on the one side, because that fine sea salt penetrates the beef so well.
It’s a useful trick: You get all that wonderful char, but the patty, which is relatively thin, stays slightly pink on the inside.
With all that butter, the patties brown on one side, because the butter leaches out and crisps the meat. But the butter continues to float through the middle of the patty, keeping it moist.
I appreciate the discipline of this burger (it’s totally worth its $14 price tag, by the way). It’s literally just bun, and beef, and cheese.
There’s just no other way. Anyone who knows me knows that, whether it’s McDonald’s, or at a diner, that I only eat plain double cheeseburgers.
Tell me a little more about this whole 2.0 thing.
This burger really came about for two reasons. We had this burger at Borough. You wrote about it, and we started selling way too many of them, and it all began to veer away from the rest of the food.
That was a fantastic burger.
So we moved it downstairs to Parlour. We made it for maybe the first eight or nine months, and then I thought, I’m going to throw this out and make it faster. It was strictly a speed move. I don’t like a thick patty. They take so long to cook, and you have to take temperatures, and suddenly you’re juggling a flattop covered with two rare, two medium-rare, two well-done, that whole thing. So this burger, it comes as-is. It’s cooked through, but it’s still juicy. Besides, I like thin, double cheeseburgers.
You do, however, toss in a few pickles, on the side, and they’re just what the doctor ordered, a clarifying pop of sharpness to counter all that fat. They’re terrific.
I can’t take credit for them. They’re from my good friend Nick O’Leary [former Borough/Parlour chef/co-owner]. They’re his mother’s pickles. I totally ripped them off from Marjorie O’Leary, that’s 100 percent her recipe. She’s an amazing cook. I’ve been fortunate to eat at her house, and she cooks a scratch breakfast, a scratch lunch and a scratch dinner, and there’s bread, and dessert, at every meal. I mean, the flour is flying everywhere in that kitchen. The flour settles, and she’s got a four-course meal. It’s incredible. We made those pickles at Borough hundreds of times, and now we’re making them here.
What’s the story behind the bun?
It’s from Franklin Street Bakery. I like it because when you toast it, it gets crusty on the outside and super-soft and squishy in the middle. White bread is what a good American cheeseburger should be served on, in my opinion. That’s the best way. We toast it on the flattop. Both insides are rolled with clarified butter, and we brush a little clarified butter on the top and toast it, too. We’re basically taking every angle we can to put butter in this burger.
And what about those potatoes? I still find myself thinking about them, two days later.
They’re a bit of a process, but in our opinion, they’re worth it. I didn’t want to do French fries. My two friends who are my sous chefs, well, we’ve all made a lot of French fries, and we thought, “let’s try something different, and let’s make it the best we possibly can make it.” My friend Jordan Young, he became obsessed with the R&D on these things.
We cut the potatoes and soak them overnight in water that has a splash of vinegar in it. The next day, we strain them off and bring them up in pot of cold water with a bunch of salt, some glucose and baking soda and a bunch of garlic and rosemary.
Wait, glucose and baking soda?
They help form a skin around the potatoes. As soon as it comes to a simmer, we shut it off, let it sit for a minute, then strain it. We chill them on sheet trays until they’re completely cool, then we go the French fry route. We par blanch them at 275 degrees for six minutes, then chill them. When they’re ordered, we fire them in a 350-degree fryer until they’re crispy, and we season them with that same burger seasoning. In my opinion, French fries are always missing freshly ground pepper. We also serve them as a side at dinner, with a Calabrian chile aioli and a bunch of ripped-up parsley.
When is this cheeseburger available at Il Foro?
It’s lunch only, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. I’ll tell you that in about a month, there might be one or two days a week, maybe on a Friday or a Saturday night, where we’ll say we have a select number of cheeseburgers that we’ll make available at the bar. It’s something that’s being done around the country. Gavin [Kaysen, chef/owner of Spoon and Stable] is doing the same thing with ramen. It’s a nice marketing trick, to get people into your bar. It creates buzz.
A final, non-burger question: If there’s one dish on the menu that people should try – beyond the double cheeseburger, of course – what would it be?
Personally, I’m extremely pleased and proud of the red wine rigatoni. Cacio e pepe is a Roman dish. You take a sauté pan with pasta water in it and add butter, black pepper and olive oil, and that’s your sauce. You pull the pasta out of the water and put it in the sauce, you add a knob of butter and a huge handful of Pecarino Romano and a little more black pepper. That’s it.
In our version, instead of water, we use red wine – it’s a boxed red wine, and we cook it off with vegetables to take that boxed taste out of it. We also give a little squirt of red wine at the end, and we make our own pasta, of course. It’s pure simplicity, it’s about restraint, and it comes down to timing and seasoning. I eat at least five bites of it every day, I’ve been doing that for the last two months.
Address book: 40 S. 7th St. (in City Center), Mpls., 612-238-2300. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, dinner daily.
Gone fishing: I’m vacation-bound. Burger Friday will return July 24.
Talk to me: Do you have a favorite burger? Share the details at firstname.lastname@example.org.