They came from Macomb, Michigan, to Artesia, New Mexico; from Troy, Alabama to Brooklyn, New York. They shaped patties from hand-chopped salmon, home-made pork sausage, grass-fed ground beef, and Indian-spiced ground lamb. They grilled on Weber gas grills and charcoal kettle grills and served their burgers on sesame buns, biscuits, and pretzel rolls. And when the smoke cleared, one of the 10 contestants walked away with a check for $100,000.
That sums up the cook-off for the “Build A Better Burger Contest™.” The cook-off was held in May and was sponsored by the Sutter Home Winery in California’s Napa Valley, where I served as one of five judges. Let me tell you: It wasn’t easy.
Here’s why. By the time the ten finalists arrived in Napa, they had bested more than 3000 contestants. The first cut was made on the strength of the written recipes. (Note to future contestants: storytelling, spelling, grammar, and following the contest rules to the letter count.) Sutter Home’s culinary team cooked the burgers of 30 semi-finalists to arrive at the top ten.
The finalists were flown to the Napa Valley, where they cooked their burgers from scratch and to order — to be sampled by five judges, including best-selling cookbook author and head judge James McNair, Weber Grill Master Kevin Kolman, City of Hope Culinary Ambassador Katie Chin, last year’s $100,000 prize winner Jennifer Beckman, and yours truly. The burgers were judged on visual appeal (1 to 5 points), creativity (1 to 10 points), and taste (1 to 20 points).
Each of the finalists brought wondrous innovations to the commonplace hamburger. Case in point: the “Better than Breakfast in Bed Burger” by Kim Jones from Bloomingdale, Illinois, who sandwiched “burgers” of assertively spiced pork sausage between flaky buttermilk biscuits, smoky bacon, fried eggs, cheddar cheese, and a killer Sriracha maple mayonnaise. Kim came in second in the Best Alternative Burger (non beef) competition.
Or the Grilled Green Tomato Burgers by Mark Pyne, a third-time contest participant from Alabama, who built a veritable umami bomb of a burger flavored with homemade barbecue sauce, garlic lemon mayonnaise, freshly-fried shoestring potatoes, and grilled green tomatoes, the jaw-stretching ensemble served on soft puffy pretzel rolls. Mark won the People Choice award ($2500).
The prize for the Best Alternative Burger ($15,000) went to Mark Richardson of Snohomish, Washington: an Indian spiced lamb burger paired with a Middle Eastern-inflected tahini pistachio mayonnaise and served on grilled pita by way of a bun. As for the Best Beef Burger winner (Grand Prize—$100,000), the judges were unanimous in the choice of Erin Evenson of Brooklyn, New York, for a creation she called “7 Train Caramelized Green Curry Burger.”
As my teeth sunk into a cashew nut-crusted French sandwich roll, past layers of peppery watercress tempura, fresh mint-basil aioli, and made-from-scratch Thai-inspired green curry glaze to a grilled ground chuck patty basted with pancetta fat, I knew I was in the presence of genius.
The ultimate mark of excellence? Normally, when you know you have ten burgers to sample and judge, you limit your taste to a single bite. With Erin’s “7 Train Caramelized Green Burry Burger,” I cleaned my plate.
So how did winning burger get its curious name? “The number 7 subway train to the neighborhood of Woodside in Queens is better known in my Brooklyn apartment as ‘The Crispy Watercress Express’, explains Erin. “The best salad I have ever tasted resides there, combining peppery batter-fried watercress, a hot tangy dressing, and roasted cashews. This burger is my tribute to this culinary wonder on a bun.” I can only add ‘Amen.’
Erin’s $100,000 burger recipe is beyond the scope of this blog (it runs three single spaced pages!), but to whet your appétit, here’s her minted basil aioli. Try it with my Great American Hamburger recipe.
If you want to enter this year’s Build a Better Burger contest, enter here.