Seven Questions With Tom Ryan

The brains behind Tom’s Urban and Smashburger on the virtues of potato salad, the grammar of comfort food and why small plates aren’t going anywhere

Tom Ryan by Toni Axelrod

Tom Ryan by Toni Axelrod

Let’s talk about summer cooking. What have you been eating this season?

I’ve been cooking a lot this summer, so over the weekend I did two really cool things: I did a big traditional thing, with everything you’d think—cheeseburgers, bratwurst, baked beans, potato salad and corn pudding for my extended family in Minneapolis. Then it was just my wife, my son and me, and we did a Korean barbecue kalbi marinaded chicken and glazed that on the grill, which was fantastic. Add some grilled Japanese eggplant and a little rosé, and it was a well-imbibed and sated weekend.

What’s on your favorite burger?

A truffle mushroom arugula burger with a fried egg on top. It’s what we call an Umami Tsunami. I had a version of it at Smash[burger] for a while, but when we make our own, it’s a 50/50 blend of Best Foods or Hellmann’s mayo whisked with truffle oil, organic arugula, some Swiss cheese, grilled portobello mushrooms and then a fried egg as soft as you can keep on top of that thing. It’s great with red wine.

Describe the notion of comfort food.

[The food has] to be universally loved and familiar to everybody. What I love about that familiarity is that everybody has their spin. Potato salad is potato salad, but not really, because everyone has their own nuance—more of this, or none of that, or “I add that.” That’s the fourth dimension of it besides popularity, authenticity and familiarity; there’s that sense of ownership. The best comfort foods are doctored in a way to where people actually own the outcome, and that’s really cool.

What goes into the science of making food that people crave no matter their culture?

One of our developmental models at Tom’s [Urban] is to take a noun everybody can relate to and then figure out interesting, dynamic and diverse adjectives for that noun to really breed on people’s notions of familiarity with a spin. People love grilled cheese sandwiches—they just do! But I have a grilled three-cheese sandwich with fig and the ability to add bacon to it. That grilled cheese sandwich has all the hallmarks of the rich and filling and gooey and satisfying. But it has this flavor spin where it’s got the derivations of cheese and derivations of a sweet sauce and then the savory, smoky bacon flavor. That’s the hallmark of Tom’s.

I can’t go to any restaurant that doesn’t have small plates or shareable dishes on the menu. Will we be going back to the big entrée or family style?

We sell a ton of small plates. It’s the way Americans want to eat. It’s this perpetual need to share things and take pictures of things, and pictures of your friends sharing things with pictures of their friends behind them. It’s getting a little crazy.

The problem with big portions or family style is that you’ve got to make a lot of people decide on two or three things, and unless you come from a very dominant family or people who are rather myopic on their food choices, it becomes a tough decision.

As it relates to big entrees, that is more occasion-driven than menu-driven. We introduced this pickle-brined crispy chicken done Nashville hot-style—we sell a ton of it. People order it as an entrée, and they do end up sharing.

Nashville hot chicken has recently become a trend outside of Nashville. When you’re trying to adopt a regional dish, how do you achieve authenticity while also making it your own?

I’m going to go back to what we started with about people having their own version of their potato salad. I went to Nashville’s iconic places, and Hattie’s fried chicken was my favorite. And Hattie’s has a recipe online that is her version. Now, I am sure that at Hattie’s they do a little local magic and they wouldn’t put their star thing online, but we took their star recipe and we did a few little tweaks to it to make it more Tom’s specific. So anybody could argue, short of being at Hattie’s or in Nashville, that our Nashville hot chicken is the real deal.

Do you find that more guests, especially Las Vegas guests, becoming increasingly food forward?

A great number of them are, but not everybody. And that’s why we’ve got to strike this balance between having all the bases covered. But I really want this notion of discovery to be there for most of our menu items, this nuance of either a new architecture or a new flavor note or a whole new way to think about a common noun. I want that discovery to be there.