The humble bun is the Ringo Starr of your standard hamburger combo. The patty always grabs center stage, supported by toppings and condiments. The bun is there, but usually no one seems to care much. Heck, even fries get more attention than the bun.
But c'mon: the bun is what we hold in our hands when eating the burger; it's your primary interface with the meal and it's what your tongue usually hits first with every bite of burger. So it's encouraging that a few Chicago restaurants are putting as much thought into the bun as it deserves.
Attention to detail is exactly what you'd expect from a fine dining chef like Michael Kornick. Though he's perhaps best known for white tablecloth places like mk, he's also the chef behind the more humble DMK Burger Bar (above). He says, "I like a bun to be neutral with rich wheat flavor and a dusted flour top to prepare the palette for the moisture and flavors that lie within. Think the neutrality of a flour tortilla for a burrito or a corn tortilla for a taco. The structure of the bun is critical so that the bottom half is not soaked and squashed before you can pick it up. We worked for months to get a hamburger bun that was structurally sound enough to hold a third-pound burger with all the toppings."
Chef Jessica Brumleve of Max's Wine Dive understands that the burger is an "accessory to a great patty," but that doesn't mean that she gives it short shrift, opting for a brioche from Red Hen Bakery that's "super-delicious, eggy-buttery, light and fluffy." This patty allows "the unique grind of beef to be the star," she says, adding "we look for a bun that is light but will be able to hold its own against a juicy beef patty. I always check to make sure the bun isn't overshadowing the patty, that the bread to burger ratio isn't too high/low, and that the bun is not so dense that the patty pushes out of the back (of the bun) with every bite."
It's a balancing act for chef Shaun King at The Dawson, who says "the best burger buns must be sturdy enough to stand up to the meat but also light in structure." But not too light, because, as he argues, "the biggest mistake is a bun that's too soft and not of an appropriate size to match up to the patty...the buns should also have the perfect shape, not be over-proofed, have a bit of sweetness and a golden brown crust." For "King's Ruben" burger, he uses a marble rye. "The balance between the pumpernickel and the rye brings out the same flavors in the corned beef," he says. "The burger contains an eight-ounce corned beef patty, beer braised sauerkraut with pickles, smoked Swiss cheese, and Louis dressing." We'd like to balance this Ruben burger in our hands and smash it into our faces.
At Sepia, Andrew Zimmerman departs from the wheat bun, saying "we use a potato roll for our burgers and we make them at Sepia every day. I like them because they are soft and just a tiny bit sweet. Of course, a different bun might compliment a different burger better, but I think that you should usually err on the side of softer bun rather than firm/dense (I'm looking at you trendy pretzel roll!). The biggest mistake I think is selecting a bun that skews the bun-to-meat ratio towards the bun. That and selecting buns that are too crusty on the outside (often the case with a burger on toasted ciabatta for example). It just makes the burger harder to eat and if you have made a delicious, juicy burger, it's kind of sloppy and hard to eat already."
Guess there's no way around it: the patty is the big event, but that doesn't mean a chef should ignore the bun...and the best chefs seem to put a lot of thought into the delivery system for their burgers, though it's likely most diners will have their eyes squarely set on the luscious meat that's framed by the buns, however nice those buns may be.