The Best Argument For The Burger As Luxury Object
It's the burger at Petit Trois in L.A. You knew it was.
August 24, 2017
By Cassandra Landry | Photo by Anne Fishbein
It was the burger at Chicago's Au Cheval that did it.
Yes, that one. The one Bon Appétit declared the best burger in America all those years ago. The one that inspired a feverish cult following from the get-go, and has remained a steady favorite of industry folks. While in town for the James Beard Awards, chef Ludovic Lefebvre—patron saint of modern French cuisine in America and force of nature behind Los Angeles's Trois Mec, Petit Trois, Trois Familia, and Ludobird—swung by to see for himself.
In typical French fashion, Lefebvre doesn't like when things are too complicated. He likes a basic burger with bread, meat, good American cheese, salt. Not too much garnish. And though the burger just surpassed the ham and cheese baguette as the favorite sandwich in France, he doesn't eat them when he's there. There's a time and a place for a good burger, and Au Cheval's creation, a perfectly-executed riff on nostalgia under $10, hit the bulls-eye.
"It was the best burger I [ever] ate in my life. I wanted to eat a burger like this every week," he says. "So, I decided to do my own version."
At first, the experiment was purely for his own enjoyment. When he finally decided to put it on the menu at Petit Trois, he dubbed it the Big Mec and added a few tweaks to make it his own.
"I wanted a good, classic French sauce; I wanted the burger to be swimming in it," he says. That sauce is the now infamous puddle of foie gras-infused red wine Bordelaise, a jubilant expression of French luxury. Rich sauce aside, the most important things to Lefebvre are the size of the bread (not too much) and the size of the patty (not too big); in a nod to the ratios at Au Cheval, he prefers two smaller 4 oz patties instead of one big 8 oz. one. While he's not about to reveal the secret within the meat, he will say he likes to cook it at high heat, "quick, to make it crispy." That texture, paired with a plush, shellacked brioche bun and melty American cheese, sends the Big Mec rocketing into your soul's pleasure center.
What is a burger, really, but a blank slate? A meaty canvas on which to paint your deepest desires or your own self-loathing, a Rorschach test wedged between two halves of hotly-contested (to brioche or not to brioche??) bread. As with most things, the guiding principle between the sublime and over-the-top comes down to quality, not quantity. A velvety sauce spilled over a simple burger will always do more for you than a leaning tower of add-ons; luxury in food almost always translates to depth, not breadth, found in one marquee ingredient or technique. You can add a slab of foie to your burger foundation and find bliss, but a slab of foie and a runny egg and bacon and avocado and raclette is...death, probably.
Lefebvre's Big Mec tells us so many things about the mind that created it, and the one that orders it; what it craves, what it values. A hype burger doesn't know what it wants.