Grilled: Yianni of The Meatwagon in London

Grilled

Burger-centric interviews with chefs, writers, and other food lovers.

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[Photographs: Ibrahim Salha, unless otherwise noted]

Since writing about The Meatwagon in April, London's favorite burger truck has gone from strength to strength. As well as a regular gig in the garden of The Florence Pub (and a couple of other venues in London), Yianni's endeavour has paid off with features on BBC Radio 4, The Times and a hysteria surrounding his appearances that means I wouldn't be surprised if he revealed he was secretly a Jonas brother.

I caught up with Yianni as part of our burger interview series to find out how he likes his burgers, his future plans for the Meatwagon, and to test out if he really is devoted to the cause.

Name: Yianni
Location: London
Occupation: Ex-mechanist/carpenter, owner of The Meatwagon. I started doing this on June 21, 2009, though my first day was hampered by a visit to accident and emergency due to a shattered big toe.

How often do you eat burgers? Every time I've got a hangover and every time The Meatwagon is open for business. Also if I'm "researching" for ideas.

Cheese: American, cheddar, other? American-style cheese food. That cheap, plastic, "fake" cheese is perfect for a burger in my opinion. The hyper-plasticity plays a big part of it for me—the melting quality is important so that it cloaks the meat. You can't beat it.

Ketchup or mustard? A squirt of Heinz ketchup, a splash of French's (it has to be those two brands) as they both add to the overall flavor of the burger.

Preferred bun? Martin's potato rolls if I could get them, but they're not available in the UK. In fact, there's no good processed bread in the UK. I use sourdough buns which are baked especially for me. I chose them because of their texture and structure; they have to hold up despite all the burger juices that should run when you bite into the patty.

Grilled or griddled? Griddled. The direct heat from a cast-iron griddle gives you a great crust, and you can't really get that caramelization from a grill. Saying that, there's always room for a home-style BBQ burger straight off the grill.

How do you like your burgers done? Rare to medium rare for me and that's the way we cook them at The Meatwagon, though requests are taken (regretfully) for more well-done burgers. The beef I use is minced, 100% British grass-fed chuck, ground that morning. No compromises.

Would you do us the favor of describing your perfect burger? A proper American Diner burger made with freshly ground beef, American cheese, and a Martin's potato roll.

What's the best UK burger? Goodman Steak Restaurant. The (USDA Prime) beef has a robust and almost gamey flavor. They use a good balance of cuts in their mix so there's a lot going on there. It's a great burger.

And the best burger in the world? Haven't found it yet.

Where's the reputation of burgers in the UK going? Make it a working man's food again. That means make them more readily available and at a price that won't make it a special occasion meal. It also has to be more individualistic, so that the person who is making it cares about what they're doing. It's like when a celebrity chef moves from the kitchen into the business side of things and loses control of what's coming out of his restaurant. Burgers should be cared for from the mincing stage to the plating.

Are we having a burger renaissance? There seems to be a second renaissance happening right now. The first happened a few years ago with Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Hamburger Union et al. opening up, but they were always destined to be chain restaurants. The individuality is an important aspect this time round, as is the pricing, which should be lower.

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A burger from The Meatwagon. [Photograph: Samantha Newbery]

What's your main inspiration? I have these early memories, growing up in Greece, of souvlaki. It was a simple and cheap food, served in modest settings, but it had a depth of flavor to it beyond its humble appearance & even humbler setting. The hamburger seems to mirror that. I'm also trying to get back to basics and see if people will pay and travel for food without a pretentious environment. See if people will travel to south London from north London for a £5 hamburger. So far, they have been!

What condiment should never go on a burger? Tomatoes, especially here in the UK, where they're too watery; pineapple; blue cheese; avocado; fried egg (or any egg, for that matter). I just get the impression that they're hiding bad meat or a bad burger, in the same way a chef can disguise a plate of mediocre food with a heavy sauce.

Most unusual burger you've ever eaten? The Truffle Burger at Umami Burger in Los Angeles. Too much umami flavour!

Most overrated/underrated burgers? Underrated: the Big Mac. Overrated: anything from Burger King.

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Yianni and the Meatwagon crew in their new truck. [Photograph: Yianni]

Do you have plans to expand The Meatwagon? We're still in public Beta testing stage as far as I'm concerned. I can't see a fleet of Meatwagons any time soon. I've recently purchased a new, larger wagon, which is all stainless steel and holds fryers and a larger griddle, which will allow me to expand the menu and serve food quicker.

Got any burger cooking tips? Don't add any salt or pepper before it's on the griddle and cooking; don't touch the meat when it's cooking until you have to flip it. Always use freshly ground mince, salt and pepper, and that's it.

Meat blend? 100% chuck, which has an 85:15 fat ratio. That way, I can keep them rare without unpleasant bits of fat ruining the eating experience. I recently tried a new blend, which was filet, sirloin, rib-eye, and some hard fat, though the chuck is the mainstay.

Why have people taken to The Meatwagon? The lack of pretension is one thing, but it's also down to the elusiveness and the sense of community people feel when they eat, when they queue up. It's also, if I'm honest, a very good burger. It's the closest thing we have to a real American diner burger in London.

How do you feel about butter? I've recently started buttering my buns, which has added a sheen and given them that bit more flavor. I also use a lot of butter in my ode to the New Mexico-style fast food-style burger, or alternatively a burger cooked in a "Mom and Pop" diner by a competent short-order cook.

Finally, how do we know that you're really devoted to all things hamburger? I once flew to New York City for one night to eat a hamburger. I'm not going to say where it was as it was incredibly disappointing, but we made up for it with a porterhouse at Robert's Steakhouse.