I needed a part time job, and fast. I was about 19 at the time and was moving into a room in a large house with some roommates I had never met before. I was pleased to really be out on my own, but needed to find work. I walked into the little strip of shops and businesses a half mile from my new place and began my search. Most places weren’t hiring, and to put it lightly I didn’t have the build to be a bouncer at one of the many bars, so I turned to walk back home when I saw “cook wanted” in the window of a little diner.
This place was known for its 50’s themed decorations just as much as its giant hamburgers and milkshakes. “Perfect” I thought to myself and I walked right through the doors. A young waitress asked if I wanted to be seated and I explained to her I was here about the job. A few minutes later she ushered me to the back room where I met the head cook in charge of the operation. I thought him to be a little over dressed with a full on chefs coat and hat, with a demeanor much like the Swedish chef from the Muppets. He asked me a few questions about myself, what my availability was like and so on, and then asked me how much experience I had cooking. That was the problem, I could burn a bowl of cereal, I had no idea how to make a hamburger, let alone drop a basket of fries without them coming out looking like slivers of charcoal. So I did what any 19 year old would do, I lied. I told him I had cooked in many restaurants in the area and his kitchen would be no problem. I was hired on the spot. He handed me a stack of papers and an apron and told me to be there promptly at 9am to “prep for the lunch rush”, whatever that meant.
I showed up the next day with my stack of papers and apron and was introduced to Robert. Robert was a man at least twice my age (and twice my size) with a toothy grin and a “can-do” attitude. He introduced himself and he started quizzing me about my experience. I bluffed my way through the conversation and was feeling pretty good about myself. All I had to do was ask him what to do, he would tell me, and I would do it. “Cut those tomatoes” he would bark, and I was content in falling in line, following his orders and letting him be the boss of the kitchen. I was well on my way to collecting a paycheck when the doors opened to the restaurant. The first order came in and Robert asked me to “fry up two patties and drop an order of fries”. I nervously looked around having no idea what that meant and I came up with a brilliant plan. “Robert” I said, “I have heard how great of a cook you are and was hoping you would let me watch you do the first few orders so I could make them just like you.”
I stammered, proud of my quick thinking and delighted in his reaction. “Oh you heard I was a good cook eh” Robert chuckled “Well I do make a pretty mean burger” he said, “step aside and watch a master at work”. I couldn’t believe it, I had done it, I was going to learn how to cook without looking like an idiot, and a liar, though at the time I was both. I repeated the steps after him, and each new order I asked him to make it first so I could “make it just like him.” I mean, I could have done it myself, but he was such a chef, I wouldn’t want to do him a disservice by not following his lead, right?
He taught me everything I know about cooking hamburgers, steaks, and sandwiches. He would throw down little tips and tricks of the kitchen, how to chop more efficiently, how to make sure things get crisp but not burned in the fryer, and how to make the perfect burger. He taught me the finger test, and I use it to this day to make the perfect burgers and steaks for family and friends, and today I am going to share it with you.
The Finger Test
to check the doneness of burgers and steaks
A raw burger, that you do not want to eat is soft and mushy. This is your basis for comparison.
Open the palm of your hand and relax it. Take your index finger of your other hand and push on the meaty area between the thumb and the base of the palm. This is what raw meat feels like.
For a rare steak, just press the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb. The meaty area below the thumb should give quite a bit. This is almost exactly what meat cooked rare feels like. Open up your palm again and compare the difference from raw to rare. I usually wouldn’t cook a burger rare for safety reasons.
For a medium rare burger or steak, gently press the tip of your middle finger to the tip of your thumb. This is medium rare. This is the absolute minimum I’d want to cook a burger to and a great starting point for a steak.
For a medium doneness, press the tip of your ring finger and your thumb together. The meaty part beneath the thumb should give a little more. This is what meat cooked to a medium doneness feels like, and exactly how I like my steaks with a tad bit of pink in the center.
For a well done burger, and how my wife and daughter like it, gently press the tip of your pinky and your thumb together. Again feel the meaty area below your thumb. It should feel pretty firm. This is what well done meat feels like when you press on it. I feel like it is a little too done for a steak, but to each their own.
Robert taught me that trick the first day I started working at that diner. I worked as a line cook for quite some time and was sad to leave the place as I picked up a different job that led to a career in art. Robert was an artist too, he was a hardworking man that could cook his tail off. He came in early, left late, and made sure everyone (even the employees) were well fed on his watch. He has a great heart, and I still see him around from time to time. When I ask him what he has been up to, he is always at a different burger joint running the kitchen. He knows what he is good at and sticks to it. One of the times I ran into him, we were laughing at the good times we had and he looked at me with a squint in his eye. “I gotta ask, when you came into that restaurant you didn’t know how to cook a darn thing did you?” I smiled at him and before I could respond he said “I didn’t think so”. “You taught me everything I know Robert.” I said as I walked away. It was true too, I think he knew it from the very first day, but there are two things I learned from Robert, one, there is always more to learn in the kitchen, so stay humble, and two, that there is nothing more rewarding than teaching someone how to do it, just like you.