The FLIP Burger Boutique founder talks tips, iconic chefs and… Welsh rarebit.

Many people claim to be burger experts, but none have as firm a grip on that title as this fellow. The New York native is a Top Chef: All-Stars champ, the founder of the South’s FLIP Burger Boutiques (among other excellent eateries) and a relentless culinary innovator. We caught up with him to talk cooking advice, iconic chefs and, yes, Welsh rarebit.

“When people make their patties, it’s important to break the surface of the patty with a fork so it doesn’t blow up like a meatball. A little pre-grill poking is actually a good thing.”

What’s your number one tip for the casual griller?
Know the meat you’re cooking. So either grind it yourself or ask the butcher to grind up a few things. The Blais burger is forty-five percent chuck, twenty-five percent brisket, thirty percent short rib. And then think about what goes on top. Umami, the flavor of savory, tends to work really well with beer and make your mouth water. Cheese, tomato, mushrooms, bacon, all of these things have umami. It’s crucial.

What’s the biggest mistake casual grillers make?
Overcooking is probably the number one issue. The other thing is when people make their patties, it’s important to break the surface of the patty with a fork so it doesn’t blow up like a meatball. A little pre-grill poking is actually a good thing.

What nontraditional topping that can give burgers a kick?
Welsh Rarebit, which you will love, is a traditional English dish with dark beer, Cheddar cheese and Worcestershire sauce that you eat after a long night at the pub to sort of calm your stomach and give you some sustenance. It’s amazingly simple and perfect to slather on a burger.

Any other foods you think are essential for tailgating?
I don’t discriminate. I do love burgers, but meatballs and sausage are in the same family and great tailgating foods. And there’s nothing wrong with a light, grilled chicken breast or some grilled veggies on a skewer. I’m getting Northern California on you, but I think the key is, don’t think everything has to fit the “theme” of tailgating. It just has to be delicious, simple food.

If this pic doesn’t make you drool, you might wanna have your salivary glands examined.

If a guy wants to be a better cook in general, what do you recommend?
The number one thing… vinegar.

Yes. Vinegar or acid. Acidity makes food better. We talked about this Welsh Rarebit sauce. It should be finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and it really wakes your food up. If people understood a little bit more about acidity, their food would be a lot better.

Is there a chef that you look up to or consider iconic?
I admire a lot of different people and I’m a fan boy of everyone else. The people I’ve worked for, Thomas Geller, Daniel Boulud, these are amazing chefs. But there’s always a romance for the person you’ve never worked for. I don’t usually answer this question, but Jean-Georges is someone I’ve always admired. Fergus Henderson. Mario Batali. I could rattle off another twenty.

What does innovation mean to you, and how has it played into your career and your style?
It’s never been like a strategic goal. We’re just constantly thinking about having things better or different or more enjoyable and changing the experiences. It’s definitely played a role because sometimes people will just see me and yell out “liquid nitrogen!” I think it’s more art than innovation through science and technology… putting together ideas that most people don’t think would work.

Just sort of a willingness to try things and evolve?
For sure. Especially from the low end. Like, Sriracha is a really trendy thing. And everyone knows Ranch dressing. And we combine those to to make Sri-Rancha. We don’t have a problem borrowing from what everyone in the country is familiar with and playing with it.

You’ve lost a lot of weight and now run marathons, which is awesome. What’s your best fitness tip for somebody who enjoys food?
The tip is to do it. People sometimes associate exercise with not being able to do a lot of other things. But the fact is, the more exercise you get, the better you can eat. You can eat different foods. You can be not as concerned with calories. It’s a reward. It really is. You’re thinking about that reward, whether it’s [beer] or a steak dinner or burger. You’re like, “Yeah, tonight, I’m done in an hour. I’m gonna eat that burger.”