The Secret to Chef Narita Santos’ Perfect Cheeseburger Is Confit Tomato Aioli
It's punchy, cheesy and very good
A single lunch can change your life — just ask Narita Santos. Though Santos had been spending more time in salons than kitchens, she took a leap of faith in 2014, enrolling as a part-time culinary student to pursue her aspirations of becoming a chef. Working simultaneously as a full-time stylist and a part-time cook, she worked her way up the ladder as a line cook in kitchens like Bestia and NoMad and then, eventually, became a chef in her own right. Even so, it was a midday meal at The Exchange, the flagship restaurant at The Freehand hotel in downtown LA that cemented her new career path.
“A few years ago my sister and I happened to have lunch at The Exchange, then I went back to have dinner a few days later,” Santos tells InsideHook. “I absolutely loved their food offerings, ambience and the service they provided…and the rest is history.” Now serving as the executive chef at The Exchange, Santos is eager to bring some of her own background to the restaurant. Born in the Philippines and raised in Saudi Arabia, she moved to Southern California with her family as a teenager, and her style is a confluence of these three disparate places — and her menu at The Exchange reflects that.
“I love making chili oil sauces, braises, curries and grilling,” she says. “I like our chicken banh mi, which was one of my first loves when I moved to Orange County from Saudi Arabia at 10 years old. Or there’s our pan-seared salmon with charred green garlic tomato curry, coconut cream, mung beans, romanesco — it’s comfort on a plate. I also love the aspect of cooking with tea, which is part of the braised then grilled lamb ribs with the lapsang honey glaze, labneh, snow peas, mint and cucumber.”
Considering it was a lunch meal at The Exchange that won her over, it’s not surprising that you’ll also find a rather legendary burger on the daytime menu, one that includes griddled onions, white cheddar and confit tomato aioli. When going for a classic like this, Santos said she looks for a patty with a hard sear and a toasted, buttered bun that’s not sweet. But she does caramelize her onions so their natural sweetness will balance out another necessary element on the sandwich — pickles.
“I always look for griddled onions and a pickle that is punchy and acidic,” she explains. “We griddle our onions to bring out the natural sweetness to balance out our punchy pickles. The confit tomato aioli has rosemary, thyme, garlic and cabernet vinegar, then I opted for white cheddar purely for the aesthetics.”
For chefs at home who want to try their hand at Santos’ take on a burger, the confit tomato aioli is the finishing touch that sets this sandwich apart from the rest of downtown LA’s many options. Make sure to leave enough time to let these tomatoes slowly marinate in oil with garlic and chile de arboles, then reuse that perfectly seasoned oil to help emulsify the sauce afterward.
The Exchange’s White Cheddar Cheeseburger With Griddled Onions and Confit Tomato Aioli
- 2 pounds ground beef chuck, medium grind (Exchange’s burger patty is grass-fed with a mix of brisket, chuck and shoulder clod)
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion, sliced ¼-inch thick
- 6 slices of white cheddar or Tillamook’s sharp white cheddar
- 3-6 butter lettuce leaves
- Slices of kosher dill pickles
- Sesame bun
- Grapeseed oil
- Unsalted butter
- Kosher salt
- 3 roma tomatoes
- 3 chile de arboles
- 5 garlic cloves
- 1 tsp rosemary, finely chopped
- 1 tsp thyme, finely chopped
- 1 tsp Tabasco
- ½ tsp Dijon mustard
- 2 tsp cabernet vinegar
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 whole egg
- 1 tsp hot water
- 2 cups grapeseed oil
For the tomato confit aioli
- Preheat the oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Boil a pot of water that’s big enough to fit three roma tomatoes. Use a paring knife to mark an X on each end of the romas.
- Once the water is boiling, toss in the romas, wait for 15 seconds and place them in an ice bath to easily peel skin off.
- Put tomatoes in an oven proof container where they are fully submerged in the oil, add chile de arboles and garlic cloves.
- Cover with foil and cook for 1.5 to 2 hours until melty and soft. Let them cool fully.
- Use a blender or food processor to blend egg yolk, whole egg and hot water. Add confit tomatoes, garlic, rosemary, thyme, Dijon, tabasco and vinegar, blend well and use spatula to scrape sides. On low speed, slowly drizzle the oil used for cooking the confit tomato until the aioli is blended well. Add salt to taste.
For the patties and onion
- Form the ground beef chuck into three ½-inch thick patties and season them liberally on both sides with salt.
- Get your cast iron smoking hot; once it starts to smoke, turn the heat off and add enough oil to cover the surface and place your patties in.
- Turn heat back up to medium-high. Use a spatula turner to give it light press to ensure the patty has full contact and is getting an even sear.
- After two minutes, check to see the color of your sear, then flip it over and give it another light press.
- Cook for one minute, add two slices of cheese, then cook for another minute for medium rare and take it off heat to rest for a few minutes.
- Use the same pan, add sliced onions, salt and a little bit of butter. Lightly caramelize the onions on both sides.
For burger assembly
- Toast buns with butter until golden, add tomato confit aioli on buns, burger patty, onions, pickles and lettuce.
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