Meet Chef Toni Elkhouri of Cedar’s Cafe, one of five winners of the 2016 James Beard Foundation Blended Burger Project. She is the first in a series of Chef Spotlights, which offer a behind-the-kitchen look at the inspiration behind chef-created blended burgers.
“Food is not just something that keeps us alive, it literally encompasses our lives and memories.” This phrase is something that Chef Toni Elkhouri of Cedar’s Café lives by as she works every day to keep her local community’s taste buds happy with her Lebanese cuisine.
Elkhouri co-owns her restaurant with her mom, Marlene Elkhouri, which they started more than 14 years ago. Their dishes are a mix of traditional Lebanese and “hodge-podge” Progressive-Mediterranean creations, which she develops largely based on preferred flavor profiles of her customers. She loves cooking with fresh ingredients and inventing new experiences for guests, so participating (not to mention being one of the five winners!) in this year’s James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project was a no brainer. For her, this win was one for her community, and she loved how her friends, family and customers came together to show how far the town of Melbourne, Florida has come in the culinary world.
Her winning blended burger? Ground beef blended with portabella, shiitake and cremini mushrooms, topped with pomegranate ketchup, banana pepper curry mustard, tahini remoulade, balsamic onion, goat cheese, bacon, spinach and avocado. Prior to the contest, she and her staff taste-tested burgers from several nearby restaurants, making note of their favorite aspects of each burger. After putting their heads together, they reimagined the traditional hamburger and created a blended burger that her guests fell in love with. Shortly after its debut, she had lines of people eager to try it – some patrons coming in almost every single day to enjoy her blended burger. In the end, their 30 seat (48 if you count outside seating) restaurant made over 2,000 burgers in the 2 months.
Fun fact: Her favorite mushroom is Hen of the Woods (or Maitake). She loves this variety for its almost nutty flavor. For her, with a nice sauté it’s perfect atop hummus with pine nuts.