As the Mr Hyde National Burger Day arrives, we kick off a special look at how Britain went burger crazy
The burger. Once, just a bun, a disc of suspicious beef and, if you were lucky, a yellow square resembling cheese. Simple. Fast. A bit rubbish.
It seemed fitting that, until 2001, this dirt-cheap eat would be presented to you in its cardboard cradle by a pock-faced teenager in a paper hat, before you navigated it to an unsettlingly warm plastic chair and consumed it in silence, only for an aggressive jab of hunger to override your self-loathing 10 minutes later. Burgers were nothing to write home about, let alone get an iPhone camera out for.
Yet, in 2015, we’ve all contributed to the 4.5 million images of the things tagged on Instagram. We make near-religious pilgrimages to the far reaches of the Northern line just to be able to tweet “#foodporn”.
All of a sudden, there be gold on them grills – an estimated £3bn in 2015 UK sales, in fact. And these are the men responsible for flipping the burger from fast food trash to the hottest, coolest property on the British food scene.
In the beginning
Hugh Fowler was there when it all kicked off. His upscale burger chain, Hamburger Union, was a standard-bearer, alongside GBK and Fine Burger Company, in the first wave of London’s ‘better burgers’, and a restaurant where a quality, well-sourced hamburger in a Portuguese roll would cost a wallet-friendly £3.95.
“Put simply,” he tells ShortList, “other burger businesses at the time, such as Tootsies, seemed old-fashioned. And with McDonald’s being deemed bad for your health in Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation in 2001, it felt like the right time.”
As Guardian food critic Jay Rayner described in his gushing 2004 review of Fowler’s restaurant, “Hamburger Union is that very special thing: proof that quick food does not have to be crap food.”
But, unlike GBK, which has gone on to open 67 outlets around the country, Fowler would permanently put out his grills in 2007.
“With hindsight, our assisted counter service model did not quite match the quality of the product,” Fowler says by way of explanation. “Our customers wanted to spend more time enjoying the product and less time queuing to order it. We should have Byronised our restaurants. That business is a full-service Hamburger Union.”
BEWARE THE Hamburglar
Our next burger revolutionary probably has no idea how pivotal he is in this story. In fact, he belongs behind bars.
“When someone stole our Meatwagon in December 2010, we had to open a temporary restaurant, Meateasy, above a pub,” recalls Scott Collins, one half of the Meatliquor empire, in an interview in 2014. “It cost us £2,000 to set up, we had it open for 10 days and that’s when it went bananas for us.”
“Bananas” doesn’t cut it. Expanding from London to Leeds and Brighton, and even Singapore; a reported turnover of £12m in 2014; queues of hungry diners, littered with celebrities, all gagging for Collins and chef partner Yianni Papoutsis’s Dead Hippie washed down with a can of Hobo beer: Meatliquor was the first real taste of what burger culture would look like in 2015. Burgers were cool, and everyone wanted a bite.
And that, it seemed, was the explosion that blew the floodgates wide open. In 2011, queues started to snake out from Honest Burgers, along with the waft of its trademark rosemary chips. In 2012, the queue started outside Bleecker St after founder Zan Kaufman’s New York burger obsession travelled with her to Old Street and various other pitches around the city. In 2013, US big dogs Shake Shack and Five Guys escalated everything by setting up shop less than 500 metres away from each other in central London. Now, more burger bars open around the country than even the most athletic professional eater can keep up with. It’s therefore no surprise that sales at McDonald’s have been plummeting for nine consecutive months.
JUSTIFY OUR LOVE
It’s a bun fight out there. A beautiful, greasy, meaty bun fight. But through the queues, the iPhone flashes and the hashtags, it’s easy to take your eye off what’s at the heart of the beast: the food. What actually justifies spending £13 on a burger, when you’re never more than five minutes from a far cheaper and faster incarnation?
Gavin Lucas, AKA London’s pre-eminent burger detective Burgerac (it’s a play on Jersey-set Eighties detective drama Bergerac, if you’re struggling) is a man who’s certain he knows the answer: “Don’t get distracted by the age of the beef or whether or not a bun is brioche. It isn’t important. Around 80 per cent of all that stuff you read on a menu is pure marketing.
At a basic level, it’s about not overworking the mince, and getting the fat-to-lean ratio right. Beyond that, it’s about the balance. Every choice you make will affect another choice that needs to be made. Create a cheeseburger with American cheese and house it in a brioche bun, for example, and you’ll taste the brioche above the beef. Use aged beef, strong earthy cheddar and onion marmalade, on the other hand, and now you’ve got flavours big enough to work in harmony with a buttery brioche. That’s a huge part of the burger’s never-ending appeal: do what the hell you want, as long as it’s a joy to eat.”
Don’t get distracted by the age of the beef or whether or not a bun is brioche. It's about the balance.
In just 14 short years, we’ve gone from those brave, visionary patty pioneers of 2001 staking their claim in the city, all the way to 2015, and Meatliquor flying the flag in Singapore with its first restaurant outside the UK, as well as Soho House’s Dirty Burger taking the fight back to where the humble hamburger was born, with a restaurant in the US. The British burger invasion has outgrown the Motherland, and its appetite for meaty seduction remains unrelenting.
“Like everything in life,” concludes Burgerac, “be it a chart-topping pop song or a successful Sunday league football team, it’s about getting the balance right. That, right
there, is the key to success for this whole thing.”
Advice to live your life by. Or, at least, to remember when you order your next burger.
Basit Nasim, founder of streetfood masters HotBox
We threw ourselves in at the deep end. Our first gig was at Street Feast. It was also our most stressful time – we served 1,000 portions that weekend. With hindsight, we should have begun at smaller venues. Baby steps are best. There are so many burger joints now. It’s the temptation to start something that’s a gimmick. But if you do the basics right you can relax, because the people will come.
It was difficult to enjoy our development. We were in a rush to get to the next stage – that drive helped us to our first permanent site in 2014. Burgers will never die, because not everyone loves the same style. Our passion is low and slow smoked meats, so we use these in our burgers – it adds rich flavour and a melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Tom Barton, co-founder of Honest Burgers
We were nearly a fish and chips venue. I wanted burgers, but Phil [co-founder] wanted fish – neither of us are chefs, but I thought I could do a burger justice. Both of
us were front of house in the restaurant we worked at.
It might sound like a lot, but we work on a 25 per cent fat-to-meat ratio – chuck steak is really good for this. The fat adds all the flavour. And never mince more than once – you want to keep that texture. The chips were by far our biggest challenge. We went through dozens of different methods and styles, and then had to factor in the seasonality of potatoes. We were very close to using frozen, bought-in chips.
I don’t feel as though we’ve perfected anything. Nothing is ever perfect in this industry – every stage can always be improved. Sometimes it takes ages for
a new burger to reach the menu. The Brewburger [a collaboration with BrewDog] took 10 versions to be finalised, all of which were very different, and were compiled over
a couple of days.
Hannah Summers, burger (and Springsteen) blogger; burgersandbruce.com
Burgers are in our blood. Brits love beef, bread and cheese. That combination is so much more satisfying than a green juice and quinoa.
British burgers are great because of the chefs. It’s particularly true with street stalls – you just have to speak to them to realise their passion. I’d travel anywhere for
a good burger.
I go to new places on ‘holiday’ then spend hours schlepping to the outer suburbs to try ones the locals have recommended. I’ve definitely eaten more than five burgers in
a day. Especially when travelling somewhere. In London, I try to keep it to one burger a week. A good bet is Bleecker St’s Bleecker Black.
The appeal of street food will continue to grow. It provides great opportunities for talented chefs who haven’t been able to train in the traditional ways.
Mr Hyde is ShortList's daily email for men, covering entertainment, style and the best places to go out. Want to know where to get a gloriously hoppy pint of IPA? They're your guys. As the founders of the Mr Hyde National Burger Day, they also know a lot about beef patties.
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(Images: THOMAS BOWLES; Meatliquor)