During our four previous Burger Battles, we have had a guest judge who owns burger clothing; a guest judge who kept a spreadsheet of the burger places she’d visited; one who had burger tattoos; even one whose last name was Burger, and followed along in the judges’ bracket, testing places with a friend before she became a guest judge herself.
We’ve never had one with a food-related Ph.D. So say hello, everybody, to Dr. Nick.
Ranzell “Nick” Nickelson, that is, who says he has loved burgers since he was 5 years old — and that’s a long time, because he’s 72 now. That doctorate is in food microbiology, but Nickelson knows his beef. He has competed in chuck-wagon competitions, judged at the Terlingua Chili Cook-off (he’ll be doing that again in November), helped teach Camp Brisket at Texas A&M.
“I worked for a couple of different laboratories that were doing food testing, and in ’99, I had a chance to come to Fort Worth and work for KPR Foods,” he says. “Primarily beef and pizza toppings. Then there was Standard Meat. You really had to learn a lot about meats. People think I have a college education in meat science, but I don’t.”
But he does have degrees in animal science and food technology, as well as that doctorate, all from A&M, where he also spent time on the faculty. He has an extensive background in food safety, which made us wonder if he might know a little too much about the burgers we’d been eating for the past few weeks.
Not to worry.
“I think the industry has made a lot of progress since the Jack in the Box [e. coli] deal in 1993,” Nickelson says. “Checks and balances are in place, all the testing and all the interventions that have been applied at slaughterhouses.”
He’s also a retired colonel in the Army Reserve, and sometimes goes by Colonel Nick.
We’re familiar with chefs who, when they’re not cooking professionally, simply want some fast food or have nearly empty refrigerators at home. But working around food all his life hasn’t stopped Nickelson from loving food.
“I can always be a Mexican food fan and a burger fan,” he says. “I look a good steak, occasionally, but we tasted so many steaks in our test kitchen — I don’t order one in the restaurant, because it’s usually not going to be as good as the ones we tested.”
He proved to be a tough guest judge. Burger Battle judges aren’t known for being purists, and Nickelson is probably comes closest: Every place we went in the Final Four, he ordered its version of a classic cheeseburger. No Fuego Burger at Fuego Burger. No Diablo at Fred’s. No Project X at Charley’s. No Egg Topper or Whiskey Glaze burger at Ted E’s Kitchen.
He’s not a total purist. Nickelson typically ordered with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo only, so he could pay extra attention to the quality of the patties, noting when they were overworked or when they might look at first like a perfect medium but were actually cooked unevenly.
When it comes to Fort Worth burger joints, Nickelson is a fan of the classics, such as Tommy’s and Kincaid’s. But his favorite burger is his own.
“It’s an 80/20 blend that I cook on my grill,” he says. “I put it on an English muffin, make a hamburger sauce similar to Shake Shack’s. “Use white Velveeta. Makes a really good burger. Cook with good hot charcoal and then put limbs of mesquite on [the charcoal].’ ”
Sounds good. He says he does a mean pastrami, too. Maybe after the battle ends, we should all go over to his back yard.