Bring On the Fat, Bring On the Taste

Celebrity Chefs Join Burger Wars, Baste Beef Patties in Butter

Celebrity chefs have slaved in haute cuisine kitchens and mastered the world’s most complex dishes. Today, they’re dedicating their culinary brain power to another challenge: How to cash in on the burger craze.

Chefs such as French-trained Hubert Keller, all-American Bobby Flay and television star Emeril Lagasse are devoting their expertise to the once-humble hamburger. The rapidly growing pack of burger chefs is sparking fierce competition to expand, protect innovations and promote their recipes as the world’s best.

The deluxe $60 Rossini burger, with Kobe beef, sauteed foie gras, shaved truffles and Madeira sauce at Burger Bar in San Francisco.

Most of the chefs make a big deal about the kind of meat served at their restaurants. Mr. Lagasse blends ground chuck, short rib and brisket; others promote their Angus, Kobe or grass-fed beef. Some beef experts say the main secret behind tasty celebrity-chef burgers is simple: They pile on the fat, whether from beef patties with 30% fat content or from patties basted in butter. That alone may make their burgers delicious at a time when supermarket ground beef may contain as little as 8% fat.

“I crave cheeseburgers more than anything else,” says Bobby Flay, who has five Bobby’s Burger Palace locations in the Northeast and is planning five to seven more in the next 12 to 18 months. “We treat the food like a high-end restaurant,” using only fresh, unprocessed ingredients, Mr. Flay says.


‘Two Kobe Beef Patties, Truffles…’

Laurent Tourondel

Burger Joint: LT Burger, Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Meat Theory: A grind of Certified Angus Beef short rib, brisket, chuck and sirloin

Priciest Burger: TheWagyu burger costs $16.

Cooking Tip: Smear the beef patty with softened butter, salt and pepper before cooking.

Richard Blais

Burger Joint: Flip Burger Boutique in Atlanta (above) and Birmingham, Ala.

Priciest Burger: The A5 burger, made of Japanese Kobe beef, truffles and foie gras, costs $39.

Cooking Tip: Heat a cast-iron pan, add clarified butter, a garlic clove and sprigs of thyme, rosemary or sage. Add the patty and chunks of butter, and baste.

Hubert Keller

Burger Joint: Burger Bar in Las Vegas, St. Louis and San Francisco

Priciest Burger: The Rossini burger, made with black truffles, foie gras and Madeira sauce, costs $60.

Cooking Tip: Grind your own meat: Cut meat into cubes and chill in a bowl. Pulse quickly in a food processor, stopping when it is still coarse.

Bobby Flay

Burger Joint: Bobby’s Burger Palace, five locations in the Northeast

Meat Theory: Ground chuck and sirloin, 20% fat

Cooking Tip: Add a layer of potato chips between the meat and bun for extra crunch.

Marcus Samuelsson

Burger Joint: Marc Burger, Chicago and Costa Mesa, Calif.

Meat Theory: Chuck, 30% fat

Priciest Burger: Two Kobe sliders cost $8.95.

Cooking Tip: Don’t mix any salt into the meat— apply right before cooking so the meat doesn’t ‘cure.’

Emeril Lagasse

Burger Joint: Burgers and More by Emeril, in Bethlehem, Pa.

Meat Theory: Burgers use different cuts or blends of meat.

Cooking Tip: Get a griddle very hot, about 375 degrees, and sear the patty, then reduce heat to cook through


The chefs are competing with several popular chains serving burgers that aren’t prepared by celebrities but are more upscale than fast food—such as restaurateur Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack, with units in New York City, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Miami, and Five Guys, with more than 600 units in 40 states.

Kevin Connaughton, a theatrical lighting designer, has laid out $12.60 for a customized burger at Mr. Keller’s Burger Bar in San Francisco three or four times since it opened last year. “Anywhere that doesn’t specialize in burgers, it’s hard to get it properly cooked,” he says. “It’s definitely a very good burger.”

Most of the celebrity burger joints sprinkle in some trappings of fine dining, while charging anywhere from a few dollars extra to twice as much as the average diner. Marc Burger makes its own spicy ketchup. Burger Bar serves a burger topped with foie gras and truffles for $60; the San Francisco location features a wine cellar.

Ambience varies. The chains from Mr. Flay, Mr. Samuelsson and Mr. Blais look like stylish diners, with hip touches like a loft ceiling or a wavy dining counter. Mr. Keller’s looks more like an old-fashioned bar and grill, with dark-wood paneling. Many are located inside malls, stores or casinos, where chefs can rely on high-volume foot traffic.

Few celebrity chefs spend their days flipping burgers or working the fry-o-later. Instead, they design the concept, conceive the recipes, train the staff and check in regularly to maintain quality. Mr. Blais and Mr. Flay have staffed the top positions of their burger restaurants with cooks from their fine-dining operations.

Mr. Flay says before opening his first Burger Palace, he identified a fault with the hamburger: It has little textural contrast. So Mr. Flay created a concept he calls “crunchify,” which means putting a layer of crispy potato chips between meat and bun. He trademarked the term, as well as “Crunchburger.”

Three weeks ago, Mr. Flay called the chief executive of Cheesecake Factory and asked him to remove a “Double Cheese Crunch Burger,” with a layer of potato chips, from its menu.

“I’m going to protect this with all my might, because it’s the signature of my restaurant,” Mr. Flay says. (Cheesecake Factory says it was unaware of Mr. Flay’s trademark and will change the menu in the next printing cycle.)

The most expensive celebrity burger is usually a “Kobe” burger. Most menus specify that the beef used comes from American Wagyu cattle, a breed famous for its highly-marbled meat, meaning thin veins of fat run throughout the muscle, adding juiciness.

Beef experts are divided on the merit of Kobe burgers. Kobe beef contains fatty acids that give it a distinct taste and have a healthier profile than the fats in typical American beef, says Chris Kerth, professor of meat science at Texas A & M University. But the taste difference between ground Kobe and ground beef with an equally high fat content is so subtle, consumers probably can’t notice it, says Edgar Chambers IV, Kansas State University professor of food science.

Mr. Blais, who serves a Kobe burger, agrees that the unique marbling is lost in a hamburger but says Kobe beef is still a good choice for people who love a burger with abundant, tasty fat. His $39 Japanese Kobe burger consists of about 30% fat.

Chefs have their own special blends of beef cuts, such as short rib, sirloin or brisket.

“You’re creating a story and people love to hear stories,” says Mr. Keller, who uses ground chuck. Mr. Blais says his blend, which includes hangar steak, is the result of much research and study, including meals at rival Burger Bar, BLT Burger, Shake Shack and Five Guys.

“You get kind of tired of burgers after so much R & D,” Mr. Blais says. There’s minimal scientific research to guide them into the flavor differences among various meat cuts when ground.

“Grass fed” beef shows up in celebrity burgers—and often costs a little extra. Grass-fed beef contains healthier fats than typical grain-fed beef and is trendy in food circles partly because of a reputation for being better for the environment (although that is a question subject to scientific debate).

Mr. Tourondel says his grass-fed burger is a big hit but he personally doesn’t like it. “Too lean, too dry,” says the chef, who ordinarily smears softened butter onto his burger patties before cooking.

Katy McLaughlin, Wall Street Journal


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