Interview: chef Robert McGee (The Whole Ox Deli)

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Chef Honolulu


Would you consider yourself a butcher or a chef first, or is there even a distinction?

I’m a business owner. Like any business owner, you do what you need to do. Today’s butcher day. Every night is chef night when you’re open for dinner. Get all the butchering done. I have a part-time butcher now. He’s a true retail butcher, so I have less of that responsibility now. Instead, maybe I’m making sausage or making pate or working on a new menu or meeting across town, sitting on a panel on some discussion about cows. I’m neither anymore. I’m kind of all. It requires a lot of flexibility.

What was your approach with the burger?

The burger had a lot of influences. Heston Blumenthal from the U.K. is a mad brilliant chef. He does a burger a certain way, and part of it is that he punches a hole in it and cooks it on a flat-top and it kind of looks like a donut when it goes on. The idea is to cook it equally. There’s this little steam chamber in the middle that makes it cook equally. And that’s a good technique. We hand grind it twice. First of all, the dry-aged thing is a big deal. That’s all the character. That’s all the tenderness. We grind it on a coarse grind, once, and dry-age it for a day, basically leech any excess moisture out of it. And then we grind it one more time right before service. It gets hand-ground, and doesn’t get any mushing down or anything like that. It’s a very loose patty, and it takes an acquired technique to cook it, but it goes on the flat top. The idea was to just get really, really good beef, execute good technique, put some salt and pepper on it. The flavors are tartare on a bun. It’s caper aioli, red onion, so it’s all the flavors you might get in a tartare dish.

We have a great couple that comes in here. We have developed this clientele – even though our food is very rich and heavy – there’s a lot of Crossfit people and paleo people that come and eat here – cause it’s really good quality beef, grass fed, grass finished. So they’ll get a burger, but I had a couple that ate the pork shank for four, and they killed it in like 15 minutes. Something for everybody.

Do you have a top selling dish?

The burger. Every day the numbers are like 60% burger and then everything else.

That’s overwhelming.

Everything’s fresh ground daily. We eliminate steps occasionally, but that kind of happened in the first three months. The obvious stuff that you should have thought of, but eventually it comes down to, you can only eliminate so many steps. The burger, it will never be like if we patty it up today it will be good tomorrow. They sit on each other and crush each other. People know. Our clientele – again, we’re just a burger joint – but it’s discerning clientele. They will know. They will tell you every time. “I came here for this and it’s not that.” So we can’t skip any of the important steps. And if we don’t have pastrami but once a month, because the cow only gives us so many briskets, and they only weigh so much on grass fed beef, so it takes us a month to accumulate enough to run pastrami for one day, four hours, then it’s gone.

Is there such a thing as free time for you?

It’s the restaurant business. Nothing’s free. Sunday nights, we go for dinner somewhere. Right now, this is the growth period. The next six months, we entered without naivete. We knew this was going to be an endeavor. Especially because the nature of the beast is a beast, we knew that if you cut it up, it doesn’t take care of itself. Meat gets bad. What we do here requires a lot of special attention. It’s thousands of pounds of cow over time. At any given time, I have 1000 pounds of protein in my walk-in. It can’t be taken lightly. If it needs to be cut today, or it needs to be salted today, or if it needs to be brined today, it waits for no man.

Address: 327 Keawe Street, Honolulu, HI 96813

Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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