The Burger Stand has been open for more than six years now and has grown from the days when Simon Bates and his wife, Codi, were the only employees; now the staff exceeds 90. But before all that, Simon Bates, now 34, was just a kid in a high school culinary program.
Bates began cooking professionally at 16 and went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. In 2007 and 2008 he was working in Chicago and trying to figure out how to get back home to Topeka (along with Codi) when he was offered a position as an executive chef for a catering company there.
He and Codi quit their jobs and were all set to move when Bates got a call: The catering company was closing, and he no longer had a job.
Bates was not deterred. He teamed up with an old partner and someone else he knew who owned a bar, and from that emerged the Burger Stand in Lawrence.
“I basically just needed a job on the fly,” Bates says. “It was kind of just going to be a hobby until I could find a real job, and it didn’t really go that way.”
In September 2011 the couple opened a second Burger Stand in Topeka.
They hope to open a new restaurant in Lawrence in the spring, but Bates isn’t ready to give up all the information yet.
“It won’t be burgers,” he says. “I’ll tell you that.”
In the meantime, Bates agreed to chat with Ink about his preferences as a chef and his brainchild, the Burger Stand.
What’s your favorite cheap lunch?
I’ve been going to Taco Zone here in town (Lawrence). It’s kind of silly how much I go there. It’s so good, and it’s cheap, and it’s fast, and it’s tacos, so you can’t go wrong. And I’ll go back-to-back meals. I’ll have dinner there, and then I’ll go back the next day for lunch or something. It’s ridiculous.
What’s the best thing you ate this week?
I went to the Rieger last night, the Rieger Hotel and Exchange, for the first time. I went with some friends, and we just pretty much went through the whole entire menu. I had Chicken en Papillote and the Braunschweiger Mousse — that was probably the best bite we had. It was a lot of fun.
What’s your favorite splurge?
Seafood, because we don’t really have any seafood on the menu, and so sometimes I just order it — just to have oysters, probably.
What’s your go-to ingredient?
Lemon. I use lemon a lot. I use a lot of roasted garlic, and then nice vinegars. I like to use vinegar kind of like people use salt. I think it brightens food up. I try to incorporate those whenever I can, especially when I’m cooking fatty food. It just cuts through the fat a little bit and balances things.
What’s your go-to drink after a long day/night?
At the restaurant we have over 40 taps. I think I started when I was a line cook in my early days. There’s nothing better than a cold beer at the end of the night.
Do you have a dream culinary trip you’d like to take?
I kind of just did. I took an around-the-world trip. I was gone for about 40 days, and I went to 12 different countries. I just ate a lot of interesting food and got a lot of ideas from that trip.
Which place had the best food?
I think the culinary scene in Tokyo — they really know what they’re doing over there. And then Bangkok, it was just a whole new window to exotic fruits and vegetables and cooking methods that I’d never even thought of.
Describe your culinary style in five words or less.
Quality and balance.
Which celebrity would you like to cook for?
I would like to cook for President Obama. I think I’d probably just do a burger. He came into Lawrence earlier this year, and everyone was kind of freaking out, like maybe he’s going to stop by our restaurant or something, and I think he got, like, barbecue.
Who’s your mentor or inspiration in the kitchen?
I think everyone you work for, you learn a lot from and you take a lot away. But I learned the most from Robert Krause (longtime Lawrence chef and restaurateur), more like the business side of things than anything. And then Ken Baker (formerly of Pachamama’s Restaurant).
What’s your kitchen pet peeve?
Tardiness. If you can’t show up on time, it’s just not a good way to start off your shift.
What’s your go-to kitchen gadget?
I have several, but I think my favorite — and it’s hard to cook without it — is a fish spatula. It’s just an offset, slotted metal spatula, but you can’t really cook with anything else. I use it for everything.
What’s your favorite cookbook?
I have a cookbook problem. I have too many cookbooks. Right now I’m into “Plenty” and “Plenty More” (by Yotam Ottolenghi). They’re vegetarian, and I like to cook vegetarian more than anything these days. My all-time favorite would be Alfred Portale’s “Gotham Bar and Grill Cookbook.” It was the book that got me hooked on cooking, and I got it when I was a teenager. It changed my life, to say the least.
I love to make … ?
Vegetarian food. I’ve been cooking some Indian food, and that’s kind of fun and challenging to track down ingredients and spices and make that happen.
I hate to make … ?
Desserts. I just don’t have the patience to follow a recipe all the way through, and it’s pretty messy usually. I’ll leave it to the professionals.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Good meat, good cheese and a bottle of wine. I feel like that’s a lot of calories, and I end up doing it probably too often, but it’s so good.
What’s a culinary trend that you think needs to end?
I love bacon, but you just hear about it too much. I think too many chefs use it like a crutch. There’s bacon everywhere on every menu item at places. Don’t get me wrong, I love bacon. But I think people need to try to make stuff taste good without it.
What do you think KC needs more of in terms of food?
I think everyone should try to do more local food. Everyone should do as much local food as they can. We’re getting to the point now where there’s a lot of different types of food already.
What’s your favorite barbecue in KC?
I think I’m going to have go with B.B.’s Lawnside, just because I’ve got to give them some love. Can’t forget about them.
What’s your favorite food city in the U.S. (aside from KC)?
New York. We try to go there at least once every two years just to get ideas and get inspiration. It’s unbelievable. It’s just out of control.