In January 2003, the New York restaurant community went to war and -- for better or worse -- I was on the front lines. I was working for Daniel Boulud's empire of acclaimed French restaurants, which included New York's DANIEL, Cafe Boulud, DB Bistro Moderne, and others set to open in Palm Beach and Las Vegas.
I managed special events, cookbook projects and publicity, making me one of the first to learn he would be adding fresh black truffles to his already famous $29 DB Burger and charging an unprecedented $50 for the dish. This may not sound like a reason to get out the battle armor, but let me explain: To begin with, this was no ordinary burger. It comprised an exterior of ground sirloin with a filling of boned short ribs braised in red wine, plus foie gras, black truffles and a mirepoix of root vegetables. Its homemade bun was topped with toasted Parmesan and layered with fresh horseradish mayonnaise, tomato confit, fresh tomato and frisee lettuce. The extra layer of black truffles sliced and placed on top of the patty doubled not only its cost, but also its glam factor. Chef Daniel called it the DB Burger Royale.
Within hours of the Burger Royale having been added to the menu, the "New York Post" published an article about it and what followed was a literal feeding frenzy. Press from across the country and around the world descended on DB Bistro to taste the phenomenon, critique it, and get in on the action. Never before had someone charged such a high amount for something otherwise so ubiquitous. Enhancing the excitement, Old Homestead, a downtown landmark steakhouse, had just added a $41 burger -- made of Kobe beef -- to its menu. With the DB Burger Royale on the scene, the battle for the best and most expensive burger was on. For weeks, all we could do to keep the press and public at bay was make as many burgers as possible and answer the call to flip that burger for every celebrity and media outlet in town. No one could get enough of what had come to be called the New York Burger Wars. In fact, Daniel's PR Director, Georgette Farkas, and I had to cook many of the burgers ourselves to keep up with the numerous press requests at all hours of the day and night. We even joked that one day we should write a book called "Flipping Burgers in Four-Inch Heels". So to all those who commented on my blog last week about Sara N's dismissal performance -- yes, I have been in her position before and managed to power through by focusing on the intense job at hand. I do commiserate with her, though, knowing how much pain my feet were in by the end of each day in the most inappropriate cooking shoes.
Only when the commotion died down did we realize that a serious trend in upscale dining had taken root: the idea of creating a luxurious version of a very traditional, all-American dish. It was extraordinary to witness the nation's reaction. From coast to coast, high-end burgers began popping up on menus everywhere. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As you can see, Daniel Boulud knows a thing or two about burgers. So when I discovered he was the judge of a "Top Chef" Burger Quickfire Challenge, I knew this would be a thrilling episode. I was glad to see that CJ's seafood burger won. It seemed well thought out and looked appetizing, a definite departure from the regular beef burger, without stretching the definition of what a burger should be. (To me this means a cooked patty between two halves of a bun.)
As for the Restaurant Wars, I am sure viewers are frustrated that no one was eliminated this week, but I believe it was a very smart way to end the night. Giving them another chance to prove themselves, and perfect their separate visions, more closely resembles the process most restaurants go through when they are opening. Even the best restaurants go through a period of trial and error in their first few weeks...even months. All aspects of running such a tightly orchestrated machine must be practiced and analyzed in order for it to run smoothly. Having the opportunity to learn from their mistakes will only enable both Restaurant April and The Garage to make enormous improvements their second time around.
Clearly, both teams were not at all equipped to handle what the challenge required in the time they were given. Building a restaurant from concept to service, with a full menu, in 24 hours is no easy task, especially because attention to detail in the front and back of the house must be an absolute priority.
I was just as miffed as the diners when I saw Dale place scented candles all over his dining room. I was also completely confused by Howie and Sara M's heavy menu of wild mushroom risotto and braised lamb shanks, which appeared far too rich for the heat of an April night in Miami. I cannot imagine how any of their guests could have gotten through it. Why didn't they create a restaurant that fit their location?
Did seasonality get thrown out with the dishwater? In addition, Tre's smoked potatoes were the perfect example of a dish that worked in theory but should have been altered or removed when it did not work in practice. He knew those spuds burned in the smoker but sent them out anyway. Knowing how the judges feel about all these elements will hopefully allow the contestants to put out a truly excellent product next week. Until then, I guess we'll all have to stay tuned ... And as for the book about my adventures flipping fancy burgers, you never know what the future may bring, so stay tuned for that too!