Goodfriend Chef Zach Brown's Path From Fine Dining to Flipping Fancy Burgers

In the world of chefs, those who work in the fine-dining (read: expensive) establishments get all the credit. Restaurant snobs assume that any chef who isn't working in a fancy restaurant is someone who didn't quite realize his culinary potential. If anyone is proving these elitists wrong, Goodfriend Burger Bar's Zach Brown is.

Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Brown spent time working in Italy and some of Dallas' finest kitchens before landing at Goodfriend, the restaurant he hopes to call home for a long time. Since taking the reins in the kitchen at this East Dallas establishment, Brown has refined the menu, introduced innovative specials, and is generally just having a hell of a lot more fun than most chefs. We sat down to talk with him about his wild culinary background, and how he makes his perfect burger. (Hint: You won't find at least one of the crucial ingredients on the menu at Goodfriend.)

What is your culinary background? How'd you first get into the kitchen?

I've been cooking since I was 16 years old, I started working at a pizza joint in my neighborhood. When I got out of high school, I decided to pursue cooking, so I went to El Centro for a couple of years, studying baking, pastry and culinary arts. While I was in school, I was working at the Fairmont Hotel as the youngest kid there by about 15 years. I was the only white kid in the kitchen, and that was awesome. It taught me a lot about what it means to work in a kitchen in Texas.

I worked my way up there, making my way to saucier by the age of 18. I was going to school full-time and working full-time, so I was around food all day long. I decided that I wanted to go to a more prestigious culinary school. El Centro is a great school, especially for the money that you pay for the degree, but I got accepted to the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and I went there in 2001. I went through the culinary program there, and it was the best time of my life. I was taught by eight different master chefs while I was there, and I couldn't have asked for a better experience.

What did you do after culinary school?

I came back home and started working, Fuse in Downtown. After that, I decided I wanted to do some traveling, so I moved to Italy. I traveled around there for a month with three friends from culinary school, and we went all over, north to south, just backpacking. One of the friends that I went with had grown up in Florence, and her parents were still living there. We ate at their favorite restaurant, and I found out that his Japanese externs were leaving because their visas were expired. He needed someone to help him out, so I came back home, got my student visa, and went back to Florence.

What did you do while you were in Florence?

I worked at a restaurant called Centopoveri ... It's this whole traditional Italian theme, based on something that has to do with Medici, and it was one of the best restaurants in Florence. I worked there for a year, and it was just me, the chef and a dishwasher. This restaurant was famous in Japan for the fish that the chef did, because Florence is a big sausage and meat place, not so much fish. The chef had the most amazing fish place in town, and some days we'd come out and it would be full of Japanese tourists, all 50 tables.

I worked with him side-by-side for a year, then came back to Dallas because my visa was expired. I went back to working in restaurants downtown, like Fuse, Scene, The Social House, and worked at Hibiscus back in the day with Nick Badovinus. I've worked at a bunch of places. I'd work somewhere for a while, and then find something more interesting.

That is a really crazy-ass background, especially for a guy who is currently running the kitchen at a burger joint. How in the hell did you end up at Goodfriend?

I like this place a lot. They do good food, and they had the potential to do really great food. The owners are great. I'd always wanted to work with these guys after knowing them through the industry. I got my foot in the door because I knew they had other projects going on. I came on working with the previous chef to help him out because the restaurant was so busy, and the owners wanted to find a different direction in the management of the kitchen. They asked me if I would be able to handle it, and I'd been executive chef at Social House in the West Village after it opened, so I was used to working in a really busy kitchen.

My background is in fine dining, and this is the least fine-dining type restaurant I've ever worked at. I've worked next to David Uygur and five-star restaurants, so I guess it is a little out of character, but right now the big trend is burger places. Thirty-something have opened up this year, I think I actually read that in the Observer. And here, they're good people. They let me do what I want to do here. As I gain the trust of the regulars, I can do more and more exciting stuff. The Package Store across the street is opening up, and the sky's the limit on how fancy we can get there.

What do you think makes a good burger?

I would say that appearance is important, but it all comes down to when you take that first bite. The most important thing for me is a really juicy, really flavorful burger patty. If you don't have that, everything else is really meh. If you're not doing that, there are plenty of places in Dallas that will. We have the best meat company I can source here in Dallas, and we don't compromise on price.

We don't give a damn about how much the meat costs because that's the most important part. We get it in three times a week, bread comes in every day. I'm killing my bread company, my bread guy hates me. But that makes a difference, getting it in every day really does. And then you have all the crap that goes on top of it, which does matter, but the bun and the meat are really my focus ... repeat customers are what keep people in business, and that isn't easy in Dallas.

What is your personal ideal burger? If you're making one for yourself, what's on it?

My ideal burger has a buttery bun, the patty cooked medium to medium rare. I know that's stupid, but that's what I like. American cheese, which we don't even do here, is my first choice. Fresh red onions and jalapenos, of course. Fresh vegetables and basics, that's my favorite burger.

What about the non-burgers on the menu? Is that where you get to flex your chef muscles?

It's more fun than innovative. Everyone's done these things, but we're making them bigger and more gourmet. The specials are where I get to showcase my stuff, and lately we've been able to get away with a lot. We've been getting really cool cuts of meat from our purveyor, so I've been doing steak specials. We also did a charcuterie plate about a month ago, and I made six house-cured meats and a couple of accoutrements. That was really fun. We've also been bringing in some exotic game, like wild boar, venison, and we'll be getting ostrich in the next week or two. We're doing more high-end items, and that's exciting to me.

That's gotta be tough at Goodfriend. I've never seen a restaurant with a more dedicated following from the locals. Does that make it difficult for you to make changes?

Nah, not really. The people in this neighborhood around us, they really love this place. They come in here a lot, and they want to see the specials and the cool shit. My wife is in the industry also, and she's had people at her own place of work, and she'll overhear people bragging about our burgers, even though they serve burgers there. I'm hearing through the grapevine that people are really loving these specials.

Were you worried when you took over that this was going to be a tall order? Fine dining is much more chef-driven than a burger joint.

It is tricky sometimes, but we try to advertise our specials so that people know what we've got going on. People are more aware of how restaurants have to operate if they really want to be on the cutting edge. They know that you have to do specials, that you have to change up the menu and do things out of the ordinary to stand out. They're more understanding of that now.

Do you think a place like this could work anywhere, like Highland Park?

I think this place has a niche. I'll put it that way. There's nothing else like Goodfriend around here. There are some places that are similar, but I'd compare our food to classier, upscale joints before I would burger restaurants. It just happens that we're in a neighborhood with a tattoo shop and taqueria across the street. It's a nice little escape away from the concrete jungle, and people like it for that reason.

The atmosphere you guys have cultivated here is deliberately casual, how does that come together with your fancy-ass burgers?

My whole philosophy here is to make things fun, and people will come back for it. Chefs get so serious with food these days, it's gotta be local this and on the cutting edge of gastronomy. I think that's bullshit. If food is fun and interesting, people will come back for it. Every time.

What makes your food interesting?

I try to source interesting ingredients and make dishes that people haven't seen a lot of. I like to bring back old-school dishes. I did some Grandma's Green Beans the other day, but I spent a lot of time working on the liquid to cook the green beans in. Maybe a little more time than Grandma would have spent. But if you make it right, people are going to think "Oh shit, I haven't had Grandma's green beans in a long time. I miss those." I also like to do really cheesy, big stuff. It's over the top, but who cares? It's fun.

Do you think you can get away with more as a chef here than at a fine-dining restaurant?

Of course. It doesn't have to be so stuck-up. I can do more fun stuff, and no one's going to think twice about it.