Chicago’s Top Burger Chefs Share Their Tips for the Perfect Patty

The annual Hamburger Hop competition led to some inspiration for your at-home grilling

Corey Grupe (left) took home the Judges' Choice Award at the Hamburger Hop while Kwame Onwuachi scored People's Choice.

By Danielle Braff

The scent of charred, sizzling beef could be smelled a mile away as Chicagoans flocked to the annual Chicago Gourmet food festival on Friday. They’d come for the annual Hamburger Hop, a superstar event hosted by Chef Stephanie Izard and showcasing the work of 14 of the best burger makers in the Windy City, all there to compete for top hamburger honors. 

We were tasked with tasting each and every burger (it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it), and grilling the chefs (no pun intended) for their best burger-making tips. Here’s what we heard…

It’s all about the rub

Patrick Wasserman, chef at Lizzie McNeill’s, created his own rub that contains no less than 15 ingredients. These include cinnamon, allspice, dried chives, oregano, cayenne, red pepper flakes, brown sugar and thyme (among others that he didn’t want to reveal for fear of giving away the entire secret recipe). Add the rub to the meat, plus some mango habanero aioli, and you’ve got a winner, Wasserman says. 

Keep it simple

Epic Burger has seven Chicago locations and has been serving its epic patties since 2008, and it’s not uncommon to see lines stretching out the door. Nick Barnhart, chef and director of operations at Epic Burger, the 2021 Hamburger Hop Citywide Winner, finally revealed their secret. “We do an 81/19 beef blend with Creekstone Farms beef, plus sea salt and pepper,” Barnhart says. Surely there must be some secret ingredient. Nope, Barnhart says. The key is simplicity. You want to taste the meat, as long as the meat is fresh and from a great farm. Here’s the good news: Creekstone Farms sells to consumers. You can order their Natural Signature Brisket Blend Ground Beef Hamburger Pucks with that 81/19 blend at $140 for 18 pounds (that’s 72 burgers).

Tradition is good, with a hint of the modern

Gene & Georgetti steakhouse was founded in 1941. It’s a Chicago icon. So when it comes to burgers, they don’t stray from that tradition too much, says Collin Pierson, the restaurant’s managing partner. “A good burger should have traditional Italian flavors that have been modernized,” Pierson says. He keeps his burgers traditional with fresh basil, arugula, mozzarella and pickles, but modernizes them by adding balsamic vinaigrette, truffle butter and grilled shallots. 

Balance that burger

No one wants a boring burger. You need a balance of flavors and texture, says Burger Federation’s Corey Grupe, the Judges’ Choice Award Winner. His Little Miss Figgy Burger contained camembert and fig fondue with bacon vindaloo, topped with pickled pepper relish on a Turano brioche bun. “We had fun with it,” Grupe says. “It has crunch, cheese and peppers, and it’s all about balance.” 

Find the magic blend

It takes a mix of meat to create the most delicious burger, says Chef Phil McDonald of Black Bear Bread Co., who received our vote for best burger. McDonald blends chuck, brisket and angus, plus salt and pepper, and puts it on a bun that won’t get soggy (for this competition, he, like Grupe, used a Turano brioche bun). Top the burger with a large slice of fresh tomato, add some homemade aioli, and you’ve got a perfect burger, McDonald says. 

Don’t be afraid of new seasonings

Chef Clinton Payne’s seasoning hails back to the time Mikkey’s Retro Grill was LiteHouse Whole Food Grill. The staff were having fun mixing the house seasonings with the burger meat, when they created something superlative: the burger now powering the success of Mikkey’s Retro Grill. Payne declined to tell us exactly what was in that seasoning (it tasted like onions, barbecue sauce and maybe some brown sugar?), but the key, Payne says, is to experiment with various flavors until you find one combination you love.