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5 Top Chefs on How They Top the Perfect Burger

Even a grilling guru can stack the deck with some next-level fixings.

close up of a perfect burger
Levi Brown/Trunk Archive

Another grilling season, another chance to reinvent your burgers. Sure, you could pull out the usual toppings — tomato, lettuce, your standard ketchup/mustard condiments — or you could shock all your backyard guests with something their taste buds have never experienced before.

We asked some of our favorite cookout-loving chefs for their recommendations.


Cred: Former champ of Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef; owner/chef of Restaurant Marc Forgione, Peasant and soon-to-open One Fifth, all in Manhattan


• Cheese: “This may sound weird, but I like to use a Parmesan crisp. Just grate parm onto a nonstick pan and bake at 350°F for a couple of minutes until it has a nice color.”

• Arugula: “Arugula delivers a bit more kick than plain lettuce.”

• Balsamic vinegar: “A good, aged one is expensive, but even just a drizzle adds bold flavor.”

• Gourmet condiment: “Make your own ketchup by pureeing sun-dried tomatoes, warm water and vinegar. You won’t be sorry.”

To wash it down: “With this burger, I might pair with a Chianti or Nebbiolo.”


Cred: Wowed Bravo’s Top Chef with her spin on Southern comfort food; helped the rest of us serve it with best-selling cookbook Carla Hall’s Soul Food


• Pimento cheese: “Amazing flavor and creaminess on burgers. If you’re grilling turkey burgers, also grill celery to a light char, chop and add to the pimento cheese to boost texture and smokiness.”


• Pestos and cheese: “Broccoli pesto pairs great with cheddar; dried tomato pesto is delicious with Havarti.”

How do you want that cooked? “Nothing less than medium. I don’t want a rare burger, because I want to taste the meat. Another tip: Mix a tablespoon of mayo into each pound of raw burger to add moisture and flavor.”


Cred: Chef at modern Cantonese restaurant Goosefeather in Tarrytown, New York; host of cookout-centric series All Up in My Grill on Tastemade.


• Soy sauce and sesame oil: “Brush on the patties to build beautiful Asian American flavor.”

• Kimchi sauce: “A generous amount of homemade mayo, mustard, ketchup, chopped kimchi and kimchi juice. Looks like Russian dressing, but with a funky kick, and works like pickle and condiment.”

• Onion: “Always, so add thick slices.”

Wash it down: “When I grill with my wife, we drink somaek, a Korean cocktail of sweet soju liquor mixed with ice-cold beer. Better not have anything to do later, because it will knock you out.”


Cred: Chef/owner of Toups’ Meatery, a proudly Cajun and “carnivorific” restaurant in New Orleans.


• Condiment: “An equal mix of mustard and mayo is the best sauce a burger ever had. Just make sure to sauce both buns to get that protective layer on both sides.”

• Pickle: “Super important to help cut the rich meat fat. I prefer a sweet bread-and-butter pickle, sliced thin. Skip the cheese before you skip the pickle — that said, don’t invite me over if you don’t have cheese.”

Backyard vibe: “Everybody is invited, unless you’re a dickhead. That’s what Cajun culture is about — there will be music, there will be dancing, there will be questionable games where somebody might lose a fingertip.”


Cred: The Mexico City–born Chopped champ helms a’Verde Cocina and Tequila Library in Raleigh, North Carolina


• Pineapple: “I like toppings with drama, and pineapple is a very Mexican thing to put on a burger. Use canned pineapple rings, because it needs to be soft and sweet, and grill until a bit charred.”

• Chipotle peppers: “The smokiness counters the pineapple’s sweetness. Grill canned chipotle peppers and chop roughly. If you want that a little less spicy, mix with a bit of mayo. Just those two toppings build deep layers of flavors.”

• Cheese: “Even though I’m Mexican, I don’t go for Mexican cheeses on a burger. American sliced yellow cheese gives the perfect melt. And the cheesier the better — I put three or four slices on each burger. Yes, each burger.”

Music to grill by: “I’m a huge fan of old-school hip-hop at summer cookouts. You feel a little bit gangster there in your backyard.”