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Pursuits: Is the deluxe hamburger the designer jean of the gastronomic world?

Is the deluxe hamburger the designer jean of the gastronomic world?

You remember designer jeans, of course? They were invented in the late 1970s by an Indian called Mohan Murjani, who decided that the ultimate egalitarian garment needed to go up-market.

Murjani launched Gloria Vanderbilt jeans and created a craze that persists to this day. There is no evidence that a pair of jeans made by a famous French designer fits or looks significantly better than a pair of Levis but the French designers rake in the big bucks anyway.


   So it is with the hamburger. By the Seventies, there were three kinds of hamburgers in circulation. The first was the fast food hamburger popularised by MacDonald’s. The point of this burger lay in the extras: the fries, the shakes, etc. Nobody cared too much about the quality of the meat patty. Then, there was the home-made burger, usually put together from cheap cuts of beef by American housewives to feed their kids. This was always seen as a cheap dish which you ate when you could not afford anything better. Hence the expression, favoured by rich people, “why have hamburger when you can afford steak?”


   There was a third category of hamburger but it was hard to find. Some steakhouses would take expensive cuts of beef, chop them and then craft them into high-quality hamburger patties. Such hamburgers were usually good but remained restricted to a few select steakhouses.


   In 1975, a couple of years before the designer jean boom, the world of hamburgers changed forever. That was the year the 21 Club, an old-style New York restaurant much favoured by tycoons and TV-types, introduced its secret hamburger. To begin with, the burger was not on the menu. You had to know about it to ask them to serve the burger. The 21 Club said that the burger came ‘nude’, which is to say that it was served without a bun.


   The idea of a burger that was not actually on the menu soon caught on. In New York and London, the theatrical restaurant Joe Allen did a proper burger (with bun, fries and everything) but refused to put it on the menu. If you ordered the burger, then you were making it clear that you were a regular, privy to the secrets of the Joe Allen kitchen.


"In hamburgers and jeans, as in most other things in life, steer clear of the labels and avoid the gimmicks. Look for quality and you won’t go wrong."

   The significance of the 21 burger (immortalised in the movie Wall Street) was that it was outrageously expensive. In 1975, when you could eat a reasonable meal at most restaurants in New York for around $ 15 per head, 21 priced its burger at $ 21 (get it?). By the standards of the era, this was absurd pricing. How could a burger possibly cost more than lobster? The 21 Club never bothered to explain its cost structure but I would be surprised if the food cost of the burger exceeded $ 3. The rest was just profit.


   And there, things would have remained were it not for Daniel Boulud. By the time Boulud opened his DB Bistro Moderne in New York, he was already the city’s best-regarded French chef. But at his new bistro, he wanted to offer American classics done differently. One way was to reinvent the burger. Unlike 21 or Joe Allen which merely served the standard burger and built a mystique around it, Boulud wanted to create a new dish.


   His inspiration was Tournedos Rossini, a classic, old-fashioned, haute cuisine dish in which medallions of beef are served in a truffle and Madeira gravy with a slice of foie gras placed on top of each medallion. Boulud took the short rib cut of beef, minced it and added truffles and foie gras before shaping it into a patty. His burger cost $ 29 in 2001, expensive by most standards. But the price was somewhat offset by the high food cost and considering that 21 had charged $ 21 two and a half decades before for the low-cost nude burger, this was not so much of a rip-off.


   When the New York Times wrote about Boulud’s burger, a trend began. Now, every chef wanted to create an expensive burger. Gordon Ramsay served his own variation at London’s Boxwood Cafe and most French-trained chefs began, bizarrely enough, to regard foie gras as an essential ingredient of a hamburger. These days, even Joel Robuchon serves a foie gras burger.


   The burger boom was fuelled by another development: the craze for so-called Wagyu beef. As Wagyu became trendy, chefs started offering Wagyu burgers made from this expensive beef. The Burger Bar in Las Vegas offered a Rossini burger, a take-off on Boulud’s version at $ 60, claiming that the use of Wagyu justified the high cost. In 2005, London’s Zuma restaurant offered a Wagyu burger made with beef from Kobe for $ 104. And so it went.


   I have fairly strong views on burgers. I do not believe that foie gras or truffles add anything to the taste. Nor do I regard Wagyu beef as being suited to burger patties. Like designer jeans, most of the luxury burgers are gimmicky rip-offs.


   On the other hand, few of us will dispute that a pair of jeans made by a company that specialises in this garment (7 For All Mankind, Earnest Sewn, J Brand, etc.) will be better than something generic and cheap bought from, say, Zara.


   It’s the same with burgers. A burger made by a chef who knows what he is doing and uses high-quality beef will always be better than something from Burger King or MacDonalds. So, when it comes to burgers, you should look for quality and steer clear of gimmicks and brand names. If you want truffles and foie gras, order Tournedos Rossini, not a burger. And if you like Wagyu, then you will already know that it is not suited to hamburgers.


   In hamburgers and jeans, as in most other things in life, steer clear of the labels and avoid the gimmicks. Look for quality and you won’t go wrong.




  • somnath karunakaran 14 Jun 2012

    Vir, The story you have stitched together about the hamburger makes fascinating reading, ... as usual, a MASTERPIECE..

Posted On: 12 Jun 2012 07:45 PM
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