I've eaten more hamburgers than any other food, and I still don't get it. It's a hot ground-beef sandwich--and ground beef just isn't all that great. There isn't a meat loaf restaurant every two blocks. The world hasn't embraced fast-food meatball chains. Yet people crave hamburgers. And many of the nation's top chefs are devoting themselves to cooking them.
It became cool for famous chefs to make burgers in 2001, when Daniel Boulud, James Beard Outstanding Chef of the Year, opened his casual DB Bistro Moderne and sold a $27 hamburger: ground sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs, foie gras and truffles. As much as I love Boulud's cooking, I found it disgusting--a gooey mess of indistinguishable, nauseating fat. I was, once again, alone: it now accounts for 30% of the bistro's food sales. This year, Boulud, Bobby Flay (New York City's Mesa Grill) and Thomas Keller (French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif.) are opening burger joints. Eric Ripert (New York's Le Bernardin) has put a burger on the menu of his new Washington restaurant, and Hubert Keller (San Francisco's Fleur de Lys) has opened a second Burger Bar in St. Louis, Mo.; he already sells 1,400 burgers each weekend night in Las Vegas.
It isn't just the opportunity to charge a lot for ground beef that appeals to chefs. A year before Boulud's burger, executive chef Sang Yoon, then 29, ditched his job at Michael's in Santa Monica, Calif., to take over a nearby tiny dive bar called Father's Office and cook burgers. "Fine dining is not how people wanted to engage chefs anymore," Yoon says. "It's not the most fun night to hang out." Father's Office is now one of the most crowded restaurants in L.A., with people willing to stand in order to eat Yoon's $12 burger, which comes with caramelized onions, Gruyère, Maytag blue cheese, bacon compote and arugula--whether you like it that way or not. He's able to make the food he wants, without compromise (he doesn't serve ketchup), because of the gourmetization of America. Even burger munchers now care about the pedigree of their food.
Flay believes the trend is so far-reaching that he's planning to open a high-end burger chain, Bobby's Burger Palace--with a menu featuring variations from different parts of the U.S.--starting in Smithtown, N.Y., and Monmouth County, N.J. "Everybody across the country now understands that at any price point you should be able to eat well, whether it's a burger or a prix fixe meal at Thomas Keller," says Flay. "People are finally willing to pay more for better food, whether it's fast food or five-star food." Keller's upcoming Burgers and Half Bottles in Napa Valley, which pairs his house wines with simple burgers, was conceived back when he lived in L.A. and would sit in his truck drinking wine with a burger from the In-N-Out chain. "I've always found it fun to unwind in a casual restaurant that offers great food--especially after working long hours in a fine-dining environment," he says.
Burgers aren't interesting to chefs just because young people are willing to pay a lot for dude food; it's also because they have access to better meat. Though Yoon began grinding dry-aged New York strip and mixing it with a bit of chuck in 2000, grinding meat isn't done at most restaurants. So until a few years ago, everyone used chuck for burgers. Then New York's Pat La Frieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors started selling a proprietary blend of chuck and brisket to top restaurants, some of which also had short rib and hanger steak added. Burger Bar's Hubert Keller makes his excellent burgers by grinding meat in a butcher area at the back of his restaurant. "When it comes to pizza and burgers, people are eating so many of them that when you give them a great burger or pizza, they can tell the difference," he says. On his public TV series, Secrets of a Chef, one of the three recipes in each episode is a burger. Keller is shocked at how popular burgers are, having opened his Las Vegas Burger Bar only as a favor to Mandalay Bay hotel and casino, which also houses his second Fleur de Lys restaurant. "Five years ago, nobody thought of putting their name on a burger joint. I was gambling," he said. "I thought the press would fire back and say the man has made four-star restaurants his entire life, and now he's doing a burger."
Burgerphilia has become so acceptable among foodies that two books on the subject are coming out this year: Hamburger America, by documentarian George Motz, and The Hamburger: A History, by New York magazine online food editor Josh Ozersky. "All people are genetically programmed to love meat, and beef is the meat people love best," Ozersky says. "The hamburger is the most accessible way to enjoy the experience of eating beef: the brown crusty exterior and the soft, supple juicy interior. It delivers all the power of eating meat in an accessible, easy-to-eat package." Add the bun (which, if toasted, also has a crusty exterior and a soft interior) and some cheese and condiments, and you've got a lot of flavors and textures going on. All of which, Ozersky fears, will be ruined by the big-name chefs. "I think these guys don't really get burgers," he says. "They all want to tweak it and one-up each other, so they use Kobe beef and truffles, but it can't be improved upon. All these efforts are doomed to folly." Which, at least, is something about burgers I agree with him on. After all, if we could make ground beef better by adding stuff, we'd be driving though Meat Loaf Kings.