An actor on a different stage
By Beth Ewen
Adam Gertler is culinary director at Dog Haus and its newest brands, including Bad Ass Breakfast Burritos, which he displays here.
It was 2013 and Adam Gertler, today the culinary director at Pasadena, California-based Dog Haus, was trying to sell the sausages he made. “I attempted to launch my own brand called Gertler’s Wurst,” he said, showing off his affinity for clever names, also on display on such Food Network shows as “Best Thing I Ever Made” and “Will Work for Food,” among others where he’s appeared.
He’d go to bars and say, “Hey, I’m on Food Network sometimes, is it cool if I make some sausages?” Attempts to get them in Costco and elsewhere didn’t take off and he decided to move on. “And the Dog Haus guys were like, ‘Wait, we love your stuff. Why don’t you just be our sausage guy?’ “ he said, and so his title was born: Würstmacher for the chain, with more than 50 locations open nationwide.
Soon Gertler insisted that all Dog Haus sausages be proprietary. “I did my own versions of spicy Italian, Polish, bratwurst. My pastrami dog became the regular hot dog by toning down the pastrami-ness of it all,” he said, explaining how he takes tastes from eating all over the world and experiments to create his own versions. Then they get clever names: the Pig Lebowski, which is Polish kielbasa with barbecue sauce; or the Thai Fighter, spicy thai currywurst with wild arugula and pickled jalapeno.
“Some people associate the hot dog with something that is cheap and cheaply made, and they see us charging 5, 6, 7 dollars and they think it’s outrageous. We decided to use high-end ingredients,” he said.
No Dog Haus creation is complete without an equally clever name, like Pig Lebowski or the Thai Fighter.
These days he’s expanding his creative muscle at Dog Haus Innovation Kitchen, where he’s inventing food for new “virtual” brands under the Dog Haus umbrella, like Bad Mutha Clucka and Bad-Ass Breakfast Burritos. It’s a 250-square-foot space for delivery only. He calls it “my real-time test kitchen slash lab. We can actually sell the experiments and see how they do.” He can also limit the risk. “Having been through a restaurant in Philadelphia, and seeing all my friends and my brother declaring bankruptcy, I just wanted any risk that I got into, that I could walk away if the worst would happen,” he said.
A self-taught chef who learned by doing, Gertler grew up on Long Island in New York, and studied acting and theater at Syracuse University. “Food was always a big hobby of mine,” he said.
“The mind-breaker for me was Dinosaur Barbecue in Syracuse, which was the first authentic hickory-smoked barbecue I ever had. It was by far the best thing I’d ever put in my mouth.”
On the show “Will Work for Food” he did a stint at a barbecue pit in Lockhart, Texas, “which is like barbecue mecca,” and sampled the likes of Kreuz Market BBQ. “I had their jalapeno cheddar-smoked sausage, which changed the game for me.” A sausage tour in Germany, just this past year, was another inspiration.
But when he started sausage-making himself, he found it’s hard to get the ratio of protein and fat, the amount of salt, the consistency of the emulsion and many other details right. “They didn’t have that texture, that snap.” A classic how-to book called “Charcuterie” helped him make his breakthrough.
His first attempts were “nasty,” he said. “I made my first hot dog, and they were sad hot dogs, and my father said to me, ‘Well, that’s why the people that make hot dogs make hot dogs.’ And that’s all I needed to be motivated.”
These days he takes his cue from the clean-plate club. “To me it’s similar to performing. An empty plate is like an ovation. That doesn’t lie. People can applaud politely,” he said, but “if the food gets finished, you know.”
Culinary Q&A with Adam Gertler
Adam Gertler, left, with Cameron Mathison, host of Home & Family.
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
Last night I made a sort of Mexican-inspired cauliflower rice with grilled chicken and avocado, with cholula mayo, because I was trying to do a little low carb. I’d been on a burrito tour in Texas and had 10 tacos in an hour.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Ohhhhhhh, so many guilty pleasure foods. It comes down to noodles with me, greasy fat rice noodles. I can just eat that forever.
Which chef would you want to cook dinner for you, and what would you want prepared?
Hmmmmmmm, let me think, let me think. I would want a whole hog barbecue prepared by Rodney Scott.
If you could only eat or drink three things for the rest of your life, what would they be?
I’ve got to give props to New York pizza, where I grew up. Barbecue, and I’m just going to put barbecue under one umbrella. Hmmmmmmm, when you get so much pleasure from food it’s so hard to decide what you can never live without. I want to say Mama’s meatballs but her meatballs weren’t that good. My mom’s matzo ball soup. That’s a good meal right there.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying: You don’t want to know how the sausage is made. What’s your reaction?
Oh yeah, for the longest time. What I always love to say is, but you do. You DO want to know how the sausage is made, just like everything else you care about. In fact, I’ve always wanted to do a show called, “How the Sausage is Made.