Published in the Philadephia Daily News, July 3, 2014

French, Americans agree: Le hamburger c’est moi

THE HUMBLE AMERICAN hamburger has managed to seduce even the culinarily xenophobic French and is enjoying popularity in France due at least in part to the iffy economy, as the French search for modest dining options. In addition, a new generation of young entrepreneurs, inspired in some cases by sojourns in the U.S., is more open to bringing this scruffy mongrel home.

“Despite the perception of the French, they love American popular culture,” says Canadian-American Jordan Feilders, proprietor of Cantine California. “The burger has become the medium of choice to get that pop culture fix.”

According to a study released by Gira Conseil in February, French hamburger sales exploded by 40 percent in two years, with 977 million burgers being sold last year, out of a total of 2.14 billion sandwiches. In 2000, hamburgers accounted for one of every nine sandwiches sold; in 2007, it was one in seven; in 2013, it jumped to nearly one in two. A 2012 study by the NPD Group found that France is second only to Great Britain in European consumption of burgers (14 burgers per year per capita versus Britain’s 17).

In Paris, you can spot the burger madness from low to high. Burger King had ceded the French market to McDonald’s and local chain Quick, closing shop in 1997, but now it’s back with three franchises and plans for a large expansion. BK’s media-blitzed return to the capital in December had Parisians lining up outside the Gare Saint-Lazare for a taste of the flame-broiled patties. Parisian hipsters have been willing to cool their heels for up to two hours for the fare at the “gourmet” food trucks Le Camion Qui Fume (“the Smoking Truck”) and Cantine California, started independently within a month of each other by California transplants.

Crowds can also be seen outside of a crop of small burger-centric restaurants, focusing on quality ingredients, such as “l’atelier du hamburger” Big Fernand, Blend and the number one favorite of the Figaro, Paris New York. And if you want to go upscale, you can drop 29 euros for the popular burger at Ralph’s in the Ralph Lauren store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.

The Hamburger — Amazingly — Humbles the French

“In the very beginning, in France,” notes restaurant consultant Hélène Samuel, “our image of the hamburger was really McDonald’s.” Without any other reference points, she says, “you can be afraid to interpret this American dish because you might not understand it.”

Victor Garnier Astorino, a graduate of the respected French business school École Supérieure des Sciences Économiques et Commerciales, also approached the hamburger with humility after being knocked down a peg during an exchange program at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

“I realized how large the gap was between France and California as far as the seriousness granted to hamburgers was concerned,” he writes in an email. “I thought I was a hamburger specialist! … I felt like a fraud!” He says he decided to fill the gap with “burgerness” before going on to found his two Blend restaurants.

For him, burgerness seems to mean doing a lot of research, from studying up on the history of the hamburger, to working at Starbucks and McDonald’s to find out how they operated, to eating tons of burgers all over the world. (He wrote us from London, then was going on to Phoenix, Minneapolis and Chicago on a burger-tasting binge.) He also did careful sourcing, working with famed butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, known for supplying Michelin-starred restaurants. The result is a rather delicate burger on a brioche-like bun with toppings like onions caramelized in balsamic vinegar, blue cheese from the French Auvergne region and homemade ketchup.

The Search for the Perfect Bun

Another business school grad, Rudy Guénaire, literally walked across the United States during a break from his studies at the topnotch École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris (HEC). Over four and a half months, he hiked the 5,000 km Continental Divide Trail, from the Mexican border to Canada by way of the Rockies. The burgers he ate along the way in small burger joints were eye opening. He was impressed by “the mixture of cool architecture from the 1930s, the social scene in the diners and then the food. The beef was amazing, especially in Wyoming and Colorado.”

Armed with a host of cooking techniques he picked up during his trip, he decided to start Paris New York with fellow HEC grad Graffi Rathamohan. The biggest challenge they faced, he says, was the bun. “In France they don’t know how to do buns. French bakers either do the French baguette, which is very crunchy and chewy, and then they have brioche, with butter and sugar, and in the middle is pain au lait, and that’s it.” He actually asked friends in New York to send over Martin’s potato rolls, the brand used by Shake Shack, so he could show French bakers.

Finally, the Paris New York team found American baker Rachel Moeller of Rachel’s Cakes in a Paris suburb. Paris New York also works with a high-quality butcher, who happens to be another HEC grad, David Akpamagbo, based in Brittany.

An American (Food Truck) in Paris

Blend and Paris New York get props for their sourcing, but if, while in Paris, what you wanted was an American-style burger, you probably couldn’t do better than to simply go to an American purveyor. As long as you don’t mind standing in the street (albeit two very nice streets, one near the Luxembourg Gardens, the other near the Place Vendôme), the food truck Cantine California offers the kind of big, fat juicy burger that you dream of when you have a red-meat craving (a “secret mix” of organic beef).

Food truck owner and self-described foodie Jordan Feilders has a magnanimous view of his French competitors, whose products he tries regularly. “They do a French interpretation of a burger. We do California food by Californians. Together we’re creating new references.”

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