The Anatomy of a ‘Secret Burger’
Michael Scelfo breaks down the Alden & Harlow hamburger that has driven at least one customer to the point of madness.
When Michael Scelfo was executive chef at Russell House Tavern, he created a full-blown social media craze with his “secret burger,” an off-menu, impromptu creation announced via Twitter and Facebook. The toppings changed often, but the variations hardly mattered because diners were captivated by the covert nature of the project. While in the kitchen, Scelfo would often receive tweets from guests in the dining room, bypassing their servers to request the chef’s latest creation.
“It was just born out of wanting to have some fun on social media and wanting people to throw caution to the wind,” Scelfo says. “I can’t even tell you how many burgers I sold. It was hundreds a day. Often, I was like, ‘wow, I really wish people would try the cool shit on the menu that I’m actually super proud of.’ At one point, after the first year, we figured out that we’d sold 28,000 burgers. It was some stupid number over the course of the four years I worked there. They should have a sign out front saying over 100,000 served.”
When Scelfo left in spring 2013 to concentrate on opening his own restaurant, he decided to take the concept with him. At Alden & Harlow, he’s changed the individual components of the burger and limited his daily output in order to encourage guests to experiment with other aspects of his menu. He typically prepares three dozen a day, some of which he holds back for his late-night menu, a favorite among restaurant industry personnel. That heightened sense of exclusivity has only made demand even more frenzied, with one rabid diner even threatening to slander the restaurant online if Scelfo didn’t produce a secret burger.
“First of all, he came in at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, so there was no chance,” Scelfo says. “He was berating the servers and holding up his phone threatening to write a horrible Yelp review if we didn’t make some burger magically appear. The astute gentlemen even told us at one point, ‘go out and find another cow.’ It was extortion with his iPhone over a damn burger.”
With the popularity of its debut concept, Scelfo has been reluctant to change the Alden & Harlow burger, but later this month he plans on taking the dish in some new, different directions, with toppings like fried clams and butter sauce, pâté, air-dried Chinese sausage and green curry, and pork belly with pickled carrots.
“What threw me a curveball was the response to the initial burger,” Scelfo says. “It made me leery of changing it since it seemed to make people so happy. But now that we’ve had our review, I feel more comfortable changing the menu and letting different things come out of the kitchen. We’re in more of an explorative, fun stage right now.”
Devotees of Alden & Harlow’s original concept have no reason to fret, though. Scelfo intends to keep plenty of Cabot cheese crisps and his grandmother’s bread and butter pickles on hand, just for special requests. Also, this weekend, at the 31st annual Mayfair in Harvard Square, Scelfo will be preparing over 100 burgers specifically for Cambridge revelers.
We asked Michael Scelfo to give us a breakdown of his wildly popular “secret burger.” Here, in his own words, are the ingredients and the story behind each one.
1. House-Baked Bun
“I wanted to serve it on a Parker House roll originally, then we tried it and it totally didn’t work. The fat content on a Parker House roll and the texture of it just didn’t work. When you put a hot beef patty on it, it just turned to mush. We needed to make it firmer, so at its core it’s a Parker House recipe, but we made our tweaks so it could stand up to the toppings. The buns are also fairly labor-intensive. It takes up a lot of time and a lot of ovens. We don’t have a super big production kitchen at Alden & Harlow and we have to be smart with how many hours we devote just to the burger, so we limit production to roughly three dozen a day.”
2. Little Gem Lettuce and Salted Onions
“We do the same thing as any Mexican taqueria, where we salt our onions in the morning, let them sit for four to six hours, then rinse them off. It was a tip that I read in an old Rick Bayless cookbook. He always salts his onions before he makes salsa. I’ve done it ever since. Salting draws out the sulphur-y, more acidic qualities of the onions and it gives it a nice savory crunch.”
3. No-Name Sauce
“The sauce doesn’t have a name, it’s just something my grandmother used to make when we were kids for salads and sandwiches. It’s kind of a hybrid Caeser and Thousand Island dressing. I envision her not being able to accommodate everybody at dinner and just mixing together two half-bottles of Ken’s dressing that were sitting in the fridge. We make ours with an aioli base, ketchup, pecorino cheese, anchovy, and a bunch of other stuff. It’s a real hodgepodge. Every time I put together one of our burgers I swear it looks like a Big Mac without the extra bun.”
4. Bread and Butter Pickles
“The pickle recipe is actually my grandmother’s as well. She lived in the Midwest in Kansas City, which is very much a bread and butter pickle culture. It’s my go-to pickle at the restaurant even though it leans toward the sweeter side.”
5. Cabot Cheese Tuile
“This was definitely influenced by the Parmesan crisp at Umami Burger in Los Angeles. I first went to one three years ago at a Fred Segal in Santa Monica. I thought it was super creative and fun. I’d always wanted to play around with the same idea using a local cheese. This is a clothbound cheddar from the Cabot people. It’s aged a minimum of 10 months at the cellars at Jasper Hill. We just press it into a ring shape and then bake it in a low-temp oven. As it cools, it hardens into a nice, salty crisp.”
6. Burger Patty
“We worked on the grind for a solid year-and-a-half, just tweaking it and playing with different cuts. The dilemma was how to get the secret smoky component into the grind and have the meat turn out the right way. We’re using Creekstone brisket, short rib, and beef plate, which is close to the belly, so it has this nice marbling similar to pork belly. There’s also a smoked aspect, but how and where that smoked component comes from is a pretty guarded secret. We grind the meat fresh everyday, which allows us to be really consistent. It’s not local beef—I’ve struggled with local companies— but I like the Creekstone model in regards to how they raise their animals and the way they produce their product. It’s not a perfect world situation, but it’s pretty damn close.”