George Motz was just a documentarian when he came out with his seminal burger film, Hamburger America. But considering he had to eat thousands of burgers in establishments around the country for years as he researched the film, then the book based on the film, he has rightfully become an expert in the genre. This year, the book has been revised and re-released with even more burgers, and there’s a companion app to help you find them. We talked to Motz about beef on buns.
How was Hamburger America revised?
The publisher said, “What can we do?” I said we can add 52 restaurants to the book. From the original version of 100, two closed. So, I went back and revisited every single one of the old places in the book and added 52, which was not easy. It was probably one of the hardest things I had to do. I was just having fun with the first version and suddenly I realized people were reading the book and had to really make sure I got it right.
How many burgers would you say you’ve eaten?
I’d say many burgers in a short amount of time. I had about a year and a half to put the first book together. But for the second version I only had six months.
What makes the perfect burger for you?
I like a very uncomplicated burger. I believe that when you start putting crazy, complicated toppings on a burger you end up with something more like a sandwich. To me, the elements of a hamburger are really basic: a white squishy bun that’s been toasted and a small patty — somewhere preferably in the five-ounce territory — that’s been smashed on a griddle. Honestly, the only thing I like on a burger are grilled onions. And that’s it. I’ll eat anything. But my all-time favorite is just a simple burger cooked in its own grease and served with onions.
Your background isn’t in food, but you’ve somehow become a food expert.
Originally, I was looking for a side project, something outside of shooting commercials. I came up with an idea that no one had actually done. So, we made a film about hamburgers. It had a little bit of a cult following. It ended up on the Sundance Channel for a year and a half. It didn’t end up in the food world, but it was a film about food. People started taking it seriously and then it became a thing where people would call me and say, “Hey, you obviously know a lot about hamburgers since you made a movie about it.” And by default I became a hamburger expert.
Do you ever worry that burgers are getting too much hype these days?
I do worry that hamburgers are getting a lot of attention, but at the same time it’s been an American staple for almost 100 years now. I’m not too worried about its popularity waning. I am concerned that people are not going to take it as seriously as they should. Any time something expands it gets diluted. My biggest fear is that people will forget about the primary sources of the American hamburger. There’s a very important DNA strand in these places and the minute we start to make up our own ideas for what the hamburger should be, we lose the thread.
Are you saying that burger innovation is a bad thing?
A lot of these gourmet burgers are not really hamburgers. Some of them are, most of them aren’t. Every celebrity chef wants to have his or her amazing burger, but in most cases I think they don’t understand that the hamburger should really be about the beef. It should taste beefy. The minute you’re getting away from that you’re talking about something totally different. Some of these restaurants will have salmon burgers and veggie burgers and these awful things. A hamburger should be defined as something that’s made with beef, not with anything else. A salmon burger … is not a burger at all.
But what about the rise of good veggie burgers?
I do eat them once in a while. When I have time I’ll squeeze one in. In most cases, it’s usually mushy or not cooked correctly. I think probably in my life I’ve probably had two good veggie burgers. [When it’s good] it tastes like vegetables. But it’s not a hamburger.
What’s your take on celebrity meat purveyors, like Pat LaFrieda?
I love it. It’s such a great way to give attention to a butcher. The butcher is the new sexy, you know? I made a film about a butcher in Brooklyn once and one of the first comments was from a woman who said, “Is it OK to have a crush on a butcher?” We’re not talking about a heartthrob here. We’re not even talking about a celebrity chef. We’re talking about a butcher. Thanks to places like the Meat Hook and LaFrieda, we’re bringing sexy back to butchering. People were afraid to eat meat because they really didn’t understand it. You have these butchers now that are really able to bring it down to earth and explain, “Hey, you know what? It’s really not that frightening.”
What do you hate to see or never want to see on a burger or a patty?
People can do whatever they want. Personally, I think that ketchup is the biggest no-no in the hamburger world, but everyone thinks, “You’ve gotta put ketchup on a burger.” But you don’t. All ketchup really does it hide the flavor of the burger. It doesn’t do anything. The problem with ketchup is that it’s too sweet. I like ketchup, don’t get me wrong. I’ll put it on french fries. And maybe a veggie burger. But when it comes to a hamburger there’s something very particular going on with the flavor profile of a hamburger. You can enhance it by adding things like onions and pickles and mustard. Mustard actually works with the beefiness. Ketchup just hides it all.
Stay tuned for the second part of our interview with George Motz tomorrow.