When you’ve got Jay Rayner describing your chips as ‘edible crystal meth’, you can be pretty sure you’re doing something right. This was the response that Honest Burgers received from the man himself when he tucked into a plate of rosemary salted chips when the brand was still just a unit in Brixton Village in 2011.
This is even more impressive when you reflect that the chips’ originated in co-founder Tom Barton’s student house. Since then, he and co-founder Phil Eeles have opened some 25 sites and launched a prep kitchen where they produce 90% of the menu, including 20 tonnes of potatoes into chips every week. These are then delivered to those 25 sites daily, seven days a week.
Such effort is made because, as Barton puts it, “we haven’t found anything better.”
It hasn’t been all plain sailing, however. Barton describes the week following Rayner’s visit as “terrible.”
“The chips were brown, soft, and we didn’t know why because we didn’t understand the potato. The potato is the most complicated vegetable I’ve ever worked with. We knew nothing about it and we weren’t even smart enough to go online and research it. It was a really low point.”
It was only upon meeting a friend’s father, who happened to be a potato biologist for Walkers, that Barton began to understand the complexity of the potato.
“He explained: ‘these are the varieties you want to use, you need to store them above 4° – anything below that and they freeze and produce a load of starch, and as soon as they produce starch they’re rubbish. All these things were gold for us. We’ve been living by that advice ever since.”
Honest even owns a heated shipping container to avoid dud spuds when there’s a frost. And their relationship with a sixth-generation potato farmer in Sussex – 49 miles from the prep kitchen – is clearly worth its weight in gold (or would that be potatoes?). But besides the physical effort, which Barton believes is the reason operators may be put off doing it, calling it a “messy business”, there’s also the financial cost.
“Us making chips in-house is probably the worst business decision we could ever make,” Barton says. “But if we get the best chip and our customers identify that, it’s probably the best decision we’ve ever made.”
It would be a shame to do all this work, only for the end product to be an afterthought once in the restaurant. Keen to champion its chips just as much as its burgers, Honest’s rosemary salted chips come with a burger as standard. They are part and parcel, a classic meal – whichever burger you order, it will sit beside a healthy portion of chips, all at one price.
“Our chips are not a sideshow, which they are in a lot of people’s eyes,” explains Barton. “They are as good if not better than our burgers. Whether you’re a burger or chip person, we wanted them to be at the same level. They’re born equal. So, we put chips on the menu included in the price, because we wanted everyone to have them.”
While passionate about chips and convincing in his homemade philosophy, Barton remains humble. The rosemary salt itself is not revolutionary and they don’t require the skill like that of a lobster consommé. They are, however, flavours that work very well together, giving the eater “quite a nice experience.”
That’s not to do the chefs in the kitchen any injustice. As the potato is temperamental in its original form, it can be just as troublesome in its final moments of frying, even if all protective measures have been taken.
“We give our chefs guidelines, but they’re not robots – they tell us when the chips are done,” says Barton. “The colour is the big thing and you’ve got to keep checking them. It varies massively because of the different potato and time of year. You can have a potato in there and it still won’t have coloured after four-and-a-half minutes. It’s tough.”
Once the chips are out of the fryer, the all-important rosemary salt is added and they’re served – still hissing before the customer.
Quality over quantity
You can’t help but notice the surge in the variety of potato servings over the last five years. Many operators have given in to the demand for sweet potato and a simple portion of fries is now being topped with different cheeses, sauces, spices and meats. Honest is yet to cave in. In fact, its only other potato product is the bubble and squeak on the breakfast menu. Is this because it is so confident in its current offering, or because of more practical reasons?
“We’d rather do 10 things well than 50 things mediocre,” explains Barton. “You get ketchup and mayo on the tables and we’ve got some good sauces. We’ve got a killer bacon gravy, which I regularly just pour over a portion of chips, but we don’t really go big on poutinesque.”
And what about the sweet variety?
“We don’t do sweet potato,” Barton says firmly. “Our rosemary sweet potato fries are really good, but to do sweet potato fries at this level, we’d need another prep kitchen, and one potato is enough headache for me!”
Barton continually admits that the process they have committed to is hard work, but also defends it as being extremely worthwhile. He’s certainly not tempted by other methods and is determined to continue with his homemade chips – even when a fellow burger maestro says otherwise.
“Tom Byng came down to Brixton when I was working the grill,” Barton recollects. “I knew exactly who he was when he walked in – he was a kind of idol and did amazing things with Byron. I told him about the homemade chips and he said, ‘Best of luck, but if you’re going to expand this, they’ll be the first thing you lose.’ Anyone that knows me or Phil knows that that’s the last thing you’re gonna tell me. Now we’re 20 tonnes a week and 25 sites and nowhere near capacity.”