Firstly, I’m extremely happy to hear that Burger Wellington (part of Visa Wellington on a Plate) is approaching. Having said that, I’m going to proceed to be a bit of a Grinch (in addition to being that annoying guy that bangs on about how things were better overseas).
You see, I had my own road to Damascus experience over the last four years. I’ve always been a big fan of burgers, I ordered them regularly and even thought I made a pretty good burger (things I was doing wrong included packing them with breadcrumbs, adding all sorts of weird and wonderful spices and cooking them to crematorium levels). I could not have been more wrong. It all began when I left the country to live somewhere else (I joined the London massive, like the vast majority of Kiwis on an OE). On the way to my new home, I travelled through New York – where I discovered that what I had been eating for 30 years was only a pale shadow of a burger, a poorly-rendered simulacrum… An impostor.
I blame Shake Shack – that tiny little, well, shack in the middle of Madison Square Park. The eatery where you line up for hours for the privilege of eating one of their signature sandwiches. That burger changed me. Since then, I’ve been on the search for the next great burger. The next taste sensation… Burger Heaven. New York could be relied upon for a good burger, so the month that I spent there (and environs – I count Washington DC here, and thus Good Stuff Eatery) never saw me disappointed (save for the three days I searched for the KFC Double-Down, found it, enjoyed the first two bites but struggled to keep that rest of that Calorie-monster down).
But it was time to leave the States. And I worried that my burger pilgrimage was over. You see, at that time (mid-2010), the burger revolution (UK edition) was in its infancy. Gourmet Burger Kitchen, with its grab-bag of fillings, dominated what counted as a burger scene. Your best option was a bland, overcooked, patty, masked by avocado, blue cheese, onion rings, various sauces, multiple greens, fried egg, beetroot, pineapple, all on a giant, dry, seeded bun.
In New Zealand (and at that time, in London) we have yet to undergo the back-to-basics revolution. Pizza provides the perfect analogy. My first memory of pizza was the highly-processed, hardly-authentic, Pizza Hut. That did us well for a while, until we hit the experimental phase – it was here that places like Hell Pizza began to dominate.. The business model was simple – throw shit at a pizza in the hope that your customers will buy into your “Gourmet” marketing. Sure, I enjoyed a Guacamole and Cajun Chicken Pizza as much as the next guy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do better. And then we worked it out – Pizza doesn’t need to have three feet of toppings to be delicious. There is a reason the Italians look at us in disgust when we talk about stuffed crust. Simple, high quality ingredients, cooked well, just taste better. So we saw the rise of places like Pizza Pomodoro, Mediterranean Food Warehouse et al.
So why, if we worked it out with Pizza, haven’t we applied that learning to Burgers? I’m all for innovation, but as far as I can tell, fewer than half the “burgers” on offer at Burger Wellington are what I would call a burger. There are plenty of sandwiches, but I’d love to see a competition that put the meat on trial – because that’s where the magic happens. Condiments, extra fillings, they’re just sideshows.
I was lucky enough to arrive in London just as things were beginning to take off. My first experience was a fail – Angus Steak House, you do not make a good burger. But I soon discovered the joys of Byron, which became my favourite for a while, only to be surpassed by new leaders, such as MeatLiquor (teehee), Patty and Bun, HonestBurger, and Bleecker Burger.
Now I sit in Wellington, having been unable to find a burger to match the wonders of UK cuisine (not a phrase you’ll hear often) since my return to these fair shores. Burger Fuel serves sausage meat cooked on one of those conveyor-belt hotel toasters, Burger Wisconsin is simply bland, and despite the hype, Ekim (touted as Wellington’s best) was just plain soggy – things have gone downhill since they moved into town.
So here’s the thing. Perhaps it’s self-preservation, but I’m not going into the Burger Wellington thing with high hopes. I would love to be proven wrong, but I suspect we’re a few years away from our own burger renaissance.
First stop – Ti Kouka (last year’s winner). Fingers crossed.
 As David Mitchell puts it, Angus steak house is “unique to British culture” because of their “proud heritage of serving shoe leather with Béarnaise sauce to neon-addled out-of-towners.” (thanks Wiki)