It’s 11am and Tom Robinson is standing in the doorway of Rascal, welcoming me, a slightly nervous journalist, to join him and the rest of the rascally crew behind the pass for Friday lunch service.
It’s one of this burger joint’s busiest times of the week. I’m here to experience what it’s like to make fast food with two of Newcastle’s best chefs.
“For Tim and I, consistency is key, no matter what style of food we're cooking,” Tom explains. “We were balls to the wall for the first few months, but our fine dining training has helped us develop systems and processes that make it easier to maintain our quality when things get crazy.”
Since January this year, Tom and his long-time culinary co-conspirator, Tim Montgomery, have been pumping out burgers, chicken, and anarchy to a groundswell of abiding dude food fanatics from all over Newcastle and beyond. Both are talented chefs in their own right, but whenever their gastronomic powers combine, like they did at Bacchus back in the day, something delicious is bound to happen.
“We're going to start you on buns, and maybe get you over on ‘build’ at some point later on,” says Tom.
I follow him beyond the yellow counter and into the narrow galley behind the pass.
“You’ll need this,” he says, handing me a navy and white striped apron.
Like you, I have no idea what ‘buns’ or ‘build’ entails at this point, but I’m about to find out. We head into the dry store where a few red baker’s trays filled with freshly baked Papa Al’s burger buns are stacked up on top of each other.
“Right,” I say to Tom, “that explains ‘buns’.”
Taking one of the buns from the tray, Tom shows what he wants me to do; cut one evenly in half with the precision of a hatted chef, being careful not to squish it, and then brush either side of the inside of the bun with liberal strokes of melted butter. It looks an easy enough task to start.
'OK guys, service please,' Tom suddenly calls out to everyone in the kitchen. 'We've got our first order of the day. I need two Big Als, Dirty Rascal, Marty McFly, eat-in, and a cheeseburger take away. So, that's one, two, three, four . . . five buns, and I'm gonna need four sides of chips, eat in.'
Fast food is so hot right now, particularly among a number of high-profile chefs, including Shannon Bennett’s Benny Burgers in Melbourne, and Neil Perry’s Burger Project in Sydney.
They say Morgan McGlone, from Belles Hot Chicken, is the undisputed colonel when it comes to fast, yet fine, fried chicken, but I reckon these former Bacchus boys would give both McGlone and Sanders a run for their broiler.
“We sous-vide the chicken so that it cooks evenly and is firm and moist when you eat it,” says Haydn, one sixth of the Rascal crew for this Friday's lunch service.
Today, Haydn’s job is to prepare enough chicken for the next two days, set up the pass by putting out all the containers of fresh lettuce, sliced tomato, house-roasted beetroot, pickles, cheese, diced onion, and anything else Tim and Tom will need to build Newcastle's top burgers.
“OK guys, service please,” Tom suddenly calls out to everyone in the kitchen.
“We've got our first order of the day. I need two Big Als, Dirty Rascal, Marty McFly, eat-in, and a cheeseburger take away. So, that’s one, two, three, four . . . five buns, and I'm gonna need four sides of chips, eat in.”
“Oui chef,” comes the response from everyone in the kitchen and the lunch rush begins.
INTO THE KITCHEN
It’s 12pm, and Tom’s partner behind the pass, Tim, gets me into the kitchen where things are heating up. I can feel it rising off the hot plates. Pink patties of Wagyu and Angus beef are being smashed flat with a burger trowel.
Tim says this sears and caramelises the bottom of the patty, which introduces extra ‘flavor-flav’ and texture, and ensures you can taste the beef in every bite. For the beef burgers with cheese, slices of American cheddar are melted for a moment over the patties until they start to run onto the grill.
“We’re going to get you to toast the buns,” Tim says. “It’s pretty simple.”
“Backs! Backs!” Haydn shouts, warning everyone in the narrow space that he’s coming through with supplies.
“When it gets busy, we’ll have two people on the fryers, one on the grill, and two on the pass,” Tim says, while showing me how to toast the buns.
“One person is in charge of running the service. They’ll call out the orders off the dockets, wrap the burgers and plate everything up, and the other will be on build, assembling the ingredients onto the burgers, including all the sauces and salads.”
As Tim shows me how to be an honorary toastmaster, two more dockets fly in from the front, followed quickly by another two.
“I think it’s about to get real,” Tom says. “Let’s get buns going, please.”
“Oui, chef,” I answer with everyone, before splitting four buns and putting them on the hot plate.
“Coming in hot with a Pig Headed and a cheeseburger, take-away, when you’re ready, please,” Tom shouts. “And, down the line, we've got, two Big Als, one Marty, one Pig, and a Burger of the Week, plus Mac and Cheese, three sides of chips, and a side of tots, all eat in.”
“Oui, Chef. One minute on tots,” comes the call.
“Thanks, can I have that bacon over here now, please?”
The Rascal kitchen is getting faster by the minute as workers from the surrounding offices stagger in for lunch. Soon, the sound of hip-hop playing loudly out the front is drowned out by the crowd filling the dining room and the buzz of extraction fans.
“Service, please ... jerk, cheeseburger, side of tots and chips ...”
Meat sizzles, cheese melts, the fryers next to me hiss as a basket of frozen fries is lowered. Another beside it begins to boil, frying pieces of moist sous-vide chicken to crispy perfection.
It’s 1pm, and about 12 toasted buns sit on the ledge of my grill. They’re waiting to be picked off by Tim who’s on ‘build’, making the burgers before passing them to Tom to plate up. Space is at a premium, so I hold off toasting more buns, for just a minute.
In the dining room people are lining up, almost out the door. Every seat is occupied with hungry people; friends, families, and, at one booth, a group of jacked-up bros having a cheat day while still getting after their daily gains.
“Keep up with the buns, man. We’ve got a lot of dockets coming in fast,” Tim tells me.
On cue, the docket printer begins spitting out orders like it’s malfunctioning.
“Service!” Tom shouts. “OK, Haydn, can you set up another station, please? I want you to handle all phone orders and take-aways.”
Orders keep coming and coming, and then ... a strange calm descends behind the pass. The chef's systems engage and the sound of silence slices through the din. Chaos swiftly shifts to order. Everyone is so focused on their station – grilling, melting, frying, toasting, building, wrapping, plating – that they barely notice the unfolding anarchy.
Tim and Tom estimate the kitchen pumped out almost 300 burgers, plus sides in about 90 minutes.
Suffice it to say, I never make it over to the ‘build’ station.