Chef Laurent Tourondel knew his beefed-up bacon cheeseburger was special when he entered it into the Amstel Light Burger Bash at the 2013 South Beach Wine & Food Festival months ago. The French-born gourmet guru, who earned fame by cooking up a storm in Michelin-starred kitchens across the globe in the late '90s and who’s currently behind handfuls of his own accolade-earning eateries in BLT Steak, BLT Fish, and BLT Prime, knows an extraordinary burger is less about flopping on foie gras and lobster and more about amping up the ingredients you’d expect in an everyday application.
You have to appreciate Tourondel’s viewpoint about humble treatment yielding the best burgers; after all, this is a guy who was chef to the Admiral of the French Navy fresh out of culinary school. Luckily for us, his fondness for simplicity between a bun predates his classical training at Saint Vincent Ecole de Cuisine.
Tourondel fondly remembers his first brush with burger bliss, which began by chance on an American adventure he had in his youth. Forced to hitchhike in the middle of nowhere while traversing the U.S. in his early 20s, he found a friendly truck driver heading toward Chicago who was willing to let him ride shotgun.
He recalled with passion, "We drove for a bit and he asked me if I was hungry. So we stopped at a diner. And it was an amazing diner!"
Tourondel went on to describe an old-fashioned roadside haunt with swivel stools: "The counter was kind of zig-zagged and the cooks were guys with those upside-down hats." The future epicurean icon was treated by the guardian angel trucker to what he described as "probably the best pure burger [he’s] had," adorned with a simple slice of cheese, a smashed, griddle-seared beef patty, black-peppered bacon, barbecue sauce, and a soft bun. And that was it.
"It stuck in my head," he says. "And after that, I went back home for my French training and forgot about it."
That is, until the nostalgic chef broke out a box of pictures years later and found a photograph of the truck he was fortunate enough to be found by that day.
"I remembered the burger right away, and then decided to make a more sophisticated version for the menu at my restaurant."
The same inspiration was behind his Smashed Smoke Burger entry at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and perhaps that’s why it stood out so well among its more "gourmet" counterparts.
When Denny Marie Post, Red Robin’s CMO and Burger Bash judge, was sampling the 12 entrants’ edible offerings, she found herself in dire need of a flavorful wake-up for her palate after getting through two-thirds of the tastings. She recalls, "There were some really interesting-sounding burgers with elegant add-ons like lobster, but they just didn’t translate well when we tried them. I honestly didn’t think we’d make it to the end. Everything just tasted the same after a while."
And that’s when she finally sank her teeth into Tourondel’s treat: The Smashed Smoke Burger.