“Ask a Chef” is part of an on-going series in which 5280 poses a single question to a local culinary luminary.

He’s studied under Wolfgang Puck, worked at Michelin three- and two-star rated restaurants in France, and is constantly honing his fine dining establishment, Larkspur, in Vail, but for the past eight years, chef Thomas Salamunovich has been infatuated with a simpler cuisine. When he noticed that Larkspur’s hamburger was developing a faithful following, Salamunovich made the leap to the fast-casual sphere with Larkburger, his spin on the burger joint, which now has 12 locations throughout the state. Although Salamunovich says he has some other fast-casual concepts “up his sleeve,” the quest for the perfect burger is still his top priority for now.

5280: What attracts you to burgers?

TS: Oh my god. The absolute most base element of holding the food in your hand. And the sensation of the richness of the meat against the cooling property of the tomato and lettuce and onion. The softness of the bun and the ooziness of the cheese and the fact that you’re able to enjoy it all while holding it in your hands. You remove the fork and knife. Therefore, there’s a much more innate, natural response and feeling to the hamburger. I just love the primal quality of that.

[The hamburger at Larkspur] was incredibly successful for seven years. It was just on our bar menu, but people would routinely come in specifically just for that. I think it’s because we gave so much attention to all the different elements, and it’s straightforward. Focusing on the core elements of a hamburger is so important. I had done all the elaborate things—the foie gras and the short ribs and the shaved truffles. They’re all wonderful as a variation, but to make the true, definitive American hamburger—that’s what I went to when I opened Larkburger. I wanted it to be really straightforward, and I constantly analyzed it and stripped it down. I even considered caramelized onions compared to raw and found that raw onions were much more logical for the flavor profile that I was looking for.

Fun fact: Salamunovich indulges in a Larkburger once a week.