Last night, Serious Eats overlord Ed Levine and I had a tough assignment—judging at a burger-recipe competition. Called "Between the Buns," the contest was hosted by Rare Bar & Grill in New York City. It was a promotion in which the joint's customers submitted a recipe for Rare to cook and send out to the panel of five judges (also on the panel were Sopranos star Jerry Adler, food writer Andrea Strong, and Jeanine Ramirez, Brooklyn reporter for local cable news station NY1).
Four finalists were winnowed down from 400 applicants. All burgers were thick eight-ounce patties. They were ...
- The Lucky Duck Burger: ground duck breast over thinly sliced pickle, topped by apricot chutney, diced pear, and sherry-sautéed mushrooms. Dusted with parsley, salt, and pepper and served on Rare's house-made toasted bun. Created by Gil Perry of New York City
- The Aladdin Lamb Burger: Lamb chopped and mixed with garlic, mint leaves, olive oil, gin, and vermouth and topped with Syrian cheese, an olive tapanade, and/or tzatziki. Served on a piece of Syrian bread cut to fit the burger's diameter. Created by Paul Allegra of New Jersey
- The Rare B.E.T.: Ground brisket topped with cheddar or American cheese, crisp bacon, fried egg, a tomato slice, ketchup, and Tabasco. Served on a toasted English muffin. Created by Elliot Brill of New York City
- The Young Diplomat: Veal ground and mixed with a beaten egg, flour, and bread crumbs and topped with bacon, portobello mushrooms, sharp white cheddar, scallions, garlic, basil, and mayo. Served on a ciabatta roll. Created by Zachary Herlands of Pennsylvania
The burgers were all prepared expertly by Rare's head cook, and all judges received one of each, which we could eat whole or merely sample. I've judged in food contests like this and knew to only take a few bites—faced with 32 ounces of meat, anyone with any common sense could figure that out.
First up was the duck burger. My initial impression was, "Eh. Duck. Definitely daffy, but not a burger." I'm a bit of a burger purist, and that was my impression with the other nontrad burger meats on offer—lamb and veal. (But, with the veal I thought, "It's unconventional, but it is a baby cow.")
Still, I tried not to let that sway my voting. And the categories we had to vote on—taste, originality, and mass appeal—didn't really give any option to ding a burger for its unconventional ways. As with other contests I've judged in, I knew that I had to judge on taste and on how well the creator's idea was executed.
Anyway, back to the duck burger: It looked and smelled beautiful. A dark-brown patty piled high with apricot chutney resting on a lightly toasted close-to-traditional hamburger bun. It was slightly gamey but somehow a bit bland. It was also a bit dry. As my fellow judge Ms. Strong pointed out, duck is a hard meat to make a burger from—it's easy to overcook. And this one was just north of being perfectly cooked. And while I gave it high marks for originality, it took a hit on taste and mass appeal. (And I'll get to my thoughts on these categories and food-judging in a bit.)
I, too, was impressed with the originality of this dish, but the minute I saw the "bun" that it was served on, my spirits fell. A large patty, topped with a large mound of tapanade rested on a thin sliver of Syrian bread that couldn't have been more than a quarter-inch thick, if that. Danger, Will Robinson: The meat-to-bun ratio does not compute!
The other judges sensed the folly of trying to pick this thing up by hand and used knife and fork. Ever the purist, I believe knife and fork should only touch a burger if you're cutting it in half to photograph it in cross section or share it with a friend. If you cannot hand-deliver your burger to maw, you cannot rightly call the thing a burger. I slathered on some tzatziki and, stubbornly, placed the tiny little top "bun" over the tapanade and attempted eating the burger barehanded.
Juices had already soaked the bottom bun and I eventually had to fork the burger into my mouth for proper evaluation. Taste and originality—awesome. Mass appeal, not so much.
Next up was the burger I was waiting for. The one I thought would take the prize as my personal favorite. It was as close to a traditional burger as the contestants came. Made of brisket? Tastes good. Topped with egg and bacon? Not so original. I've seen this variation on many a menu. Would it be popular? Yeah. I thought this one would have some killer mass appeal.
But. The thing is. It was impossible to eat. I had an easier time with the lamb burger. There was just no way to even pick up the B.E.T. burger without it falling apart. I tried. And then I picked up my knife and fork like the other judges.
I wanted to ding this burger so bad for its impossible construction, but there was no "overall" category. In the end, it tasted great—who can argue with its killer combo of ingredients?—and had great mass appeal, if modest originality. I had to score it higher than I would have liked to.
And then, the winner was announced: The Rare B.E.T. The bacon, egg, tomato burger. The one that made me angry as I had to fork it up. I felt that an injustice had been done with this voting system. Without an "overall" category to award or demerit burgers for such things as meat-to-bun ratio, construction, or presentation, it was like this burger had lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.
Or perhaps a better analogy is to be found in the world of figure skating, where the 2002 Winter Games judging controvsery forced an overhaul of the judging system. If such an analogy is to be made, however, I'm not the guy to do it—I still don't understand the machinations involved in voting there.
I've judged in three separate pizza contests, and the best system I've encounted was that of PMQ magazine's America's Plate Competition, with its elaborate judging rules that take into account such criteria as appearance, taste, and viability, with separate subcategories and weighted points in each overarching category. I would urge Rare—and any other food cook-off competition—to study the PMQ method for future contests.
The Rare B.E.T. is now on the menu at Rare Bar & Grill; 228 Bleecker Street, New York NY 10014
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