Snohomish man builds a better burger and wins $15,000

Most chefs are motivated by a hunger for culinary perfection.

Mark Richardson just likes to eat good food. And read comic books.

Guess where a chunk of his $15,000 winnings from a national cooking contest is going?

“A $3,000 comic book,” he said. “It was already OK’d by the wife. I have bids in for some Spider-Mans.”

The 44-year-old Snohomish man won for Best Alternative Burger in the Build a Better Burger contest sponsored by Sutter Home Winery.

Using lamb, he created a cumin-garam-marsala-coriander-spiked Indian burger on pita bread with tahini-pistachio-serrano-chile-cream-cheese mayonnaise.

Say what?

It’s a mouthful. A delicious mouthful, according to the judges.

“The sauce is the bomb,” Richardson said.

The contest had about 3,500 qualified entries in two divisions, beef and alternative. Five finalists competed in each category at the Napa Valley cook-off last month.

It’s the first culinary win for Richardson, who defaces the pages in his 115 cookbooks with scribbles and spills yet keeps plastic around his 1,500 mostly Marvel comic books.

He doesn’t see himself as anything special in the kitchen department.

“I wear a dumb apron and make a mess,” he said. “I always use recipes, even with my burger. I don’t know it by heart.”

The lamb patty has about a dozen ingredients, and so does the sauce. Still, you’d think he’d have it memorized. After all, he can name about every comic he has.

Cooking and comics go way back.

As a kid growing up in Reno, Nev., Richardson wanted more zing from his can of chicken noodle soup. “I spruced up Campbell’s soup with vinegar and soy sauce,” he said.

There was no going back to the ordinary after that. His quest to expand his palate continued.

“I moved to California, following my girlfriend. There was a dude from India next door, and he’d have these great aromas coming out in the hallway,” he said. “He showed me a few things. I like Indian food because of all the spices and the techniques.”

Richardson kept at it after moving to Washington in 1991, where he was an English lit major at the University of Washington and married Patti Berger, a woman from Everett who likes to bake cakes.

He was on the board of Sierra Trading Post, an online and catalog retail sportswear company his dad started on a shoestring budget in 1986 and sold to The TJX Co. in 2012 for lots of money.

“I retired at age 44,” Richardson said.

If he’d used beef, he could have qualified for the contest’s $100,000 Beef Burger grand prize. Katie Sherrill of Edmonds was a finalist in the beef cookoff this year, where her taco-truck-inspired burger with roasted seaweed lost to a New Yorker’s green curry burger with cashews and minted basil aioli.

The lure of $15,000 and a shot at lamb burger fame was good enough for Richardson.

Sutter paid his travel expenses to the California winery for the cookoff and handed him $350 for spending money. He also got a snazzy white chef’s jacket to wear.

For the towering 6-foot-3 chef, it wasn’t like cooking in the kitchen of his sprawling log home in the wilderness, with his dogs at his feet and an apron hanging from his neck.

Instead, it was hot and there were tents and timers and judges.

“I felt like I was taking an SAT test,” Richardson said. “It was really serious. I had to be focused.”

He was given two pounds of meat. “I had to make six burgers. I was like, ‘OK, 32 ounces divided by 6. That doesn’t work.’”

Then he used the wrong spoon on the measuring ring. Instead of a tablespoon, he mistakenly chose the tablespoon-and-a-half spoon.

Then the propane grill wouldn’t start.

“I was like, ‘righty-tighty’ … but it wouldn’t go. In my mind I was not thinking clearly,” he said. “I felt a little emasculated. I was the only guy out there and all the gals had theirs fired up.”

In the end, only one thing mattered, and that was pleasing the judges: “They liked it!” he said.

Did they ever.

“All of the judges scored it highest of the five competing burgers,” head judge James McNair wrote in an email. “He created an unusual and delicious spread for the pita pockets. He grilled them perfectly.”

Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; abrown@heraldnet.com.

Got a great burger recipe?

Enter the juicy competition in the “Build a Better Burger” recipe contest by going to www.sutterhome.com/build-a-better-burger-recipe-contest#.

Mark Richardson’s Indian Lamb Burgers

For the patties

2 pounds ground lamb

2 tablespoons minced shallot

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

1 tablespoon seeded and minced serrano chile

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons garam marsala

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

Vegetable oil, for brushing on the grill rack

6 pita breads, top third removed

3 cups shredded romaine lettuce hearts

18 slices (1/8-inch-thick) English (hothouse) cucumber

2 Roma tomatoes, seeded and chopped into 1/4-inch dice

Tahini Pistachio Mayonnaise

1/2 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup cream cheese

2 tablespoons tahini

1/3 cup ground pistachios

2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon minced shallot

2 teaspoons minced garlic

2 teaspoons seeded and minced serrano chile

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

To make patties: Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix well. Divide the mixture into 6 equal portions and form the portions into patties to fit the pitas. Cover and refrigerate until grilling.

To make mayonnaise: Combine the mayonnaise, cream cheese and tahini in a small bowl and mix until smooth. Add pistachios, cilantro, shallot, garlic, chile, lemon juice, sesame oil and salt. Mix well. Cover and refrigerate until assembling the burgers.

To cook: Heat a gas grill to medium-high. Brush the grill rack with vegetable oil. Place the patties on the rack, cover, and cook, turning once, until done to preference, 4 to 6 minutes on each side for medium. During the last few minutes of cooking, place the pitas on the outer edges of the rack to toast lightly, turning once.

To assemble burgers: Spread 2 tablespoons of the mayonnaise on the inside of each pita pocket. Place the patties inside the pita pockets. Divide the romaine, cucumber and tomato evenly among the pitas and tuck around each patty.

Suggested wine pairing: Merlot.

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