What Is it About Burgers? (Part II)

In a presentation at a culinary conference years ago, my menu maven friend announced that we are all motivated by “our culinary heritage.”

I believe that’s true and it suggests that the legacy of great burgers in this country is spawning a whole new generation of even greater burgers. I’d even go so far as to say that a good old American cheeseburger may well be the perfect food. Think about it. A cheeseburger contains all of the basic food groups–meat, bread, dairy and vegetables–and all the colors in the rainbow–sizzling brown, red-onion purple, juicy red, fresh green, cheesy yellow and a toasty white bun. Just look at Morton’s Power Hour Three Prime Cheeseburgers.

♦ A cheeseburger is a thing of beauty, colorful and stacked high for a great vertical presentation.

♦ A burger can be anything: lunch, dinner, appetizer, kid meal and, at Carl’s Jr., even breakfast.

♦ A burger is accessible…you can get it almost anywhere from fast food to fine dining.

♦ The flavor can be tailored to any region, ethnicity or personal quirk: Teriyaki Burger, Tortilla Burger, Cajun Burger, Pizza Burger, Santé Fe Burger, Blackened Bayou Burger, Malibu Burger, Maui Burger or the ultimate indulgence: Max & Erma’s 10 ounce Garbage Burger.

Despite its apparent simplicity, you just can’t make a burger as well at home–even if you do happen to have all those unique ingredients and a perfect, fresh bun. The grade, the grind, the compression, the fat content relative to the cooking method, the bun to burger proportion, a good, hot grill…no wonder it’s an item that even experienced chefs and foodies find worthy of their attention. Everyone thinks they have the secret. Fine-dining restaurants that trim their own steaks have always had amazing burgers, but now everybody’s getting into the game.

♦ Emeril Lagasse just opened up his first burger restaurant, Burgers and More in Historic Bethlehem, Pa., where critics claim he “elevates burgers to an art form.”

♦ Celebrity Top Chef Richard Blais of Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta, which is creating a buzz with upscale touches like burgers with truffle oil fries for under $10, may have tipped off the underlying reason why chefs are getting into the burger game. His first job was making burgers at McDonald’s–clearly part of his “culinary heritage”–and when asked about his jump into gourmet burgers, he admitted that it’s, in a word, fun.

♦ Rich Melman, who started in the business serving the Gruntburger at R.J. Grunts in the ’70s, is planning The M Burger, a takeout burger stand next to his fine-dining restaurant, Tru, and he promises, “There will be a few cute surprises to it.”

♦ Food Network’s Bobby Flay, owner of multiunit chain Bobby’s Burger Place, has rules about burgers. “The patty must be seasoned with kosher salt and fresh pepper only; no garlic, no eggs, no breadcrumbs (in his view a meatloaf burger); and the bun must be soft and squishy; no crusty rolls allowed.”

♦ Burgers complement so many of our favorite foods: fabulous with fries, great with a cold beer and perfect when paired with fine wine. Inspired by In-N-Out, Thomas Keller, Napa Valley’s celebrity chef, has introduced Ad Hoc, his new “Burgers and Half Bottles” restaurant.

Burgers have it all: innovation, differentiation, presentation, value and fun. What a perfect fit for our country and our times. It is a true cultural barometer manifesting our quest for quality, love of diversity and need for value. The burger is a truly American art form…from sea to shining sea. No wonder it was manifest destiny that burgers emerge as they have in the last decade. The humble burger is a canvas for the creative and the ultimate Rorschach test…different things to different people at different times.

Until next time, I’d love to hear your thoughts.