I don’t know where you are or what you are doing as you read this. But I can tell you where I am and what I am doing. I write this in the transit lounge of an Asian airport, waiting for a connection. Like nearly everybody else, I have a snack in front of me. And, in common with most other people in the lounge, I am staring at a hamburger. Earlier, I queued up at a McDonald’s outlet and bought myself a Big Mac.
It has been years since I last ate a Big Mac and the taste is pretty much as I remember it: lots of starchy maida (from the rolls), a brief flash of a meaty flavour, and then, all kinds of wet squishiness from the toppings and sauces between the buns. I can see why so many other people have ordered the Big Mac. It gives you the illusion of eating a proper meal – meat, bread, and potatoes in the form of fries – at a relatively low cost and without the inconvenience of having to hire somebody who actually knows how to cook to make it.
Take apart the constituents and there is not much to recommend them. The bread is ordinary and characterless and the patties have little or no beef flavour. Only the fries taste good, but their preparation has long been the subject of controversy. Has the company added beef tallow to the oil? (It used to, apparently, in some countries once upon a time, but never in India.) And where does the flavour come from? According to the best-selling Fast Food Nation, McDonald’s adds synthetic flavour molecules during the frying process. But the success of the Big Mac, such criticism notwithstanding, tells us how much the world loves hamburgers. And the criticisms may explain why more and more people are looking beyond fast-food hamburgers for a quality burger.
This is a global trend. The hottest places in London are upmarket hamburger joints that accept no reservations and force customers to queue up – places like Burger & Lobster and Meat Liquor. Quality mini-chains like Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Byron have become a craze. In Paris, gourmets may turn up their noses at McDonald’s but when they go to upmarket bistros and brasseries, they ignore the traditional steak frites and opt for the cheaper hamburger option. The Thoumieux Brasserie run by Jean-François Piège, in collaboration with the Costes brothers, is among Paris’ toughest places to get into and its signature dish is the burger as reinvented by Piege, who puts the tomato, gherkins, etc into the patty itself.
Price rise: American chefs worked out that burger lovers were not foie gras fans and started making their hamburgers with outrageously priced wagyu beef
The conventional wisdom has it that the upmarket burger was launched in 1975 by New York’s 21 Club, which offered it as an expensive off-menu item for insiders. The theatrical mini-chain Joe Allen tried the same stunt. Once these places made the burger a symbol of inverse snobbery, it was only a matter of time before the famous chefs got in on the act. Daniel Boulud launched his casual D B Bistro Moderne in New York with a hyper-expensive beef and foie gras burger. In London, Gordon Ramsay did his own variation on the same sort of foie gras-rich burger at the Boxwood Café. American chefs worked out that burger lovers were not foie gras fans and started making their hamburgers with outrageously priced wagyu beef. In 2005, Miami’s Prime 112 restaurant introduced a Kobe burger and now, the hamburger that is made from Japanese beef is pretty much a staple of pretentious cafés in the States.
Touch of gras: In London, Gordon Ramsay did his own variation on the same sort of foie gras-rich burger at the Boxwood Café
Boulud struck back with an even more expensive burger. This time he added a black truffle topping. The trendy Zuma restaurant in London did its own variation on the Kobe burger. Joël Robuchon did a mini foie-gras burger at his L’Atelier restaurants. And now, every chef – most recently Jason Atherton, London’s chef of the moment – tries to present his own take on the burger.
Speaking for myself, I find the urge to keep throwing expensive ingredients at the burger, faintly ridiculous. I am not sure Kobe beef is suited to a burger and the notion of topping a patty with black truffles is just plain idiotic. Obviously, there has to be a middle ground between the Big Mac and the foie gras and truffle burger (which is not a burger at all, but a way of putting that old haute cuisine stand-by, Tournedos Rossini, between two buns).
My guess is that Danny Meyer has found the middle ground. Meyer is probably New York’s most famous restaurateur (Union Square Café, etc). In 2004, he took over a concession stand near Madison Square Garden and started selling ice cream, hot dogs and milk shakes. He did not put a hamburger on the menu till a few years later so the name he chose – Shake Shack – reflects the stand’s original intentions. But when the burger became a craze, Meyer recognised the scope for expansion. Today, there are nearly 30 Shake Shacks all over the world and this month, he opens in London. (Another American burger mini-chain, Five Guys, will also open several outlets in the UK this year.) Within the restaurant business, they reckon that Meyer has made more money from Shake Shack than he has from all his famous restaurants.
Meyer has competition in the US from such operations as Five Napkin Burger. Most mini-chains follow the same principle. They perfect a distinctive hamburger and then find ways of selling it. For instance, London’s Burger & Lobster has its origins in the menu of Goodman’s Steakhouse. When the owners found that the burger was moving quickly, they spun it off into its own chain. Meat Liquor started out as a burger served from a food truck. When it became a craze, the food truck’s owners built a mini-chain around the fame of the original burger.
For the taste of it: In London, quality mini-chains like Gourmet Burger Kitchen (above) and Byron have become a craze
Mini-chains follow their own rules. The first is to try and not look like a chain. Each Byron restaurant in London has décor that is unique and distinct. The second is that all the food must be fresh. The patties are never frozen. The buns are baked each morning. The fries are hand-cut. The third is that a mini-chain must offer the experience of a real restaurant. There must be chefs in the kitchen and service must be courteous. (The fast-food hamburger, on the other hand, is a chef-less product that is so standardised that even a chimpanzee in a cap could turn out a perfect Big Mac.)
But all burgers – fast food or upmarket – fall into two categories. Either the burger focuses on the quality of the meat in the patty, or more attention is paid to the toppings and the add-ons. Most fast-food burgers are made from poor quality meat so the success of the enterprise lies in masking the taste of the patty with sauces. Of the chains, only the California cult brand, In-N-Out Burger, prides itself on the quality and freshness of its ingredients.
Bestsellers: The hottest places in London like Burger & Lobster (above) and Meat Liquor are upmarket hamburger joints that accept no reservations
Some gourmet burgers claim to be about beef quality (Boulud makes a big deal of using only short-rib) but are really about the add-ons. Would we care about the burger as reinvented by Boulud, Robouchon, Gordon Ramsay or Jason Atherton if there was no foie gras, black truffle, etc? (Only Piege makes his own rules – his silky patty includes the add-ons. So, it is hard to say whether his burger is about beef or seasoning.)
Which of the two categories you like is a matter of personal choice. The Shake Shack burger, for instance, relies on beef quality. The Meat Liquor burger, on the other hand, has a very ordinary patty and depends on the sauces for its popularity.
Indian chefs have traditionally steered clear of the burger. Even McDonald’s failed to make an impression with the Maharaja Mac. The obvious problem is the inability to use beef outside of the big hotels. But even at the hotels, the burger is nearly always an after-thought, something they are forced to put on the coffee-shop menu, but take no interest in. (The exception is the Leela Palace in Delhi, where they are proud of their hamburger.)
But I am not convinced by the we-can’t-use-beef argument. I’ve had perfectly good burgers made from choice cuts of buffalo meat. Yes, it may not be as good as the best Angus, but it is possible to make a delicious patty from buffalo keema. It is just that our chefs can’t be bothered to experiment with buffalo meat. Which is crazy. The hamburger is such a global craze at the moment that it is only a matter of time before somebody beats the hotels and the restaurants and opens a great burger place in India.
Even the fast-food chains have got the message. After I abandoned my Big Mac half-way through writing this column, I went to the deserted Burger King outlet in the airport food court and ordered an Angus Steakhouse burger. It was more expensive than the Big Mac but it was delicious, easily the equal of some of the burgers turned out by the upmarket mini-chains.
So, if Burger King can do it, why can’t India’s chefs? From HT Brunch, July 28
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