Burgers … more than just beef!

Over the past few years, the popularity of the once-humble burger has soared – today burgers are truly a menu mainstay, and even the gourmet end of town is after a piece of the action, as evidenced by Neil Perry’s Burger Project, Warren Turnbull’s Chur Burger and many others.

And while the traditional beef burger remains a core focus at most of these establishments, there’s no shortage of other protein options – lamb, pork, chicken, seafood and veggie burgers are just some of the varieties being served up, and all have their devotees. Now more than ever, it seems that offering burgers on the menu is a surefire recipe for business success.

Profit motive aside, just why is foodservice getting behind burgers in such a big way? For chef Mark Baylis, whose Global Burgers chain included outlets in Sydney, Townsville, Mooloolaba and the Gold Coast, the answer lies in their adaptability.

“Burgers are probably one of the most highly sold menu items on the western menu, and I think that’s partly because they present a blank canvas for a chef who wants to create their own bespoke flavour profile. These days you can pretty much put anything you like between a bun and call it a burger.

“I think what chefs and today’s burger places are trying to do is find the holy grail of what a burger should be – what constitutes a really good burger. There’s been a massive push towards keeping it relatively simple – and you can see that the classic style American cheeseburger has made a real comeback in recent times.

“It’s about using really good quality proteins – chefs are doing lots of research on what constitutes a good pattie, and focusing on their core ingredients. So they’re using brioche buns and potato buns, American cheese and quality condiments like mustards, pickles and relishes. Everyone is trying to find burger nirvana!”

He adds that regardless of what type of protein you’re using, it’s essential to make it mouthwatering. “Make sure it’s good quality, don’t add fillers like breadcrumbs or egg into the pattie – keeping it as pure as possible so you can taste the quality, and getting your fat ratio right is really important so your burger doesn’t taste dry. Texture is very important, in fact what really defines a good burger is the texture you feel when you bite into it. There’s recently been a push to raise the quality of veggie burgers – chefs are looking to make  that authentic burger experience accessible to vegetarians. There’s some very clever stuff being done with the aim of creating veggie patties that look and feel like meat.”

Mark opened Global Burgers in 2002, so his business was ahead of the curve, preceding the massive burger popularity spike of recent years. His strategy at the time was to differentiate the business from its competition by offering a menu of burgers with international flavours. “They were linked to particular regions, so we had a traditional New York style burger with beef, and a Wellington burger in homage to New Zealand which featured lamb. We wanted to bring authentic regional flavours to our burgers and make them stand out from the crowd.

“The point is to be able to differentiate your burgers from the competition, and that’s getting harder. I eat out a lot and burgers are my second favourite food after American barbecue, and the really pioneering burger places are those that differentiate themselves. Look at Burgers by Josh – he’s using the foundation of what constitutes a really good burger but extending it a little bit, making them bigger and better. At Belles Hot Chicken in Fitzroy in Melbourne, they’re doing a chicken burger that is absolutely to die for. In Sydney, Mary’s at Newtown is one of the go-to places. So there’s a lot going on in the burger space and it doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.”

For chef James Balingall, burgers are very much a labour of love. His popular Burger Hounds business at Wahroonga on Sydney’s north shore has recently celebrated its first birthday and is unapologetically a ‘burger joint’. “Most of the other takeaways in the area have fish and chips and salads on the menu as well as burgers, but we just specialise in burgers and have some customers who travel all the way from Liverpool for their weekly fix,” James says. (You can read more about Burger Hounds on page xx).

James disputes the idea that the growth of burgers reflects an increasing Americanisation of society. “I think it’s simply that they are a very comforting food to enjoy, intensely satisfying, and if you think about it, a piece of grilled meat ties in to Aussie culture – it’s part of the whole barbecue tradition.

“That said, there is a certain appeal to the North American style of burger which really throws caution to the wind – it says don’t think, don’t unpack the nutrition of what we’re doing, just enjoy it. Burgers are one of those foods that Aussies will go to for comfort or reward, because we don’t make any apologies for them. We’re not trying to tart them up with kale or quinoa and say they’re healthy. They’re a ‘sometimes food’ and when you want to come and have them, we’ll take care of you and you’ll leave smiling.

“Burgers can brighten a crappy day or enhance a happy one. Personally, I’ve never had a day in my life that couldn’t be made a little bit better with a beautiful burger!”

Burgers have long been a mainstay of the pub and club menu, and at Sydney’s Canterbury Bankstown Leagues Club, chef Stephanie Azar has included something for everyone across the venue’s three food outlets – even ‘naked’ burgers, which she explains are burgers without the bun, making them suitable for those seeking a gluten free feed.

“It’s not just your basic burgers that people want anymore, instead they’re looking for something different, something you might not necessarily think would go in a burger,” Stephanie says. “Customers are getting more adventurous, and because we’re catering for a broad demographic, we’ve got to have burgers for all tastes.”

While the most popular burger on the menu is Angus beef with beetroot relish, other options include a naked chicken burger, a Greek style burger with tabouli and pickled turnips, and a veggie burger with a housemade haloumi, quinoa and falafel pattie. “I did look at a few different readymade veggie patties, but we wanted to make it to a specific flavour profile – it’s a bit more effort that way, but it tastes wonderful. We have a lot more demand for vegetarian and gluten free options now, which is why we offer ‘naked’ burgers because it gives people the chance to have a gluten free burger without a gluten free bun.”

Recent menu specials have also included pulled pork burgers and brisket burgers – “we change our menus constantly and have a play around with different options,” Stephanie says. “We were using brioche buns, but have switched to potato buns because I think they’re softer and easier to eat – when you have a lot of ingredients inside your burger, a bun which isn’t overly heavy will complement it well. We also use Boston buns which are quite light, with the airiness of a milk bun and the sweet tinge of the brioche.”

In the club’s Bakehouse Café, which runs 24/7 servicing 300 seats, Stephanie is using Pacific West’s Southern Fried Barramundi Burger – a natural barramundi fillet in a spicy batter akin to the fried fish style of the American South.

“We’ve had it on the menu for three months now and it’s been quite popular,” Stephanie says. “It’s very easy to use – straight into the deep fryer and onto the burger – and we serve it up with grilled pineapple, capsicum salsa and a sweet chilli lime dressing, so it’s quite a tropical flavour profile. All the ingredients go very well together because you have the crunchiness of the southern fried coating, the tang of the salsa and the softness of the bun.”

The Southern Fried Barramundi Burger received some high-profile exposure at this year’s Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where

Athletes Village The Southern Style Barra Burger was Food Program Manager Peter Wright featured it as part of the lunchtime menu. “We had quite a bit of fresh fish, but we were also looking for something Australian and economical which could go into a burger,” Peter says. “We already had Flathead Tails from Pacific West, which are a great product, and were doing a Flathead Tail Burger but then we saw the barra burger and we fell in love with it straight away. It has a tasty coating, it stays crisp when you fry it – we were cooking four to five hundred at a time so we had to keep them hot, and it holds very well. All the chefs at the Games thought it was great and it ticked all our boxes – barramundi is something of an Aussie icon so it was a great choice to add to our menu.”

Pacific West Innovation Manager Neil Cane explains the product was introduced in recognition of a gap in the marketplace for a gourmet style fish burger. “We saw that burgers are a growing category and that there was demand for a premium fish burger, as opposed to a minced fishcake or chopped fish,” Neil says. “This is a slice of premium barramundi fillet that’s been coated in a spicy batter – it’s a sophisticated, upmarket product with the mouthfeel of a fish fillet, not minced fish. It’s produced from wild caught barramundi and it’s an 85g portion which is perfect for a nice burger, a great option alongside your beef and chicken patties – and you cook it from frozen so there’s no wastage.”

This growing consumer preference for natural fillets over formed patties is increasingly being reflected on foodservice operators’ burger menus. At Brad Heard’s three Chicken Mania quick-service outlets in northern NSW’s Casino, Lismore and Ballina, there are nine chicken burgers on the menu, of which all feature Ingham’s Southern Style Chicken Breast Fillet as the protein centrepiece. This is combined with a variety of different fillings and sauces to create such variants as a Caesar Burger – with lettuce, cheese, bacon and Caesar sauce; BBQ Chicken and Bacon Burger with bacon, cheese, lettuce and barbecue sauce; Hawaiian Burger with lettuce, mayo, tomato and onion; and Hot Chilli burger with jalapeno peppers, onions and chilli sauce.

“I use the description of tender southern style chicken breast fillet on the menu,” Brad says. “It’s a consistent product in terms of both the presentation and the flavour. When people taste it, they can tell it’s a proper chicken breast, not a processed pattie. This is actual breast fillet which makes our burgers a bit of a higher-end offering.

“We’re not at the top end of the market, but we’re not at the bottom – we’re providing a good value for money burger. We use five inch buns whereas a lot of other places use four inch, but the larger buns are a good fit for the breast fillet. And last week we added the option of a potato bun to the menu to give us a more premium offering at a higher pricepoint.”

As the name suggests, Chicken Mania’s core offering is chicken products, but Brad does also include both and veggie burgers as menu choices. He sees the present passion for burgers as something of a passing fad. “If you go back six or seven years, every second food outlet was a juice shop, then frozen yoghurt took off, and right now it’s burgers. They’ve been around so long that they’re not going to disappear, but I think over time the next big thing will take off and there’ll be a consolidation of the market. But while it’s here, you may as well capitalise on it.”