What makes a burger concoction fit to be a "special" and how does a fast, casual spot like Blue Moon Burgers gain a following with their monthly twists? Cook, recipe tester, and stylist Kelly Cline weighs in. Cline has been flipping burgers for half her life — a job she credits as the driving force behind gaining her independence and learning to cook at 18 — and has now been cooking, honing recipes, and taking pretty pictures at Blue Moon since 2010.
What was your first experience in the world of burgers?
When I was 18, I moved out and got a job at Burger King. I started as a hostess — yes, there used to be a hostess — with the paper hat and everything. My job mainly consisted of checking the salad bar and refilling things. It was really boring and there weren't enough hours for me to support myself, so I asked to work the grill. It’s where I learned to cook and kind of started everything.
You learned to cook at Burger King?
Ha, yeah. I mean, as far as cooking gourmet foods and developing recipes, that’s all self-taught, but working the line started there and urgency, timing--that was BK. You don’t really learn flavor profiles at Burger King.
After BK, I worked as a waitress and a cook, making brunches in the smallest kitchen ever at the Rocksport then cooking for college football games. I worked in Tacoma after that at The House, a converted house with a pretty solid burger. The owner got a bunch of investments from people and then disappeared with a shitload of money from all the investors. That really soured me on cooking and I didn’t want to be in the kitchen anymore. I had saved up some money and my food photography was starting to show promise. I was cooking and styling all my own food, and not just on the line.
So, how did you go from flipping burgers to consulting and styling with Blue Moon?
I met Charlie [Olson, owner of Blue Moon] in 2010 when he tweeted at me super late at night. Legend has it that he would take over the Twitter account back then after a couple drinks.I don't even remember what it was about, but I'm sure it was about something I posted about food. He wrote some smart remark, then I came back at him. We got to talking and he invited Ras [Rasmussen, Cline's husband] and me in to eat. I took a bunch of pictures and gave them to him as a thank you. He was surprised at how beautiful the food looked and we came together and realized we could really help each other. It gave me a chance to put my burger bible to use.
Burger bible? Elaborate, please.
Everything from sauce recipes to seasonings, burger patties, bread recipes… I write it all down and then I put it through tests until I get the best flavors.
The bible is where my Blueberry Ketchup came from. Everyone is skeptical reading "blueberry ketchup" on the Blue Moon menu. And then they taste it and they're blown away. I think they're expecting it to taste like pie filling or something, but it's full-blown ketchup, just with a little bit of something extra.
The first thing I brought Charlie was my barbecue sauce. I walked in with a jar as an idea for a burger, and he ended up eating it with a spoon. That turned into the Secret Squirrel burger, which we do every summer.
What is the process that goes into making the specials?
I’m literally always thinking about burgers. Every time I go out to eat or cook something, I’ll imagine it between buns. How do I "burgerize" it? It happens with everything from chicken curry to bang mi.
Then, I’ll start testing recipes. The test kitchen is very serious. I’ll triple test a recipe at home first. Then we have a test kitchen with managers and the head cook. A test chef comes in and makes the recipe, asking questions about the recipe if he needs to. And once everyone tastes it, we talk about it and then move forward or go back and keep working on it. So far, they've all gone into production...
Usually, testing happens three to four months in advance, and by the time we’re rolling them out for the handful of burgers, I’m working on the next ones.
What have been your favorite burgers you've created at Blue Moon?
The Nacho Mama by far. It’s like nachos on a burger bun, with cilantro-lime mayo, a one third-pound beef patty, and green chile nacho cheese sauce. We revamped it when it hit the menu permanently, because nacho cheese only holds well if it’s made with fake cheese, and I’m not about that.Now it has fried green chiles, pepperjack, American, pico, and tortilla straws. It’s such a fucking good burger.
I also love the Frito Pie burger. Those white trash flavors really come together on a bun, and this one has beef, herb mayo, beef chili, Fritos, and sour cream.
Any cuisines you haven’t tapped into yet that you want to for burger specials?
I’m dying to do a lamb-harissa burger, but lamb doesn’t exactly fly out the door at a fast-casual restaurant. I want to mess with a curry burger — something with chicken or turkey, but ground poultry is a huge challenge for making a delicious burger. Like, have you had a turkey burger recently? Disgusting, just totally useless to anyone with tastebuds. And a seafood burger. I'd love to do like a grilled fillet of really good salmon with some herby shit.
As far as Seattle burgers outside of Blue Moon go, what are your favorites?
My guilty pleasure is the Smokey’s burger on 1st Ave in Burien. It’s just a giant, sloppy, fire-grilled burger patty and I love it.
If you gotta go veggie, Skillet's veggie burger with farro and mushrooms in it is sooo good. Holy hell.
Highbrow-wise, I love the John Howie Steak burger. He does a damn good burger. When I eat burgers, I want one I can just knock down fully; I want it to leave me stuffed but not make me feel ill. John’s isn’t so overwhelming that I can’t finish it. If he still has that Juicy Lucy on the menu, oooh, that’s a good burger. It oozes cheese out the sides like an ice cream sandwich… An ice cream sandwich full of meat and cheese.
What are your thoughts on the fry situation?
I have put sooo much research into combating limp, greasy fries. A limp fry is like a limp dick: it’s really doing no one any good.
When I was working on the fries for Blue Moon, I busted out calipers to measure different fry widths to try and get just the right size for frying.There’s a process to making a perfect French fry. You have to rinse your potatoes. You gotta flash fry it to blanch it. You can’t overcrowd the basket or everything will get soggy. If you ruin the fries, you’ll ruin the meal. No one wants a beautiful, unctuous, beefy, charred burger and a pile of limp, greasy fries.
Anything people are doing wrong that’s getting you in a tizzy?
The way people order their burgers sometimes is just crazy. I don’t get why people will order a steak medium rare and then ask for their burgers to be torched to shit. If the beef is good, you should be serving your burger with some pink showing. Otherwise, it’s like eating beef sand. There’s no succulence left. It’s just a desert of bland, tasteless crap. And you can’t mask that no matter how much guac or bacon you pile on it. Just order it right or don’t order it at all.