The burger man

This blog is not known for heart-laid-bare displays of emotion, and I doubt this post will change that, despite the fact that I want to write about how sad I am that my friend Scott died last week.

I’ve known Scott Simpson since 2001 or so, but the last time I wrote about him was when he opened his restaurant Fork in 2006 and I was sort of still writing about Seattle restaurants professionally. What I said then, comparing him to Dumbledore:

Scott Simpson is equal parts serious chef and funny chef. He’s serious in the sense that he can really cook: every mouthful at Fork was delicious and well thought out. But he also has an irrepressible sense of humor: there are lobster corn dogs on the menu.

“Fork seems to be doing well so far,” I added.

Like many irrepressibly creative people, however, Scott was also equal parts jolly guy and sad guy: he was bipolar. Fork was open for a couple of months before he hit a depressive episode, abruptly shuttered the place, and disappeared. There were rumors of his death. It was pretty theatrical.

Then I was walking around Capitol Hill one day and there he was, 200 pounds lighter and talking about opening a new place. Several new places, I think. The guy got wild ideas more often than most people go to the bathroom. Ah, I just remembered: he said he was going to open a molecular gastronomy breakfast joint called Unflappable Jack’s.

He didn’t. Instead, he opened a little burger shack in Ballard called Lunchbox Laboratory. There is no dearth of burger places in Seattle, but this one was always jammed. He made the best milkshakes in town (especially the Boston Cream), and the burgers were like a web page from 1995: constantly under construction. You couldn’t fall in love with any particular burger at Lunchbox, because next time your burger would be 404 and Scott would be on to the next experiment.

Naturally, you could choose from approximately fifty kajillion homemade toppings. He invented the Dork burger, a mixture of duck and pork, and kept playing around with the beef mixture for the regular burger. It really was a laboratory. Tater tots were also served. I think my favorite burger creation of his was the Bobcat Baby, with green chiles, lots of onions, and BBQ sauce.

I just googled the Bobcat Baby, because I couldn’t remember what was on it, and found this photo of the Shroomville USA burger by loyal customer and Flickr guy suomynona. Sample comment: “Also, call me a bad parent… but… I’d trade my first born for one of Scott’s burgers…” Hear that, Iris?

Scott was not the kind of tortured artist who is hard to be around. He was warm, charismatic, and drew people to wherever he was cooking. If he had opened a diner where every dish was served in flames, or a milkshake speakeasy, or a lobster corn dog cart, people would have flocked to it.

Last week, after Scott’s death, the Amster-Burtons went to the new location of Lunchbox Laboratory, which opened a few months ago in South Lake Union (and is still open for business). I didn’t enjoy eating there, even though the milkshakes are still excellent. Seeing Scott in his element was a big part of going to Lunchbox Lab, and it’s hard to imagine looking forward to going back if he’s not going to be there. Maybe (and this, I assure you, is the kind of joke Scott would want people to tell) they should stuff him and use him as a Big Boy-style mascot.

Update 4/8/11: Just in case it wasn’t clear here, I think the new Lunchbox Lab is a great restaurant and everyone who has the means should eat there. I meant that it made me sad to eat there after Scott’s death, not that there was anything wrong with the restaurant, and I hope and expect it will thrive for a long time.

What else can I say? I hate lessons and morals even more now than when I was a kid. Scott Simpson was a great cook and a sweet guy, haunted by fucked-up brain chemistry.

Last night I was listening to Elliott Smith’s Figure 8. Whenever I listen to Elliott Smith, which is often, I sing along with gusto, and I think, “You know what? It’s bullshit that this guy is dead.” That’s the word that comes to mind, every time. Elliott Smith, no longer writing songs? That’s bullshit. Scott Simpson, no longer flipping burgers and coming up with lunatic restaurant concepts? That’s bullshit.

17 thoughts on “The burger man

  1. Anita

    Matthew, I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I only met Scott in person a few times, and interacted with him on the food boards a bit, but I feel his loss even from this great distance, so I can only imagine how you and his other friends must feel.

    Scott was a real presence, and his vitality and mad genius showed through in his cooking. I still remember vividly the time we went with you for a review dinner at Blue Onion Bistro — there was nothing else like it in Seattle then — and I’m glad I had the chance to experience Lunchbox Lab in the old Ballard space.

    I hope his team at the new location figures out a way to keep recapture the energy, eventually; it would be a fitting tribute to their chef.

  2. mamster Post author

    Thanks, Anita, and I totally agree about the new place. I do intend to go back, and it I wish them the best.

  3. Lauren

    As I was thinking about Scott this past week – I was also remembering that review dinner. And the dinner I had at Fork, the night before it closed. And the Burger of the Month he hosted for us at LL, right before it opened to the public. There were many meals at Scott’s places but those really stuck with me. He was a memorable guy and your post captured that about him. Thanks Matthew.

  4. JB

    Very nice post. Thank you for it. But I think “fucked up” is more apt than “bullshit.”

  5. Allegra

    Thank you Matthew, for your un-sugar-coated words. Every one is absolutly true and accurate, and believe it or not, when this happened, that’s exactly what I walked around the parking lot yelling. Absolute BULLSHIT! Please do support the new place, I am also gone, but I expect big things from Phillip Twiss and Adam Berberich…if they learned 1/10th of what he showed them, they’ll do great.

  6. Allie

    Those lobster corn dogs made my table mate shed tears of joy! He was an amazing person and an amazing chef. You are so right, it’s bullshit he’s gone – my heart aches.

  7. mamster Post author

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Allegra, I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to say. It means a lot that you think I did him justice.

  8. Jodi Slonsky(Goulden)

    Thank you for this, grew up with Scott as a childhood friend from Scottsdale, AZ and so amazing to hear of his success yet at the same time so tragic. He is a wonderful person and glad I got to reconnect with him at our 20th reunion late last year. He clearly touched so many there in Seattle area. My thoughts and prayers with all of Scott’s friends and family. Jodi

  9. heather

    as my (deceased) irish grandmother would say: i am sorry for your troubles.

    as someone who has geniusy dead friends, i say…welcome to the club (clinks glass).

  10. Matthew

    I agree with you. There wasn’t time to talk with Scott at the new place. It was always so busy that if you walked up to where they were cooking, you wanted immediately to walk away because you felt bad for the crew. At the Ballard location, you could talk with him about the Mariners and he was occasionally able to take breaks between cooking his creations. He was a true artist. A genius in my book. His memorial is this Sunday at Lunchbox Laboratory. Everyone is welcome.

  11. Nancy Leson

    Indeed, this is a lovely tribute to Scott, Matthew, honestly spoken.

    Among his many gustatory schemes, considered then tossed was this one: He thought about opening a Philly cheesesteak cart and selling them in front of the Seattle Times. Cracked me right up, but having tasted his version as a BOB special, I bet they’d have come from far and wide for that one.

    Your Bob’s Big Boy commentary made me laugh out loud: You’re right, Scotty would have loved that. And it’s funnier still, because I grew up eating Big Boys in Philadelphia and every time I drive by that big antiques warehouse on Westlake Avenue — which has had one of those old Bob’s Big Boy statues in the window, for sale, as it’s had for several years (at least) — I think of Scott.

    Before he opened the original LBL I said, “Hey! Have you seen that old Bob’s Big Boy statue down on Westlake? You need that for your new place!” and he told me he’d had his eye on it. In the end, it may have been the only piece of Americana he didn’t buy (or give away). I saw it through the storefront again this week and thought: “Damn it! Damn it!”

    I find it particularly telling that every one of my friends who met Scott in their professional capacity as a food writer or restaurant reviewer, as you and I did, became hardcore fans, dropped our own money on his food, and have taken his death so hard.

    Mac started crying when I told him the news. Nate asked me to “explain it all” to him again last night. (How do you explain Scott’s life, and death, to a 12-year-old? I did my best.)

    The man was truly something, and will be missed by us all.

  12. mamster Post author

    Nancy, I should have linked to your own tribute in the Times. Let me rectify that here:

    Seattle chef Scott Simpson, remembered

    It’s notable not only for capturing Scott’s importance to Seattle food people but also for having the most respectful newspaper comment thread ever.

  13. Matthew

    This may help to explain, for those that don’t understand, what Scott was going through. Plus, it’s helpful at this time to have footage of Scott when he was at what he called the happiest time of his life. I think we can all thank Allegra for that.

  14. Susan Fung

    Hi Matthew,

    I feel like I am just catching up on the news and am deeply saddened that Scott is gone. Although Alfred and I never really got talk to him in person, we loved going to the Ballard location of LL. My personal favorite was to order a dork creation (bummed it’s no longer available at SLU) and a coconut cream shake. The shakes were perfection, for sure.

    As always, wonderfully written words. susan

  15. Ryan

    Truer words, and I mean all of them, have never been written Matthew… about Scott, Lunchbox Lab, and Elliot Smith. I guess we will never know about Iris, thank goodness.

Comments are closed.