Transforming the Burger
By Chef Stephanie Michalak, Turner Farm Culinary Manager
There is a scene in the movie Burnt where the fictional high-end chef, Adam Jones, (played by Bradley Cooper) meets a potential new sous chef in a Burger King. The new sous chef, Helene, is essentially disparaging fast food because it is not made by “proper” chefs. Adam Jones initially replies with, “you know why people like you don’t like fast food?… because it’s food for the working class.” She then rebuttals that she feels this way because the food is made with “too much salt, too much fat, and too many cheap cuts of meat,” but chef’s response is that “you just described the most classic French peasant dishes” and goes on to list a few of these. His point is to highlight that the sous chef’s remark should have been about the establishment’s consistency because, “consistency equals death…chefs should be consistent in experience, but not consistent in taste.” Essentially, if food is too consistent: it becomes boring and stagnant. There is little spark and ecstasy in the perpetual experiences.
Many of us associate burgers with either the fast-food experience or the summer backyard grill where your options are typically a hot dog or hamburger; and yes, it can ultimately be uninspiring and usually underwhelming. However, with how dining trends wax and wane, burgers have become a food category of their own that is something far beyond the “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun” jingle in the past twenty years. Nowadays, key players range from famous restauranteurs like Danny Meyer who opened the first Shake Shack in Madison Square Park in 2001; which is now a publicly traded company (NYSE: SHAK) and has 136 domestic locations and 72 international sites; to companies like Beyond Meat Inc storming the world with their plant-based burgers (also now public, NASDAQ: BYND).
It almost appears that we have a national love-hate relationship with burgers from both an emic and etic perspective: they are a symbol for our Standard American Diet, overarching culture of fast and over-indulgent everything, and idyllic food photography that looks nothing like what you get, but they are also connected to heyday social gatherings along with a milkshake and two straws, and can be transformed from an institutionalized commodity to a niche, artisanal product. Overall, the burger is not going anywhere any time soon. Top trends for ‘chef-inspired’ burgers range from better quality meats (or plant-based patties), house-made condiments and sauces, toppings that go far beyond the floppy Iceberg slices to things like sunny-side up eggs and kimchi, and buns that range from collard leaves to deep fried donuts. Even though you can certainly pull up to the drive-through window and order your favorite number; there is a completely different experience in crafting a burger that can become extremely personal and more connected to a sense of place. It transforms ‘the burger’ back into recognizable ingredients and a source of inspiration, rather than monotony.