British hamburgers, like British food in general, have a lamentable reputation. But it is one that is increasingly becoming undeserved. The BSE crisis served as a wake-up call to the meat industry, British beef is highly regulated these days and a keen interest in provenance and husbandry has taken hold. There is, I would argue, a renaissance happening in British beef and indeed the British hamburger as well. London is burger-mad these days with seemingly endless options, and new local chains are popping up all over the place. And now you can also find some of New York City's most celebrated hamburgers being sold in London. What are the challenges of recreating a hamburger in an entirely different country, with its own regulations and conventions? I hopped the pond to find out, paying visits to Shake Shack, Balthazar and Michael White’s Chop Shop in London.
In less than a decade, Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack rose from a seasonal hamburger stand to an international chain with locations across the US and around the globe. Along the way it helped to make NYC a hamburger destination and the original location in Madison Square Park a tourist attraction. It has also influenced a legion of imitators, and by virtue of this, it's gone some way toward defining a distinct NYC style — five ounces of premium griddle cooked beef, American cheese, served on a potato roll. The UK branch of Shake Shack opened on July 5, 2013, the day after American Independence Day, one presumes so as not to rile the natives. It is situated in the tony Covent Garden section of London’s West End. At first blush, the menu looks quite similar to the Madison Square Park original and the other outlets throughout NYC, but there are notable differences.
There is, for example, a Cumberland sausage from a producer in nearby Sussex on the menu. You won’t find that in Madison Square Park. And the hot dog, rather than being a Vienna all beef affair from Chicago, is actually a frankfurter from Germany. These are not the only throwbacks to the old world. While the beef in NYC comes from black Angus steer, in London it's sourced from Scottish Aberdeen Angus, the original Angus beef cattle. Randy Garutti, the CEO of Shake Shack, sums up his vision succinctly: "We want to feel like Shake Shack and taste like the UK."
But it took two years for Garutti and Co. to get to the point where they thought the product stood up to the original. "It was actually a really cool journey," he says. "I walked the fields in Scotland with farmers, we were drinking wee drams of whiskey at 11 in the morning and talking about cattle," he recalls. There are drastic differences between the markets, most notably the scale of production. "In the UK we source our beef from farms that have 500 head, not 5,000," as is common in the States. And there are also major differences in the way that the animals are reared and fed, resulting in a markedly different flavor.
British beef is quite different in that the cattle are grass fed to a much greater degree than in the US. While the Aberdeen Angus beef that Shake Shack uses is finished on corn, the cattle graze on this for far less time, and according to Garutti, the process adds less sweetness and richness to the beef. The beef in America is chopped by the venerable Pat LaFrieda. In the UK it is processed by Aubry Allen, a butcher that was selected because, as Garutti says, "We wanted to find the closest thing to Pat LaFrieda in Britain." Aubrey Allen incidentally also the butcher for her majesty the Queen, so the shop should be good enough for NYC’s burger kings.
But it wasn’t an entirely seamless transition. Early samples produced in the UK using the spec that worked with American cattle just didn’t result in the same product, either from a flavor or textural perspective. But Garutti found a simple solution: "Pat LaFrieda flew over with us and worked directly with Aubrey Allen to make our whole muscle proprietary blend."
LaFrieda describes the "culture shock" he experienced. He found no attention paid to chopping beef — it was considered an after-thought, a way to divest of the trimmings. LaFrieda discovered that while whole muscles from the chuck primal where indeed being chopped, the flatiron was being removed and sold separately. This was one of the principle reasons for the flavor discrepancy in the beef, and once the flatiron was included in the blend, it was far closer to the Shake Shack ideal. Another issue, and one that required LaFrieda to actually see the meat, was that the difference in feeding resulted in a leaner animal with less intramuscular fat (the fat within the muscle). LaFrieda adjusted the amount of fat to bring the hamburger to the Shale Shack spec.
The finished product is as close as LaFrieda and Garutti could get. "We think it's a really good juicy product," says the CEO. In terms of texture and juiciness, the burgers are indeed indistinguishable once they are smashed onto the Miraclean griddles Shake Shack imported into the UK. In terms of flavor, they are close, but Garutti concedes that "there is no doubt that there is a slight variation because there is a different make up of the animals and because the cuts are different over there." Here is where Garutti’s "Shake Shack, but local" ethos asserts itself.
There are some other distinct differences as well. The bun, one of the few things that is imported from the US, feels and tastes identically to its counterpart across the pond, except that it is white and not yellow in hue. "We had to have the dye removed in order to import the bread into the UK" Garutti says, as the food coloring is banned in the UK and EU. The cheese is also different — rather than the neon yellow American cheese used elsewhere, a mild English cheddar is substituted. This is because American cheese cannot be legally called cheese on a menu the UK. "Processed cheese product burger" doesn’t sound too appealing.
Shake Shack faced a similar problem when they tried to use the crinkle cut fries they sell in other territories. They were also banned since they contained artificial ingredients. Garutti was forced to find a local producer that could give him a spec close to the Yukon gold used in the states. The process "helped us in America" Garutti says, of the all natural fries which resulted. They have now been adopted in the domestic market as well. Shake Shack maybe bringing a piece of NYC to London, but there is also some cross pollination occurring.
The uncanny thing about stepping into Balthazar London, the recently opened branch of Keith McNally’s seminal NYC restaurant, is just how faithful it is structurally to the original, right down to the stains on the mirrors. It is the sort of set-building worthy of an Oscar. But what about the hamburger? In a sense we are talking about a moving target here. Despite a seemingly immutable menu there are constant tweaks to the recipes at Balthazar. Did you know, for example, that lamb was briefly added to the blend a while back in NYC? It was removed quickly when regulars complained, finding it too gamey, according to executive chef Shane McBride; who also oversaw the opening of the London outpost. Another change occurred more recently in NYC when the burger went from being grilled to griddle-cooked, making a significant difference on the texture of the outer crust, and indeed the flavor of the burger.
The hamburger in London is still grilled, but even that isn’t the biggest difference between it and its NYC cousin. The beef used in London is dry aged, unlike the original version. Because of this it tastes closer to dry aged burgers at two other McNally restaurants in NYC — Minetta Tavern and Cherche Midi. The Balthazar London burger lacks the total bawdiness and juiciness of these burger, but it still has a steak-like flavor and a pleasing char.
If Garutti had what he described as a "romantic experience" developing a hamburger for the UK market, McBride had a slightly different one — "It was a fucking nightmare," he states with a deadpan look in his eyes. Balthazar, unlike Shake Shack whose beef is processed outside of London, falls under the auspices of the Westminster City Council, which has some rather peculiar regulations with regards to how hamburgers are chopped and cooked.
This wasn’t an issue when Balthazar London first opened back in early 2013, however. The restaurant initially sourced beef from renowned butcher Jack O’Shea, who McBride describes as "sort of the Pat LaFrieda of London." The burger patty went through several permutations using the butcher. The first version used dry aged Irish beef, but McBride found that it didn’t have the "funk" and depth of flavor that he gets from LaFrieda in the States. Adding Scottish "wagyu" improved the blend in the chef's mind, but the London dining public found it "too rich." For a time the sandwich resembled an In-N-Out Burger Double-Double with two svelte patties. That version was nixed because people complained that it couldn't be cooked to temperature. That became a moot point when Westminster City Council stepped in last year and threatened to ban rare or even medium rare beef as well as how beef is chopped. "They just cracked down on everything," recalls McBride grimly.
The regulations became such an impediment that it turned out to be easier for Balthazar to grind the beef in-house, which is what they do these days. Chef Emanuel Machado of Balthazar London described the process: "We have to boil or sear the entire primal and then shave away the exterior before grinding it" he reports. These days the burger is fabricated from organic dry aged Welsh beef using a proprietary blend of chuck, brisket, and rib flank meat.
The bun, a seamed spangled brioche, is a similar spec to the original and is sourced from the analog of the NYC original at Balthazar’s bakery south of the river Thames, near Waterloo Station. The patty comes topped with a mature cheddar as well as shredded lettuce, tomato, and onion, as it does in NY. But there are other embellishments such as a generous smear of tomato chutney. "Burgers have become so big over there that the simpler they are the less you sell," reports McBride when asked about the relative fussiness of the London version of the sandwich. That isn’t a problem these days according to Machado, who states that the burger is a "fantastic seller — we move over 300 a week."
While Michael White is known as one of the NYC’s preeminent chefs specializing in Italian cuisine, he is at heart a midwestern kid from Wisconsin. This is apparent in the pizza at Nicoletta, the white label burger at Ai Fiori, and the patty melt at The Butterfly, his downtown NYC cocktail bar. It was still somewhat surprising that White’s Altamarea Group chose to open Chop Shop in London, rather than an outpost of the rapidly expanding Morini brand. Chop Shop is, for lack go of a better description, a Manhattan restaurateurs version of a Circa 2010 Brooklyn restaurant in London. The interior is exposed brick and wood, with burnished metal and weathered tiles as accents, there are vague visual references to butchery. Food is served on planks and in jars and crocks. The restaurant offers a lot of meats, cocktails crafted by Eben Freeman (who has now departed the group), and the patty melt from the Butterfly. It is a restaurant that would not have been out of place if it opened on the Bowery three years ago. It may be perfectly timed for the London of today.
Structurally, that patty melt is almost identical to the one in NYC, with one notable difference: the beef in Manhattan is the white label blend. That name is a riff on the aforementioned black label, and it's also produced by LaFrieda. The principle difference between the black and white labels is that the former uses dry aged fat in addition to the dry aged ribeye. The white label uses regular wet aged fat resulting in a less pronounced dry aged flavor.
The beef in London is funkier in flavor, closer in fact to the black rather than white label. This is because it contains 35 day dry aged kidney fat according to Chop Shop chef Peter Lister. The beef is black Angus sourced from butcher Lake District Farmers. Lister visited New York to get a handle on the original and feels that the UK version is an improvement. "It has a meatier, beefier flavor" he says of the grass fed beef. Certainly it is heartier and more savory than US beef, lacking the sweetness that corn adds to the flavor. But once nestled in between two buttered slices of caraway seed bread, topped with a mild, young English Cheddar and a tangle of caramelized onions the patty melt is pretty close to the original version. The switch in cheese incidentally, from the blend of White American and Emmentaler used in the US to a local Cheddar, was for the same legal reason as Shake Shack’s.
The most meaningful difference between the US and UK versions is that the crust is removed from the bread in London. The latter point may seem minor but all other things — beef, cheese, bread, onion — being equal (or close enough) it is what puts it ahead of its older brother in NYC. The lack of crust on the bread makes it more like a prober hamburger bun and easier to eat. When asked why a patty melt, and not a hamburger, ended up on the menu at Chop Chop, Michael White states that "nobody is doing a patty melt in London, and I wanted to bring what I consider a classic version of the sandwich to the UK." When asked about how it has been received White says that "it didn’t start off with a bang" as locals where not familiar with the form, "but now it has really caught on" and accounts for a significant amount of sales. According to Altamarea events manager Alastair Gallichan, they sell around 300 a week.
The hamburgers at Shake Shack, Balthazar and Chop Shop in London are almost completely faithful visually to their NYC counterparts. You wouldn’t mistake them for other burgers. But they don’t taste identically. To paraphrase Garutti, they feel like the burgers from NYC but they taste British. The word terroir is rarely used in conjunction with hamburgers but that is exactly the experience these burgers in London is.
Illustration by Dylan Lathrop