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Inside the ropes at Chili’s: Who knew so much was made from scratch?


 

Dallas has its fair share of good and even great burgers, but I don’t think there’s ever been a better burger than the Old Timer, the $1.50 burger served at the original Chili’s restaurant in the late 1970s.

Back then, way before umami had been elevated to an official core taste and way before any of the Five Guys were born, Chili’s was the place to go for hefty burgers, handcut french fries, a trio of simple soft flour tacos and, if you looked older than 18 (or could convince your crew to cover for you), a frozen margarita. It didn’t matter which Chili’s you wanted to visit because there was only one, housed in a converted postal station on Greenville Avenue in the Vickery Meadows neighborhood.

Brinker HQ contains a mock-up of the original Chili’s — with original decor, booths and bric-a-brac.

With an eye on expanding the fledgling concept, Chili’s founder and co-owner, Larry Lavine, eventually veered away from a one-page menu of burgers, fries, margaritas, beer and chips. He opened new locations, broadened the menu, sold Chili’s to Brinker International — and we parted ways. Maybe you did, too.

Maybe you also occasionally ventured back to Chili’s for a burger, tried the baby back ribs, perhaps ordered a fancy frozen margarita swirl. I did once or twice, but the Oldtimer I’d longed for was gone. Its irresistibly soft, squishy bun, the slather of yellow mustard, a tussle of lettuce, a few pickles and a perfectly griddled medium rare beef patty had been replaced by something more corporate, more expensive, and more in need of a basket of great fifty-cent fries than ever. The Chili’s I’d loved was gone.

Chili’s calls this burger on their current menu the Oldtimer. I know the Oldtimer. This is not the Oldtimer.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned this to an executive at Brinker. He told me Chili’s had been steadily refocusing its menu and operations.  “You probably don’t realize how much of our menu is made from scratch every day in every store,” he said. So when he invited me inside the ropes to visit Chili’s culinary center and Brinker’s research kitchens, I agreed.

I fully expected to see boxes of powdered mixes, a huge walk-in freezer, maybe an Easy Bake Oven or two. “People don’t give us credit for how much cooking we actually do in every restaurant,” said Stephen Bulgarelli, Brinker’s VP of Food & Beverage Innovation and the company’s top chef .

A half-dozen chefs were tweaking recipes for Chili’s hot and spicy fried chicken sandwiches and a beer batter that will eventually enrobe big planks of cod as the lead actor in a fish and chips duet. I mention to Bulgarelli that Gordan Ramsay told me he uses an obscure British ingredient in his fry batter to lend his cod an irresistible crispness and, poof, another chef appears holding a canister of that odd ingredient.

“We go shopping in grocery stores, ethnic markets and specialty food stores every single day, looking for new ingredients or flavors we might be able to incorporate into a dish,” said Johnny Poche, the concept chef behind Maggiano’s, which has its own test kitchen on campus and is also owned by Brinker.

Not everything is cooked from-scratch in each Chili’s kitchen — that wouldn’t be realistic for a company with 1,400 restaurants. I figured that the burgers and chicken might be shipped pre-cooked and frozen to each of Chili’s 1,400 stores, like a school lunch program.

Nope.

Cooks in each Chili’s smash half-pound patties by hand onto flattop grills, sizzle them until they develop a nice crust, then cradle them in good quality brioche buns. Bulgarelli says Chili’s buys preservative-free chickens and cooks them fresh in each restaurant every day. Each Chili’s cooks its baby back ribs in a fancy oven that doubles as a smoker. I loved the new spicy-hot fried chicken the team is developing. I loved the waffle in the chicken-and-waffles. I loved the fresh guacamole.

I asked why Chili’s doesn’t just return to its roots. “Go back to that original one-page menu,” I suggested. “Own the burger category. Own soft tacos. Own chips and margaritas.”

Not realistic, I was told. They’re a big company and not all of their customers want to eat burgers and ribs and chips and soft tacos anymore.

But to Chili’s credit, they’re streamlining the 100+ item menu, paring it down to the top sellers (pizzas, for example, are gone), beefing up the quality and value of the dishes that do well, and refocusing on items that customers prefer.

That means bigger, meatier fajitas. Bigger, meatier ribs. Bigger, meatier margaritas (stay with me).

“Bigger, meatier burgers that look and taste like the original Oldtimer and come with fifty-cent fries?” I ask Bulgarelli.

“No, we’re happy with the burgers right now.”

Guess I’ll have to give them another try.

 

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