Every year a winner tries to defend the throne, and every year new chefs take up the challenge. At this year's Burger Bash at the 2011 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, Chef Geoffrey Zakarian of The Lambs Club and The National in New York City sets his sights on winning the Amstel Light Burger Bash with a wood-roasted Gruyère burger. Read on for his battle plan and who he considers the toughest competition.
You're a lauded restaurant veteran, but this is your first Burger Bash. What inspired your participation?
I opened a café, The National in New York this past fall and response to our burger has been outrageous. I am very honored that Lee Schrager invited me and The National to participate in such a great event.
A Burger Bash menu preview revealed trends you don't seem to be participating in (Cheddar-heavy burgers, onion burgers, etc.) What say you on these trends?
It is understandable that people use bacon and cheddar — they are two items that taste good on pretty much anything. As for trends, I am not one to always follow what everyone else thinks is popular. I focus on taste, flavor and cooking technique — elements that make a great finished product.
What's your burger strategy?
To have a hot grill. No, seriously. Cooking the meat correctly is what is most important. Without a proper patty, all else is lost.
What inspired The National Burger?
I have always wanted to find a way to incorporate chilis into a burger dish, but didn't like how the heat can overwhelm the beef flavor. So we had the idea to pickle them — it's great.
Your entry is described as a wood-roasted Gruyère burger. What is a wood-roasted Gruyère burger?
We add wood chips to the grill to give a smoky flavor and top the meat with a pickled jalapeños, Gruyère and, of course, a secret sauce. I have always made a point to have a burger on my menu at every restaurant that I oversee. This combination at The National is particularly mouthwatering.
Who do you think is your biggest competition?
You mean I don't have to cook for 3,000 people by myself? That's great news!
Favorite burger in New York City besides your own?
In New York if I am having a burger, I am eating it at either of my restaurants, The Lambs Club or The National. Outside of New York City, I love Louis' Lunch in New Haven, Conn., because it is a simple place that is all about the meat.
How do you take your burger?
If I am making it at home: Medium-rare, red onion, lettuce, and mayo on white toast — reminds me of my Mom and how she used to make them.
Where do you plan to eat in Miami while you're there?
The Royal at The Raleigh, Michael's Genuine, Soho Beach House, and of course The Delano — I always stop there when in town as I opened The Blue Door in 1994. And I will be on the hunt for a great local Cuban spot.
For full coverage of the 2011 Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, click here.