One of the keys to understanding the New York dining scene, particularly in Manhattan, is realizing that the ambition of its chefs is often hamstringed by the insane economics of running a successful restaurant in this town. Avant-garde kitchens may be lauded by critics and food obsessives, but with astronomic rents and stiff competition, broader appeal is necessary to stay in business. Hence, the ubiquity of comfort food through every echelon of NYC dining, and more to the point, the unstoppable rise of the chef burger.
The chef burger is what happens when a very talented chef—perhaps with a speciality in Italian food, or haute French, or rustic Spanish—takes on a simple American classic, usually in an effort to appeal to the everyman diner who has the money to go to the restaurant but might not drawn in by hay-smoked offal and sunchoke cream. Often, these gussied-up creations will include dry-aged scraps of steak, housemade condiments, fancy buns, smoked garnishes, and all sorts of other tweaks that attempt to justify price tags in the $15-$20 range.
It’s easy to lambast the chef burger as a sell-out move, pandering to the masses rather than speaking to the heart of the restaurant. But some of them are actually excellent, and if they help keep your favorite new spot in business, maybe they are a necessary evil.
To round out its Burger Week coverage, Eater ran an interesting interview with some chefs and restaurateurs about their decision to put a burger on the menu, and it does a good job of shedding some light on the realities behind the trend. Harold Dieterle (The Marrow) points out that “[the burger] a pretty good profit margin item. You want a mix of stuff that is moderately priced and good for cash flow, as well as stuff that’s good for food costs.” Andrew Tarlow of Diner and Reynard adds that for a restaurant with a whole-animal butchering program, grinding a house burger can be a good way to make use of cuts and scraps that might otherwise go to waste.
Michael White serves the $19 White Label burger at Ai Fiori in the Setai Hotel, and while he doesn’t provide much of an explanation about the exorbitant price, he does make a decent argument: Every hotel needs a burger. Finally, Christian Pappanicholas looks back on the huge amount of attention that the Resto burger received after New York named it Best Burger in NYC in 2008. He notes that the cooks weren’t necessarily thrilled about cooking burgers nonstop, but the buzz did help the restaurant make a name for itself and bring in new diners.
Reading these responses and how a trendy patty can play into a restaurant’s bottom line in various ways, it’s tough to image the chef-burger trend dying down any time soon.