Photography by Todd Eyre
The burger maestros behind Bearded Clam are on a quest for perfection. But despite their popularity, it’s still just a part-time gig. What gives?
Over two days they ate 23 burgers with matching beers, holding each one up to an intense and rigorous scoring system where the perfect 10 is unattainable. “If it’s 10 out of 10 then you’re never going to get anything better,” says Kneebone. “So maybe the best burger you’ve ever had should be a nine out of 10 and that way you leave room for something better.”
For two dudes on a quest for the perfect burger, this logic makes sense. If there were ever a 10, their life’s work would be complete. “You can’t have a 10,” adds Crickett. “A 10 would be a perfect burger and you can never get one better than that, which is bullshit.”
For almost two years, long-time friends Kneebone and Crickett have been popping up in Auckland cafes, summer festivals and on the street-food circuit with their fine-tuned renditions of fast food and diner classics. Up until now, the duo have enjoyed the sporadic nature of their business, never knowing from one month to the next where they might be, and the element of hype that comes with being so elusive.
But now, after a few sell-out sessions at Ponsonby’s once-defunct Late Night Diner, they have taken up a semi-permanent residence there on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until the end of the year, an opportunity they are viewing as a testing ground to see how that hype will translate into a full-time gig.
They’ve moved into the diner with little more than a branded lightbox and sandwich board to mark their territory. Whenever they open, whether they’re ready or not, a queue forms that doesn’t quit until closing time.
“Cause we don’t do it full-time, we never hone those kitchen chops,” says Crickett. “So as soon as we open, we’re chilled, we’re chatting and having a beer and then the door opens and we’re just frantic. We’ve definitely refined the cooking and we know how to do that really well, but it’s the logistical stuff – like having things on hand, and ordering – that are a challenge.”
It’s this laid-back, nonchalant attitude that seems to have garnered Bearded Clam the loyal fan base they have today. They don’t really have a plan and they hardly advertise or market their events; they’re just doing it for the love of good burgers and the rest seems to follow naturally.
A lot of Bearded Clam’s history is a little patchy. There is some disagreement about exactly how and when Kneebone and Crickett first met and they can’t quite remember who came up with the name, but when it comes to important matters – like what they ate – they recall every detail.
Their first official meetup was at Burger Fuel and from there, burgers, beer and meat became a running theme whenever they hung out. They were neighbours in London and whiled away hours playing Xbox, watching Food TV, and cruising around the city on their bikes, bonding over tacos, salt-beef beigels and miniature Russian hotdogs. They spent their spare cash on fine cuts of meat and messed around with burger recipes, trying to replicate the flavours of their favourite fast foods.
Crickett recalls flying solo at the first-ever Bearded Clam gig when Kneebone had already moved back home. He took a job as the main vendor at Flamingo Pier, an outdoor summer party series in London. In the days leading up to the event he took two days off work and baked 300 buns in his 30-square-metre London apartment. “I had the dough proving on my bed with the heater turned up and a spreadsheet with the times for mixing, first prove, shaping, second prove and baking.” It took him 14 hours to make the buns alone.
On the day, he frantically manned four frying pans, put out a few grease fires and cooked close to 200 burgers. “I had no idea what I was doing. I was just that arrogant that I thought I could do it. It was crazy. But it was awesome fun.”
As Bearded Clam’s popularity has continued to rise, this sense of informality and fun has always remained. Crickett and Kneebone both believe the vibe of a place is equally as important as the food and service. If they ever open their own restaurant, they say it will be unpretentious, comfortable and inclusive.
For now, they recreate that atmosphere in every space they inhabit. Their events are manned by a close-knit group of friends who help out in exchange for burgers, booze and good times, so being there feels like you’ve been invited to a house party. The music is loud, the air is filled with beefy smoke and everybody is having a good time.
Crickett hopes they will always retain the spirit of what they do, no matter how serious things become. “We’ve learned along the way and we’re doing it our way. But we’re lucky that we’ve been able to prove ourselves in the market before having to take that risk. We’ve been able to build up a good customer base and play around with our brand and see what works and what doesn’t. I think if we did go full-time we’d be doing it from a much stronger position than just, ‘I hate my job and I want to do food for a career now’.”
Money has never been a huge motivator, Kneebone says. For a while, they planned to put any profits earned from burger flipping towards a few more tattoos, but to this day they can’t recall once dipping into the Clam pot. Any leftover cash goes back in to the business, purchasing new kit for the kitchen and funding gatherings of Meat Club, which convenes regularly to sample barbecue and drink beers, all in the name of research.
Both guys currently retain their full-time jobs – Crickett as a designer, Kneebone as an arborist. Crickett says the process of coming up with new burgers during their research and development nights is much like his “normal job” as a designer. They start with an idea, mock something up and then refine it until they’ve got the final product. Their burgers aim to replicate that nostalgic, slightly naughty feeling we sometimes crave from fast food. “We like to stick to the realm of American burger flavours and ingredients, and be constrained by that. Not just doing an Indian burger, for example, for the sake of doing something different. We’re trying to stick to the core philosophy behind our food, which is American-style diner, done really well.”
Crickett says a really good burger possesses an intangible quality that has the ability to stop you in your tracks, silencing the eater until the burger is all gone in a few bites. From the bun recipe they conceived and tweaked to perfection with a baker who remains cloaked in secrecy, down to the size of the nozzle on their condiment bottles, every component is carefully considered. Part of replicating the classic American cheeseburger comes down to using tried and true brands like French’s mustard, Heinz ketchup, Vlasic pickles and what the boys call “plastic cheese”.
But the provenance of the meat and the way it is cooked will always be the most important factor. “It should be all about the beef and everything else should just be supporting it,” says Crickett. “People ask us what we put in our patties and we say, nothing, we just pay a lot of money for really good beef.”
True to their style, Crickett and Kneebone are fairly lax about what will happen when their time is up at The Late Night Diner. They hope they can change people’s perceptions as to what a good burger can be, all the while continuing to strive for that elusive perfect 10. “We’ll leave the 10 open,” says Crickett. “Ten is for a better experience…The real game changer.”
WHERE TO FIND THEM:
Bearded Clam pop up at The Late Night Diner every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening (check Facebook for opening hours) until the end of the year. 152 Ponsonby Rd
EVENT: A BURGER SHOWDOWN
See the maestros in action in a battle of epic proportions at the upcoming BurgerSlam event.
The team at Bearded Clam will duke it out with Wellington’s Five Boroughs in a battle of the burgers, set over two nights. Each team will be creating a burger and a side, with one team manning the fryers and the other on the griddle, swapping over the next night. Fans of Five Boroughs’ NYC deli-style food will know they’re the perfect match for Bearded Clam’s American classics. It’s sure to be a mean fry-off.
When: Friday 9 and Saturday 10 December
Where: The Late Night Diner on Ponsonby Road
PAPERBOY’S 6 BITES
Favourite Auckland getaway:
Adam Crickett and Ryan Kneebone: Waiheke
Best brunch spot:
Kneebone: Good Day Crickett: Odettes
Crickett and Kneebone: Conch
Top walking trail:
Crickett: In Takapuna you can walk all along the coastline, where there are lots of tidal pools and good swimming spots
Kneebone: On Waiheke there’s a trail that goes from Rocky Bay, around the point and ends up at Te Whau
Ideal Sunday drive:
Crickett: Maraetai beach. Eating takeaways on the end of the wharf is magical
Kneebone: Coming back from Coromandel on a Sunday after a weekend there, because whatever happened there would’ve been good. If you can afford the time, stop off at the Miranda hot pools
What does Auckland need more of:
Crickett: More bike paths, more drinking in parks responsibly
Kneebone: Better protection of our heritage buildings