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Brave new burger: The humble American sandwich goes gourmet

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Chef Celinda Norton uses ground lamb in her Market Burger at Seattle's 94 Stewart (Photo by Sean Balko)

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Daniel Boulud's $32 burger infused with braised short ribs and fois gras at DB Bistro Moderne in New York City (Photo by H. Amiard)

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Eric Ripert's gourmet burger at his new Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rachel Cothran)

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"Hamburger America" author George Motz loves this not-so-gourmet burger with pickels and onions only, from Hudson's in Coeur D'Alene, Idaho (Photo by George Motz)

When Brooklyn-based film maker George Motz set out to make his 2005 documentary “Hamburger America,” all he sought was the perfect, simple burger topped with pickles and mustard. He found it, but he discovered something more: the humble American burger has gone gourmet.

Motz said he’s all for it.

“Some (chefs) now have ridiculously high standards” regarding burgers, he said. “But any kind of burger awareness is good awareness.”

At the dawn of the 21st century, high-profile chefs began to gourmetize the hamburger, and mid-tier “premium” burger chains started popping up around the country. In the past few years the trend has exploded, with the opening of several national chains and numerous independent restaurants.

Counter Burger, a new West Coast franchise, claims over 312,000 options for its “build-your-own” burger. And even Burger King is breaking long-standing burger formula later this year for a do-it-yourself concept called the “Whopper Bar.”

But for the independent gourmet burger joint of today, high quality beef (often organic), fresh toppings and lots of serious culinary thought have replaced the cheap, quick and easy ways of the greasy spoon.

Chef Daniel Boulud is often credited with starting the gourmet burger trend in the United States as a reaction against French farmers who defaced McDonald’s restaurants in 2001. (“The French are just jealous they did not invent the hamburger themselves,” he said in an interview at the time.)

At DB Bistro Moderne in Manhattan, Boulud infuses a sirloin burger with braised short ribs off the bone, foie gras and black truffles.

Without truffles it’s $32. With truffles it’s $75. Either way, the “burger” is still immensely popular.

“You can’t really call it a burger,” said Motz. “But it tastes great.”

Time magazine columnist Joel Stein disagrees. He recently reviewed Boulud’s burger as a “gooey mess of indistinguishable, nauseating fat.”

“I still don’t get it,” he wrote. A hamburger “is a hot ground beef sandwich--and ground beef isn’t all that great... and many of the nation’s top chefs are devoting themselves to cooking them.”

Famed chef Eric Ripert included a high-end burger at his new Westend Bistro in Washington, D.C., which opened last fall. Thomas Keller, founder of high-cuisine restaurants French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif., and Per Se in Manhattan, was inspired by late night visits to In-N-Out Burger in California paired with bottles of wine. He plans to open a place called Burgers and Half Bottles based on these many pleasant meals eaten in his truck.

And at Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Hubert Keller’s “Fleurburger” is the world’s most expensive burger at $5,000. It’s Kobe beef topped with foie gras and black truffles on a brioche bun, served with a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1990 and Italian Ichendorf Brunello stemware--all of which are take-home items.

To Stephen Johnson, an instructor specializing in burgers and gourmet lunch production at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Keller’s outrageous price tag and Boulud’s burger are just big-city gimmicks.

“People in the states are having trouble paying that kind of money for a burger,” he said.

Motz thinks Kobe beef is the biggest gimmick in today’s gourmet burger world. He said exquisite Kobe beef from Japanese cattle--cattle that live on beer and are massaged everyday--is unrealistically expensive and is too good to grind up for hamburgers.

“It should be sliced thin and eaten raw,” he said. “Like beef sushi.”

Instead of Japanese Kobe or even less expensive domestic Kobe, Motz said that many chefs “jumping on the burger bandwagon” are using a high-quality blend of beef.

Butcher Pat LaFrieda has cornered that market in Manhattan, providing custom blends for well-known New York City burger joints like Stand, Shake Shack and Spotted Pig. Ground meats could include sirloin, brisket, boneless short rib, shank, skirt, flat iron, and hanger, depending on the thickness of the patty and what flavor profile the chef is going for.

For Motz, the blend and quality of the patty itself is the gourmet aspect about the burger, not how big it is, what it’s stuffed or topped with, or how much it costs.

Chef Celinda Norton shares this philosophy with her popular “Market Burger” at Seattle’s 94 Stewart. Instead of beef, Norton uses top-quality ground lamb spiced with fresh herbs and chopped garlic for the patty. She then tops it with thick apple-smoked bacon, a melted blend of English cheeses, roasted garlic aioli, tomato, seasonal baby greens and a citrus pickled shallot.

Yet, Norton doesn’t consider her burger “that gourmet.”

“My customers simply don’t always want something fancy,” she said of her wealthy baby-boomer clientele. “It's kind of funny seeing some of my best high-dollar guests coming in with friends for ‘just a burger.’”

At Vincent A Restaurant in Minneapolis, chef Vincent Francoual also has a burger on his fine-dining menu, but he absolutely calls it “gourmet.” He’s seen the results.

“It sells so well,” he said. “I believe I’ll be remembered for a burger, even though I’ve had years of French culinary.”

To Francoual, “gourmet” is in the eye of the beholder. In Europe, gourmet is the use of expensive produce--truffles, caviar, etc., he said. But in America, gourmet is anything different from a pickle-and-mustard hamburger on a toasted white bun.

In this regard, the gourmet burger seems like an impossible culinary culture clash. But for even nostalgic foodies like Motz, it works, gimmicks and all.

“I just want Americans to eat better burgers,” he said.

E-mail: ees2139@columbia.edu