Chefs worth their salt are hard-wired to take on tough challenges. They can be as cool as cucumbers or like volcanoes overdue for eruption, canisters of pent-up energy or Zen masters of efficiency.
This week, as Jeff Tunks ramps up the kitchens of side-by-side restaurants with very different concepts, the executive chef is 6-feet-3 inches of anxiety.
“Nervous? That’s an understatement,” he says. “It scares the bejeezus out of me.
“Let’s face it: I’m a control freak. Everything can be in order, but if we have a Bobby Flay Situation — you know, people waiting in line for an hour — it’ll kill me.
“It’s not a religious experience. It’s a burger.”
Tunks and his Passion Food partners Gus DiMillo and David Wizenberg have done their part. With cooperation from Verizon and Micros and the gods of the hospitality, they will open at least the Burger Tap & Shake half of their new space in Foggy Bottom by midweek. (The other half: District Commons, which hosted a warmup party Sunday night.) Tunks has handed over the reins of DC Coast to Matt Kuhn.
Some of the customers who have been peeking in BTS for weeks were lucky enough to be invited inside the past few days for free burgers, fries, onion rings and shakes.
Tunks has been executive-cheffing since 1985, but BTS is his first foray into counter service. In addition, he’ll be parked on a highly visible line in District Commons: “People have been waving to me through the windows while I’m working,” he says. I’m right out there.”
In a private, behind-the-scenes preview for All We Can Eat on Sunday, Tunks showed off lots of good ideas and cool kitchen toys. His years of experience and months of research and field trips were evident.
In the back kitchen that serves both restaurants:
* The burger meat is a mix of organic, wet-aged whole chuck roasts and briskets, ground in-house (a 3:1 ratio, with 18 to 22 percent fat). Tunks opted for a burger press that allows for variable pressure control. The contraption is surprisingly small and looks as low-tech as the potato cutter mounted on the wall for french-fry production. “We will grind and chill. Portion and chill. Form and chill. Daily,” the chef says.
* The kitchen floor is a seamless, gun-metal-gray rubber surface. It feels slightly springy underfoot and eliminates the need for thick mats.
* The L-shaped walk-in has enough room to hold rows and rows of the vegetables and fruits Tunks has pickled for both restaurants, in addition to the usual stuff that needs refrigeration.
* A countertop, carousel-looking machine in pastry chef Chris Hutchinson’s area turns out to be a bun maker. It’s electric and programmable enough to create slider-size and regular hamburger buns, which are also being made in-house daily.
* The 12-quart Emery Thompson batch freezer can crank out ice cream in 11 minutes; again, Tunks’s penchant for control directed him to this high-priced model, which has the capacity to control the consistency of the product whether it’s sorbet, gelato or something in-between. The chef’s eyebrows raised as he describes the amount of butterfat in the ice cream they’re using for milkshakes: 14 percent. Hooboy.
* The smoker set atop a stack of combi ovens (convection and steam) will be used to cold-smoke onions and short ribs.
And in front, on the District Commons side:
* There’s a gleaming open hearth for flatbreads and pretzel bread.
* A shiny red Berkel meat slicer will be used to carve artisanal charcuterie. It’s a gorgeous hunk of machinery; Tunks opted for non-electric here as well, to avoid generating any friction or heat that might melt the fat of delicately sliced hams and salumi.
* Tunks installed an old-fashioned farm dinner bell on the wall above the Berkel, which he’ll ring to signify staff meal and various specials.
* The line where the chef will spend most of his time, has fryers whose oil (“creamy, soy, transfat-free” ) lines connect to tall, 800-pound tanks in the back kitchen.The fryers can be filled and emptied with the touch of a button. (“Just like McDonald’s!” Tunks says — the only time I’d suspect he’d employ such a boast.)
On the BTS side, the line’s built for speed. The operation’s in full view as well:
* The six-ounce patties, seasoned with salt and pepper on both sides, a
re first seared on a charcoal grill before they are finished on the griddle, where the line cook then covers each round of meat with individual lids to melt “the government cheese,” aka American. The grill time helps melt away a little of the fat, Tunks says. The chef says he spent more than a few wakeful nights figuring how big the grill space needed to be to handle the number of burgers necessary to keep the food fast.
*The beverage-dispenser island behind the counter allows for easy staff access. It has 20 beers on tap and a row of milkshake machines at the ready. Nonalcoholic shake flavors: chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, BTS Shake, black and white (choc and van), espresso-caramel, cherry-vanilla and blueberry-pomegranate.
During Sunday’s test run, Tunks was all smiles for out-of-town family even as he fretted over what needed fixing: “See the signs overhead? They’ll be changed the next time you come in. We need to streamline the choices.”
Also on his list: the Micros ordering system. “Orders that had ‘no cheese’ on them weren’t coming out that way,” the chef reported. “To-go orders weren’t reflected on the tickets,” with the potential to cause a domino effect that would muck up the fledgling operation. There was no systems support available over the weekend, but it was a high-priority item that Tunks intended to correct today. Orders that were coming off a relatively short customer line on Sunday took about 11 minutes, on average.
“I call this part ‘passing a stone,” Tunks deadpanned yesterday. “We’re waiting on Verizon to hook up phone and Internet. We can’t call in sales without it.”
On top of it all, Tunks, newly 50 and still sporting the sleeker physique he achieved in 2004, hasn’t gotten to exercise much lately.
“Between sampling the milkshakes and burgers for this last week of training, I need to see if the building has a fitness center,” he says.
District Commons/Burger Tap & Shake, 2200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. BTS: 202-587-6258.