What one chef has learned from a decade of Burger Bash
Matt Brewer has been working Burger Bashes since the beginning.
It’s mid-afternoon and the Almonak, a sleek brunch spot on Almon Street, is closing for the day. General manager Matt Brewer is tidying up. He’s fist bumping staff on the way out and joking around with the beer delivery guys. When you survive over a decade working in kitchens, camaraderie comes quickly to you.
“I’ve been working in kitchens a long time, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly,” says Brewer.
He says the best, the worst and the ugliest time of year is Burger Bash.
“I love it. I mean, I used to call it burger hell, but I loved it then too.”
Brewer has been doing Burger Bash for 10 years—hanging on since the very beginning. These years in the business make Brewer one of Burger Bash’s most reliable and personal historians.
“I only missed one year, during the height of COVID, that’s it though. Ten years of burgers, man.”
Brewer tries his best, like many in Halifax, to call the event Burger Bash. “I have to admit I still call it Burger Week, I’m still adjusting.”
But one thing Brewer isn’t adjusting to is the event itself. Brewer doesn’t want to name every restaurant he’s worked at in the city, but it’s enough to have seen Burger Bash from every angle, from the kitchen to the desk.
“There’s no doubt that it’s a difficult 10 days for restaurants in Halifax, but it’s also so damn rewarding. Even when things get hairy, it’s good to remember a busy restaurant is a good view.”
In 2012, when Burger Bash began, Brewer was working in a kitchen churning out over 1,000 burgers a day. He remembers grinding hundreds of pounds of beef and standing over a hot grill for hours. He reminisces, with a mix of fondness and pain, about 12-hour days making nothing but burgers.
As the years went by, the event developed—it was clear Burger Bash was sticking around, and so was Brewer.
“When Burger Bash took off, a lot of restaurants around Halifax weren’t ready. It was common to sell out of beef or buns. It’s changed a lot since then. Places are prepared. I know we are.”
Changes in the landscape
Brewer is a general manager now, having worked his way up from the line. In that time, he’s seen massive changes in the restaurant scene—and in the identity of Halifax
“I remember a time when Halifax was only known for fish and chips and clam chowder,” he says. He believes that’s changing, and says Burger Bash has helped push that change.
Brewer believes Burger Bash helped to set a food scene in Halifax. Brewer knows the food business, he knows Burger Bash increases community engagement and puts people in seats. But he still talks, and thinks, like a chef.
“Burger Bash encourages creativity. It encourages chefs and restaurants to think about who they are and what they can say about themselves in one dish,” says Brewer.
“I’ve gone all over North America eating burgers, I studied burgers for years. It’s my passion,” he says, showing off a tattoo on his arm of a cow with cuts of beef diagrammed over it.
“I can honestly say Halifax is now a big contender in the world of burgers.”
Learning all the way
After a decade of Burger Bashes, Brewer has developed his own philosophy for preparing.
“In the early days, I was ambitious. I made burgers with really elaborate stuff. Deep frying and house making everything and on and on. Now, I approach it differently. I want to make burgers that are simple but great.”
Like many chefs, Brewer is opinionated. Salt and pepper is the only thing that belongs on good beef. A meat-to-bun ratio is a life-or-death science. American cheese is, in all its unpretentious glory, the right cheese for a burger. These are things Brewer believes and says with conviction, but not aggression.
“Any restaurant doing its thing is good, I would never bash a chef being true to their restaurant’s brand and vibe. Any decision made with intention is a good one.”
The Almonaks burger reflects this philosophy. The Big Nak is a simple burger with subtle brunch touches: A fried egg, some onion jam and a Big Nak sauce that’s base is hollandaise.
Brewer says he encourages staff to get out and try burgers during Burger Bash, “see both sides of it, try out restaurants. Eating better helps you cook better and serve better.”
Burger Bash can be a love/hate event for restaurants in Halifax, and Brewer doesn’t shy away from saying that. But after a decade of doing it over and over, he makes it clear he loves it. He believes the event encourages mutual respect between patrons and restaurants and gets people talking, blogging, writing and thinking about food as well as eating it.
“I think I have a few more left in me,” says Brewer with a smile. “Keep ‘em coming.”