Interview With Hamburger God Josh Capon
Meet the man who invented the world’s best burger
Josh Capon, a 1994 culinary school graduate, worked under culinary heavies Charlie Palmer, David Burke and Gray Kuntz. Josh Capon spent over a year traveling through Europe, working at Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, France, Spain and Germany. Josh Capon, in a genius move that only Josh Capon can fully explain, teamed with his current business partners (prolific restaurateurs and media men John McDonald and Joshua Pickard) to open an ahead-of-its-time hybridized seafood restaurant — Lure Fishbar — that to this day serves an exhaustive menu including, but not limited to, platters of cracked Kushi oysters next to lobes of Santa Barbara uni next to roasted Skuna Bay salmon and fried lobster croutons. "You can eat there every day for a week and not overlap," he says of the popular Soho canteen, which serves as a sort of Max for new-media types.
Josh Capon is one badass chef, and now a restaurateur of his own with an ownership in two newer projects — B&B Winepub and El Toro Blanco. But when it comes down to talking about Josh Capon, the conversation starts, and typically ends, with his burger. It won a sort of insane three consecutive first prize trophies at the Burger Bash at the New York City Food & Wine Festival. He defeated guys like Bobby Flay, Michael Lomonaco, Marc Murphy, Dan Kluger and a little bun and patty standy called Shake Shack.
Capon owned the competition with a pretty classic ground chuck American cheese burger that is heavily influenced by the “animal-style” In-N-Out Burger. One side of the patty is smeared with Dijon mustard before its uninterruped time on the flat-top grill. The kicker is a bacon jam that nobody has gotten sick of. And there we go, talking about this talented seafood guy's hamburger. Thankfully, he’s got a great attitude when I grill him (har) sort of non-stop about burgers. It’s Grilling Month, after all.
Do you get sick of talking about the burger all the time?
There are definitely times when enough is enough already, but the truth is that I love it. Sometimes, it’s the simple things that people can really connect to. I have people that come to my restaurant who just want to be shown how to make a great burger. They take it, go to their backyard and make a great burger. And more power to them.
But they can’t make your burger! Let’s be honest here…
My burger is no secret. I’ve been videotaped doing it. (Edit: Also here, here, here.) I’ve been interviewed doing it. People know my tricks and that’s what makes it so great.
There’s something intangible that you have here, though. You’ve made it more than anyone else.
There’s no question that I’m a professional chef, but it’s still a burger and I’m willing to show anybody how to make it at any time. If you can duplicate it, go for it!
When you came out of culinary school in the early '90s, was there something called “bacon jam”?
I get in a fight every now and then with Drew Nieporent because he’s selling burgers up at Madison Square Garden with a bacon onion jam and he’s always like, “Oh please, I invented that in 1970-something.” Well, I thought it was something that I came up with because I was always a bacon and cheeseburger guy and always hated those two strips of bacon because you bite one strip and it just comes out. We came up with a jam – I think jam is sexy and fun.
Jam is sexy. So how did you come up with this burger recipe?
It was the first year we entered the Burger Bash and I was thinking about what burger I was going to do — tuna burger, salmon burger. But those burgers were not going to win. It’s not what people want to eat. So I asked myself what my favorite burger was. I’m a bacon cheeseburger guy and I love caramelized onions. I also love sandwiches and I believe that when you make a sandwich, every bite should be the same. People used to take the crust off for a reason as a kid — parents used to be sloppy and everything would be in the middle. To me, especially with great bread these days, the crust is the best part. But you have to make sure that it is a perfect platform. The jam spreads so perfectly and every bite is the same.
Do you remember where you invented it?
The burger was a combination of my favorite things, [with input from] my partner John McDonald, who used to go to In-N-Out all the time. Eventually, I made it to In-N-Out, snuck into the kitchen and all that stuff.
Let’s talk about burger bun strategy in general.
I think bun strategy is huge. Great bread is important, but then again, there’s nothing better than a Martin’s potato roll. That’s what I use at the Bash. Right now, I have a great bakery making me buns here.
Not potato rolls per se, just a great local bread. We actually use a brioche bun at Lure and I don’t love that because I think it’s too rich. I don’t want somebody to take a nap after a burger. Ten ounce and one-pound burgers don’t do it for me. Burgers should feel good.
What bakery do you use? Or is that secret?
Let’s talk about grilling technique. You use a flat top, right?
At the restaurant, I do flat top.
Do you believe in cooking a burger on a grill?
All summer long, I grill. To me, there is no better form than grilling. You are outside, there’s no cleanup, and there’s great flavor. I use a gas grill. I grill for a couple hours. When I eat, I don’t just sit down and eat a steak. I mean, I grill. We have some pre-game activities, some warm-ups. I need some duration on my grill and charcoal is tough for that. There’s no question you get better flavor out of charcoal, but sometimes when you get off the beach, you just need to fire up the grill!
What was the last epic barbecue you attended?
As a chef, whenever you show up anywhere, it can become epic. But the last thing I want to do is be intimidating. I don’t want someone to feel weird just because so-and-so chef is there. I’m there to help and to have fun and grilling is fun and relatively easy. When you start grilling for a lot of people, it starts to get tough. My sister in Connecticut grills for 20 to 30 people sometimes. Now that’s epic! Hats off to her, because she’s got her prep down and mise en place ready to go, but the truth is that you can have everything ready to go, but once it’s time to hit the grill, you better be ready to go. I’m always there for support and I’m happy to help anybody out. I always say, “As long as I’m not doing the cooking, it tastes better.” The truth is that’s what I love to do, so it’s fine.
OK, but give me an epic backyard barbecue with chefs?
Once a year, we go out to the Hamptons to support a charity that I am involved in. It’s morphed into a regular weekend where I stay at Jeffrey Chodorow’s house and Mark Pastore, Pat LaFrieda, Paul Denamiel and a couple of my other chef buddies show up. I usually bring up a lot of stuff for the weekend because the truth is once you are away for a weekend like that, you don’t want to go out to dinner. He’s got a beautiful backyard with a pool and a crazy grill. We’ll be barbecuing and jumping in the pool.
Off the top of our head, give me your best beef marinade…
Olive oil, herbs and garlic is always easy. Obviously when you are grilling, coating in olive oil is good for non-stick purposes. Throw in some herbs, some garlic, some ginger, some chili peppers – get some flavor in there and season it with salt and pepper. Grilled lemons have a great flavor, too; just squeeze them over the top.
Tell me something about yourself that no one knows right now.
I can get to 500 pounds in a week if somebody paid me to [laughs].
You can eat that much?
I could and it’s very difficult not to.
You look good. You’ve lost some weight for sure.
I’m making an effort. I have a wife and two kids and have started spinning. It’s very difficult in the world that I live in — especially as much as I love to eat — to not be 500 pounds. My wife thinks it’s easy because since I work in a restaurant I can just make myself a salad, but the truth is that everything is there and I just nosh all day without eating full meals. I’m a rather simple guy, I guess.
OK, something else…
Oh, I’d love to be a professional go-kart driver. Next time we’re down in Dewey [Delaware, where his family has a home] we’ve got to hit up the go-kart track, Midway. It’s badass – you better bring it when we go.
This Food Republic Interview is presented by our friends at Ribera Wines