March 16

The Man Behind the Burger

Huxley Wallace Collective’s Eric Rivera

Eric Rivera is an idea pusher. He has ideas about people, restaurants, and social media. Tacos, burgers, and fine-dining. He wants to push these notions forward, outward, in every direction. His title, Director of Culinary Operations for the Huxley Wallace Collective (owners of Fremont’s Westward, Pioneer Square’s Quality Athletics, South Lake Union’s Bar Noroeste, Laurelhurst’s Saint Helens, a pair of Great State Burgers, and more to come), barely does justice to his drive or his involvement with everything—right down to the tiniest sliver of lettuce.

 

As we talk, he reaches over to my burger, dropped off by a server, and, using culinary tweezers, ever so slightly moves just such a piece of shredded lettuce. We’re sitting in the shadow of a dotted rendition Mount Rainier, in wooden chairs accented with bold blue paint to match the turquoise and red logo (and décor) of this, the first Great State Burger location.

The brightly lit burger joint opened the first week of February, one of the four restaurants Rivera and his Huxley Wallace cohort brought to life in a single month. Many restaurateurs struggle to open one restaurant a year, but Rivera—like Josh Henderson, the group’s executive chef—doesn’t think small.

Henderson’s aggressive plans don’t faze Rivera. His previous gig, as Director of Culinary Research at Alinea, the groundbreaking three-Michelin-star Chicago restaurant (and its partner restaurants), prepared him well. There, he was charged with everything from developing dishes to working out how a customer interacts with them, the history behind a food, and even finding the right plate on which to serve a course. And that’s no small challenge when the dishes being thrown at him are things like edible balloons.

Rivera, an Olympia native, returned to Seattle to take the Huxley Wallace role in April 2015, already aware of Henderson’s ambitions. Now, he brings that multi-faceted, intense approach honed at Alinea to his biggest challenge in opening the four restaurants in a month: creating the Great State burger.

“Everybody has their opinions…everybody has their own things that trigger what a burger is,” he says. For Rivera, the pinnacle of burger brilliance is the Demo burger, sold at Lakefair in Olympia each year to raise money for the Democratic Party. The grilled Walla Walla sweet onions inspired the grilled onions available as an add-on to the Great State burger.

He and Henderson sat down and mapped out what this burger would look like. Henderson wanted “a really hard-seared burger, caramelized. Smaller patties, thin. Cheese on top, butter lettuce, tomato, sauce.” From there, Rivera refined. “That’s 19-grams of cheese,” he tells me, before I take a bite of my burger. “It makes a difference when you go to 21 or 23 or 17 or 15,” he says, with a clue to how exacting the menu-creating process is for him and his team.

Designing the precise specs of what aims to be an iconic local burger isn’t easy. “I’ve always been the type of person that wants to take everything apart, put it back together, see how it works.” So, he did just that. “How long do we cook it? How long before we flip it? What kind of onions do we want? What size? What are we going to add to the meat? Nothing—let’s find a way that we only add salt and pepper.” But for Rivera—the idea pusher—no task could be a better fit.

“It’s my dream to make an impact on the scene here,” Rivera says of the significance of returning to the Pacific Northwest. “All these chefs from other places come here and try to force what Seattle should be.” Rivera, though, doesn’t see any need to force anything. We look out the big windows of the burger joint, where winter sun streams through. “Across the street we have the gentlemen’s club,” he points out. “That’s part of Seattle. That’s part of this area, too and that’s okay.”

Story and Photos by Naomi Tomky

20 million gallons

of water from Lake Union used to level Denny Hill