| Pat LaFrieda. Photo: Nick Solares.
That's no longer the case. Proprietary patties are big business, with big money to be earned in creating a mouth-watering blend of ground cow. A masterful mix could earn a chef the coveted crown of Burger King at one of growing number of cook-offs, such as the Feedbag's first annual cook-off in Summit, N.J., last weekend.
In New York, when a chef wants a custom burger, he often turns to third-generation meatman Pat La Frieda, whose family has been making burgers for nearly a century. He and his staff spend up to two months creating the right mix of meat for a chef.
"For the Shake Shack we made almost 30 different blends," La Frieda told us. "For Minetta Tavern's Black Label Burger, it was probably just as many. We tried different styles of meat, different weights. It was a process. I was eating burgers everyday."
We caught up with LaFrieda to get the juice on his family, the growing list of big name chefs trafficking in burgers and his decision this month to finally make three types of patties available to home cooks through Fresh Direct.
Have you guys always made hamburgers?
We have always made hamburgers, the entire history of our family. I am third generation, so you're talking about 100 years.
What is a hamburger?
A formed patty of chopped beef with no internal seasoning [seasoned only on the outside]. Even lamb is becoming popular now.
What isn't a burger?
Anything with internal seasonings and anything that comes out tasting like meatloaf. Anything that is not beef or lamb.
Traditionally, [a] hamburger is ground beef. Everyone is trying to reinvent the meal. But asking what the meaning is to us, it's beef.
How has burger-making changed?
Originally meat was chopped by cleaver by hand. In the beginning people used what we use now, they used chuck and muscle and the hind four quarters. [Eventually they] used trimmings. As things went on, trimmings went on and people used not only trimmings, but trimmings that were imported which affected the quality.
What about proprietary cuts?
We have been making proprietary cuts with anything chefs can come up with. For Minetta Tavern's Black Label burger have been grinding aged prime-grade beef ribs. It's the seven ribs that come from the rib-eye. They are usually very expensive. They are usually saved for steaks.
What do you think when someone comes and says turn this awesome steak into a burger?
I love it. I love it, because we have the ability to do it. I love coming up with a new blend and working with chefs to do that.
Have you ever said 'no' to a chef?
Only if they ask us to put ingredients that we cannot. We are regulated by the USDA. We have actually even done that. We have to go to the USDA and get the label approved. We had a few restaurants ask for it. Laurent [Tourondel] from BLT Burger wanted a merguez burger and so we had to get a label approved from the USDA. It takes a few days now. It used to take a lot longer.
When did burgers begin their resurgence?
I attribute it to the Shake Shack when it opened [five years ago.] Burgers have always been popular. When the Shake Shack opened that was the first time I saw 150 [people] wait in line. You go to McDonald's, you go to Burger King, you never see people wait that long in line for anything. When I saw that, I said 'wait a minute, there is something going on here.'
Why do you think burgers have become such big deal?
Once the [bad] economy hit, I think it really spun the burger craze out of control. People want good food that is inexpensive. A hamburger is something people can eat every day and not get tired of it. That's why there is a competition right now. The stakes are huge.
How many restaurants use your burgers?
It's hard to say, but I would say probably 200 have some type [of our meat].
What burgers are available through Fresh Direct?
These are three of our most popular blends, a short rib, a brisket and our original blend. The original blend and brisket are 100 years old.
Do any restaurants in the city carry these burgers?
[To name a few] City Hall, Broome Street Bar, Market Table and Little Owl.
Why did you decide to make the burgers available to customers on a national scale?
It's local for New York City. We have calls everyday from retail guys asking us for products. We are not geared to sell retail. Fresh Direct approached us about carrying the product. We gave them an exclusive for a while to see how it goes. Right now we are selling them 2,500 pounds a week so far. So that's about 7,000 [6-ounce] hamburgers.
Who has the best burger?
I have a top 20, but I cannot narrow it down, and that's the truth. If I had to narrow it down, I could only narrow it to 20.
Do you have a list?
It's in my head.