In the first part of our interview with Rodelio Aglibot, BLT Restaurant Group — and thus GO Burger — corporate executive chef, the well-traveled chef discussed Los Angeles sports and the future of Filipino cuisine, among other things. Turn the page for the rest of our conversation and check back later for the chef's recipe for a Sunset Stripper. That's a hamburger recipe, not some ridiculous fruity drink or, I don't know, whatever else you think it might be. And if anyone has a picture of Aglibot's legendary Spam dinner (just read the interview), please, please send it to us.
Squid Ink: How often will you come back to Los Angeles?
Rodelio Aglibot: As much as I can. We have BLT Steak on Sunset, and now that we have this one. Plus being a pseudo-Angeleno, it's a good excuse. It's 75 degrees here. I left Chicago this morning, it was 10. I actually enjoy it, maybe because I didn't grow up with it. The trick to dealing with that weather is to leave every 2 to 3 weeks.
SI: It's a good thing you're a corporate chef now.
RA: Yes, I can get out. We have properties in Scottsdale and Miami. No, I didn't plan that, but it works out well. Actually we have a property in Hawaii — there's a BLT Steak in Waikiki. I was just there.
SI: Did your trip intersect with Obama's [holiday] visit?
RA: I just missed him. Next time. I was once asked who would you like to eat with one day, and I think President Obama would be the one. I'd like to eat Spam with him one day. He lived there. I still have an affinity for it.
SI: Between Hawaii and the Philippines, can you explain Spam?
RA: You mean the appeal of it? It's in Hawaii because of the war, the GI's and rationing; that's why it became a meat staple. In the Philippines it was the same thing. The United States occupied the Philippines for almost 50 years, so that's where a lot of it came from. It's the saltiness? [Laughs.] It's not any worse than hot dogs, you know. I did a Spam dinner once that Jonathan Gold wrote about. I did 7 courses in Spam. The dessert was served in a Spam can. I did Spam en croûte as a main course, and cut out the letters S-P-A-M, put it on top and served it tableside with a mustard-and-ketchup sauce. You had to be there. It was a lot of fun.
SI: Are you going to have Spamburgers here?
RA: No, I don't think so. I don't think we'll do that. Maybe in the back kitchen. Maybe a special menu.
SI: The obligatory question, since you've just opened a burger joint: What makes a good burger?
RA: We griddle our burgers, for one. Versus grill. You get a great sear on the meat on the flattop, it keeps the juices in. I think grilling dries out the burger; the juices fall into the fires. It may add a little smokiness to the flavor, but I believe a griddled burger is better. The meat. Our blend is a mixture of a dry-aged with different cuts of meat: short rib, brisket, something that has a nice fat content.
SI: If you were to do a burger at home — all secret recipes notwithstanding — what would you shoot for?
RA: Probably 80-20 would be the mix. Maybe a little brisket — ground brisket — gives it a lot of flavor. Add a little of that.
SI: Do you add fat, as some chefs do?
RA: No, we don't. If you get the pieces of meat, you trim them but leave some of it on there. You chunk it up. I think if someone did 50% chuck, 35% short rib, 15% brisket, they'd have a great burger. Well, here we brush ours with butter, so if you have warm butter on a cold piece of meat, it solidifies, right? And then it goes on the griddle. Salt and a little coarse pepper. And then you have to have a great bun. Not a heavy brioche bun, because I think an eggier bun takes over the flavor of the meat, so I think it should be light and fluffy. You toast the bread, that's key. Lettuce. You can't miss with iceberg lettuce; you have to go with iceberg. The crunch.
SI: No arugula, then.
RA: No arugula. And I actually don't like cheese on a burger. I'm a purist. I'll taste it…
SI: For research purposes.
RA: Yeah, but I want to taste the meat. Medium, some people say medium-rare, but it all depends on the meat itself. You have to cook meat to the right temperature for the best consistency. And then, you know, a fries and a shake. I mean, if you're going to waste 1500 calories in one sitting, you might as well go all out.
I like raw onions vs. caramelized onions; I like the crunch. We use red here. I like the spices of a white, but it all depends. I'm all about texture. I've tried my share of burgers.
SI: Like how many?
RA: On a weekly basis? Before we opened, I'd try like 2 or 3 new burger joints. I'd probably have 5 burgers a week. It's not horrifying. It's like the same thing with pizza, we have 2 Italian concepts where we do Neapolitan style pizza. So part of my job is to go and find out what people are doing and you want to taste it.
SI: What do you think of the Father's Office Burger? Speaking of arugula.
RA: Well, I grew up here. And I know Sang [Yoon, chef-owner of Father's Office]. You know, it's a great burger. Probably the only burger I'll ever love that's not on a bun — because it's on a baguette. Yeah, and I love the fact that he doesn't have substitutions. It's what it is.
SI: Do you allow substitutions here? And there's a ketchup bottle right over there.
RA: Oh, yeah. We're not that… If we only offered one burger, maybe not.
SI: You've done high-end and low-end: what do you think of the future of high-end white-tablecloth restaurants?
RA: Let me start with L.A. You think about it, the second largest city in the country cannot support one great French restaurant. It's very difficult. As chefs and restaurateurs we have to understand that the public is saying something to us. I think what's changed is that the level of chefs' talent has gotten so high, that competitively, we're driving each other to create great food at lower prices. And so we can get a 4-star meal at a restaurant like Hatfield's, which is probably a little more casual; you might not be dropping $120 a person. Because of the talent, we're creating gastropub menus that years ago you'd put into 4-star restaurants. The lifestyle too, it's more casual. The Los Angeles lifestyle. Who puts on a coat and jacket now to go eat?
We can still do a high-end [restaurant] but have it so that it's recession-proof, or manageable economically. Maybe it's not 120 seats; maybe it's 60 seats. I think economic times have brought a reality to a lot of the dreams chefs have. I think when chefs understand that, that's when we'll be able to survive. The food alone — it's hard these days for just the food to drive a restaurant's success.
I graduated from culinary school when I was 27, in 1995, and it's been a whirlwind for me. In 16 years I've worked in San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, New York, Seattle. The funny part is learning the differences between East Coast and West Coast chefs. Chefs on the West Coast will cook the vegetables a little bit more al dente; the East Coast, they like it a little on the softer side. The argument you'll hear: that West Coast chefs will just put olive oil on things, just sea salt and call it a day. And the East Coast chefs will use more technique. A lot of it has to do with product.
SI: And what about the chefs coming up days?
RA: There's a new generation that's filling our positions. It's different. The labor laws have changed: you don't show up at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock like we used to. Stages [working for restaurants, apprentice-style, for free] — there's too much litigation. Businesses have to protect themselves. So my challenge for the chefs of the future is how do we preserve the traditions? Not so much teaching the young chefs of tomorrow the technique, but a respect for the art and for the craft and how to uphold some sense of tradition. You don't have to be a chef three years out of culinary school; it's okay. With the TV and all the media we have to ground ourselves in why we do this.
SI: In today's economy, people might not have 40K to go to culinary school.
RA: No. They're still paying line cooks the same as 15 years ago. That hasn't changed. Prices have gone up. Some chef's salaries have gone up, but you have someone who has a 40K debt working at maybe $10-11 an hour, with an $800 loan payment, they can't survive. You have to work two jobs; you get burnt out.
SI: How do you preserve the traditions then?
RA: Practical experience. Everybody wants to work under the Daniel [Boulud]s, the Michael Minas, but there are a lot of talented chefs out there who are great teachers, but you have to seek them out. You're better off if you're work with someone who's willing to teach you. To say you staged there, and the chef may not even know your name when you put in your few months there so you can put it on your resume. But if you put someone who has practical knowledge against them in a practical interview, they're [the chefs with the practical knowledge] going to beat you.
I think there's a bottle-necking happening near the top, where chefs like myself who have been cooking for 15 years, we're all at the top; we're not going anywhere. And then you have young chefs, where are they going to go? Because there's not enough great positions out there. So the foundations of the kitchens can be weakened. As my career meanders, my goal is to get back into education. Get back into trying to preserve the traditions.
SI: And would that be in a culinary school?
RA: I have ideas of creating a sous chef school. Or creating after-school programs. The curriculum can sometimes be recipe reading, and I think they [schools] need to move away from that. They really have to give them [the students] tools. Teaching them what they can do outside the classroom is important. They can go eat a Greek plate for $6 down the street and learn a lot. You don't have to be in a high-end restaurant. You train your palate. I was fortunate that my parents were great cooks. My dad was a military cook. My palate was trained as a kid — and that can always evolve.
I don't know what the trend's going to be in 2011. I hope it'll be more restaurant openings. I think the designer ingredients are getting really sparse. We've turned over almost every stone and found what's out there. Now what is it? It'd like to see it be about chefs giving back. There's so much self-promotion. It's time for us to be like hey, let's get back to our roots.