‘When I said I was working on a book about burgers, I think they were expecting something small and not of any quality’, David Michaels tells me as we peruse his new book, The World is Your Burger. ‘What we ended up with is this, edited down from some 1000 pages, the rest of which will make a volume 2.’
I’m sitting with Michaels at a raised sharing table strewn with papers and laptops, in Cha Chaan Teng on Kingsway, Holborn, where he’s in the last stages of setting up Bite Me Burger Co., his yearlong pop up, ahead of the completion of a permanent site in White City and then Covent Garden. We’re talking about his new book, published by Phaidon, and all things burger related.
He’s particularly proud of the way the book came out. ‘At one point we had something like 400 different burger companies in the brand section’ but this was all edited down and what’s resulted is very personal. ‘It’s my personal journey with burgers. I’m not saying that these are the only ones out there or the best, but it’s my story’. And it’s quite a story. Michaels started researching the book some ten years ago, working on it off and on for eight years and full on for the last two.
Such a commitment must mean a deep love for burgers? ‘Oh yeah it’s obsessive. Burgers for me were comfort food, I used to be very fat; this burger journey led me to put on 4 stone. I’m now back down to 12.2. I do love burgers but I have to stop myself too. At one point with the book I was eating two to three burgers a day, along with all the milkshakes and other accompaniments that go with them.’ Must have got expensive? ‘Hahaha yeah it did, but I do absolutely adore burgers.’Michaels’ love affair began with Wimpy: ‘my mum took me there when I was about 11 I think, before the days of McDonald’s, and that was it for me. Then McDonald’s; we were in Amsterdam when I was 13 and I saw it. It hadn’t yet come to the UK, and I had a quarter pounder with cheese, and that was it for me. I would say that since that date, up until probably about two years ago, I probably was eating a burger a day somewhere. It was kind of my go to diet.’ Now if that’s not an endorsement for someone knowing their subject, I don’t know what is!
I find myself asking if the burgers’ popularity is just down to it being a comfort food, or if it’s something more? Surely no matter how much advertising there is, the burger wouldn’t have been successful if it wasn’t for something else? After all, it’s not comfort food when you have it the first time as you don’t have the associations, and at times you simply fancy having a burger – especially when drunk (or that may just be me).
‘Well for a long time people didn’t get the idea of the premium burger and cooking them medium rare. It’s only in the last 12 years or so that people have taken a look at them. I still go once a month for my Big Mac; its not the best burger but it’s the familiarity that I like. I mean in America 1 in 8 work, or have worked, for McDonald’s. It’s inescapable and entirely cultural.’
One imagines that in writing the book Michaels discovered a lot? ‘Well certainly the thing for me was that a lot of the trivia was quite new to me, like when McDonald’s opened in Moscow after the fall of the Berlin Wall some 30,000 people were in the queue. Then the images from the 50s and 60s of famous people eating burgers were all new to me. Then I think what resonated with me most was how burgers were and are used in film and television, pop art and Andy Warhol and that kind of thing. One of the Warhol burger pieces went for something like $10million recently.’
So what will be in the second volume? ‘Well it will be the stuff that’s left out of the first, but also what’s next, maybe a recap, refresher, of the bits of the burger’s past, and what else has happened to the burger since the first was published.’ I’m left wondering as I write this if we will find ourselves reading about laboratory grown burgers?
Despite his background being in design not food, a few years back Michaels took the plunge and set up Bite Me Burger Co. in Australia. ‘That was quite interesting. So I was travelling around having some time not working after a major project and got to Australia, and we literally couldn’t find anywhere for a burger. There was only Hungry Jack’s which is Burger King out there, and McDonald’s, and that was it. So on the back of a napkin in a pub one night we laid out the idea for a burger thing and 11 days later we were open. It was a sharing table and there was a queue outside the whole time.’ How long did it run for? ‘It was out there for 3 years and partner differences led to it ending. I mean it was never meant to be a business, just a pop up thing, but we had a few of them in the end, including a 150 seater on Bondi Beach. We had another one in a casino there. It became a well known brand, though it has been gone for about 5 years.’
‘So this pop up in London is really exciting for us, while our real one gets built and we should open there in about October, November time. And then we’ll probably go down the franchise model.’ This raises the interesting question of where he thinks the model of high-end burger chains is going. Are they going to remain fully privately owned? Shake Shack is a listed company so could that be the model we start to see more of? ‘ Well I think you’ll continue to see a variety but, if you look at Shake Shack, most of the stores outside of the US are on a franchise model, and obviously it’s the way we’re probably going, so I think you’ll start to see franchises becoming more common.’
Looking at the book you notice that many of the more modern burger and gourmet burger chains were originally set up outside of America, and particularly in London. So does he think that London has taken over as the burger capital? ‘I think it’s absolutely starting to now.’
Michaels’s favourite burger experience from writing the book? ‘Has to be the $5000 dollar one at the Meridian Hotel in New York. I just had to go and see what that was all about, I mean it does come with a very rare bottle of champagne but, even so, it was nice but just a marketing gimmick. My favourite burger outside the UK? People always ask me what my favourite or ultimate burger is, but I don’t really have one. But Burger Table in Sao Paulo is incredible. It’s a long sharing table in the back room of an Italian restaurant. The owner/chef loves burgers so he introduced the table so he could make them. You book, pay one price and he makes whatever he fancies. I’ve been lucky that my work has taken me around the world and I’ve been able to find these places.’
‘I also love Daniel Boulud’s. He did the $99 burger some years back and kind of started the whole gourmet burger trend. In this country I really like Honest Burger and In and Out is my favourite burger experience anywhere. Unfortunately they will never open over here. They do so for one day a year to keep their worldwide trademark, but will never move out of southern California because nothing is refrigerated so they have to be within a certain distance of their warehouse. Also the family that owns it just isn’t interested, and I love that.’
With that my time with the charming and personable David Michaels was up, as a line of people needing his input on the burgers of Bite Me had formed. The book is a superb thing for any lover of the burger or of twentieth century culture.