Chef Ian Russo (aka The Dirty Chef) developed a new concept of cooking – cooking dirty. After spending years in top rated kitchens such as La Reserve, Lespinasse, Roy’s and Bouley, Russo opened his eponymous restaurant, IAN in Manhattan.
It was there that he crafted his signature Dirty Drunken Rib-eye, which was honored with New York Magazine’s “Best Steak in the City” Award. He used similar innovation in his newest culinary creation, the Dirtyburger®, which has received critical praise. In a city known around the world for its cheesesteaks, Ian’s signature DIRTY Cooking® style became a culinary force on the Philadelphia food scene. There, he perfected his style and planted the seeds for what was to come, the first fully branded Dirty restaurant. Opened in the fall of 2013 in Plainview, Dirtyburger® allows the lucky residents who live on Long Island to experience Ian’s signature creations, and all of the tastes on his constantly evolving menu.
What led you into a career in foodservice, where’d you study and what led you back to New York?
When I was 12 I got my first job as a dishwasher at the Brooklyn IHOP. Being young and full of fire, I moved up to busboy, then prep and bacon cook. I made line cook at 16, and couldn’t believe how much satisfaction I received from getting compliments from the diners. I realized there was so much more to this than just throwing food on a griddle, this is what we eat, and has the ability, when done well, to make people smile and enjoy themselves. A great meal can make your day, and I loved “making people’s day” so much I decided to become a chef.
I started chef training at the New York Technical College of Hotel and Restaurant management, worked as Sous-Chef at Le Chantilly, then decided if I wanted to truly hone my craft, I needed to learn from the best. I left for Europe (France to be exact) and secured a stage at André Daguin’s Hotel de France in Gascony. On my days off, I’d travel the country (mostly by bus and hitchhiking), eating at every Michelin starred restaurant I could. I then started my real culinary journey working in some of the world’s best kitchens with some of the world’s most renowned chefs, to include Michel Guérard, George Blanc, and Roy Yamaguchi.
I’ve cooked in France, Belgium, the UK, China, and here in the US in Hawaii, San Francisco, Providence and Philadelphia. But I’m a Brooklyn boy at heart, so I always return to the area I call home.
What exactly is DIRTY Cooking® and how did this style of cooking turn into a vision for the first fully branded Dirty Burger®?
I developed a spice blend inspired by my world travels, using ingredients from the four corners of the world to create a uniquely different flavor enhancer. This blend takes on a bit of a spicy profile, but tends to smooth out in the cooking process, especially with the use of honey, which is the basis of Dirty Cooking.
It’s the process that uses Dirty Dust and a caramelizing agent, most commonly oil and/or honey, transformed over heat. Grilled, baked, broiled, fried, or sprinkled, it takes whatever is being cooked, healthy or decadent, to another taste level.
I first utilized this process in a steak I made at IAN (on my 3rd return to NYC). The Dirty Drunken Ribeye was a bit more complex than the process for our burgers, or say fish, involving other ingredients and a six-hour marinade, but at the heart of the process was this spice blend and honey as the caramelizing agent. People loved it, and New York magazine awarded it “Best Steak in the City”. One day, a customer asked if the same profile could be used for a burger, so I tried it, and it worked. I never put it on the official menu (IAN was a fine dining establishment before the huge burger boom), but we still sold a lot of them through word of mouth.
That’s when the seed was planted… maybe this “Dirtyburger” could carry a place on its own.
Dirty Burger® menu has a little something for everyone’s tastes, not just burgers. What was the approach to your menu? Does it change seasonally?
We keep roughly the same menu year-round, although we do add items from time to time to add some excitement, to shake things up. The approach always had been to:
Create amazing delicious food that overdelivers on expectations
Offer a good assortment of healthy options, not just one or two items (people care more and more about not just the taste, but how good it is for them).
Maintain a good value. If I can’t source an authentic flavor for a reasonable price, I won’t cut corners and use substitutes, I just don’t include it.
Make Dirtyburger a specialty diet-friendly restaurant. 90% of our menu items are available gluten free, and while we don’t have the nutritional content of our items (we’re only one restaurant at the moment), we do make an effort to provide whatever information we can if a customer needs specifics.
We recognize that not everyone, even in a close knit family, has the same likes, dislikes, and dietary needs. We want everyone to be comfortable and happy here, so that’s why we try to offer so much more than burgers.
Why did you choose Plainview, NY for Dirty Burger® rather than hot spots like Brooklyn?
Two of my five partners call Long Island their home. Both are very active in the community, and significant business owners here. They wanted to start close to home, and share the great food and vibe that they knew would be Dirtyburger with friends and loved ones before taking it elsewhere. And it’s still close enough to the city to get that Brooklyn state of mind, where myself and another partner hail from. However, Brooklyn could be next!
What was the design approach to Dirty Burger®? Work with any restaurant dealers and consultants for the FOH and BOH?
We designed and developed everything ourselves. The FOH was an evolution- Initially, we weren’t sure if the location would support a order counter style or sit down and dine in style eatery, so we created sort of a hybrid with an order counter up front, and a sit down dining area with wait staff. As time has gone by, we realize that while the open counter concept works in cities, our customers here prefer to sit and be served. We’re in the process of converting the front counter into a full bar with additional high tables in the waiting area. I designed the back of house/kitchen to accommodate our menu and the volume we expect.
My fifth partner is a design and brand consultant who had worked on many national accounts, so he gave us our brand look and interior feel from designing the space to executing the art elements. It’s intended to be a comfortable, accessible and hip without going over the top space.
Talk a little about your dining space? What did you look for in terms of furniture?
The space needed to feel casual, comfortable and a step up from your typical burger joint. We carried the warmth of wood into the tabletops and accented it with a rich dark stain. The chairs are a metal frame black leather upholstered look, that are comfortable, but not so much so that people will fall asleep here. Wood abounds throughout the dining area (we even have some reclaimed wood covering one wall) for its warmth.
Red is our primary brand color, and research suggests it makes people hungry, so several of the walls carry this accent color.
The front counter also picks up this color in a red granite, and the front of the counter has words that we consider to be “Dirty” cut into it. It’s a tone on tone treatment, so it’s subtle.
The art is a mixture of “Dirtyisms” and pop art graphics. We wanted to bring some of the Brooklyn vibe into the place, so we got Brooklyn Made Tattoo artist/owner Michael Kaves to do a graffiti mural for us, adding that last hip accent.
You’re only as good as the team around you. What is your team building approach to a better business?
The most important thing is to absolutely hire the correct candidate, then create a positive culture of care for the staff, who will then care for the customers in the same way. Everyone is instrumental to the success of the restaurant, so we treat everyone, regardless of position, equally. This is the best formula to ensure the best experience for everyone, from our customers to our staff.
What’s next for Dirty Burger® down the road?
We’ve finally gotten this location to the quality and service standards I expect, so we’ll be tightening our systems then looking at how to scale this to other, most likely denser locations. Brooklyn is definitely in our sights, and if things go according to plan, we’d like to open 5-10 locations in the near future.
We would also like to start getting “Dirty” outside of the restaurant and give back in the community. Dirty is a way of living, and a way of life. It’s being engaged, open, honest, passionate and loving. Being involved in things you believe in, but not on a surface level; rolling up your sleeves and getting “Dirty”. It’s our philosophy, and we strive to live it in everything we do. I know hunger is amazingly still an issue, and we’d like to tackle that in some way. It’s core to why I became a chef all those years ago- to make people happy through their meal. Wouldn’t it be great to eliminate hunger at least in this country, and then the world? I realize it’s a tall order, but so was turning a burger into a restaurant, and that’s going pretty well.