Interview: hamburger expert George Motz (Burger Land)

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Hamburger Expert

Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel

George Motz has established himself as one of America’s foremost hamburger pundits thanks to his book “Burger America.” Now, he’s hosting the Travel Channel show “Burger Land,” which showcases burger joints across the U.S. On April 16, Motz and I spoke by phone, where he revealed insights into his burger expertise.

What’s the first burger you remember eating in your life?

I don’t really know the exact first burger, but it was likely a burger of my father’s from the outdoor grill. He would mix barbecue sauce into the meat. I do remember that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There are clearly plenty of different burger styles. What are some of the important factors for a successful burger, regardless of style?

The best burger of course starts out with fresh ground beef, no question about it. The bun should never be complicated. A successful burger does not have a complicated bun. That can overpower the burger, so the bun should be very simple. A friend of mine in Boston likes to say, “It should be the envelope, and the good news is coming.” Outside of that, you have to have a meltable cheese. Any non-melty cheese is never fun. You don’t want to have a hard cheese on your burger. An American cheese is great. And onions. I think grilled onions are some of the best things for a burger.

How important is it that a hamburger is even made from beef? Can a burger still be a burger if it’s made from meats like lamb or pork?

No. A lot of people try to put non-beef into hamburgers, and then it becomes a cake or meatloaf, or a loaf of some sort. At that point you’re not making a hamburger anymore. A hamburger should be defined as some part of a cow that’s cooked somehow and put on bread as a vehicle for delivery.

What are the criteria for a burger that appears on “Burger Land”?

Well, to be on the show, you have to make a burger with fresh-ground beef. Outside of that, it just has to be a great burger. Most of the ones we’ve had tend to be the ones that are mom and pops that have been around forever, 60, 70, and in some cases 100 years. We have one on the show that has been around for 113 years. Longevity is a pretty important criteria. Also, I take advice from my local hamburger experts. If they say a place is going to be fantastic, I go, because their criteria is basically my criteria.

Who’s in the inner circle of trusted burger advisors?

I have a legion of hamburger experts around the country that I refer to as my Expert Burger Tasters or EBTs. They’re people who started out as fans mostly, fans of my book and whatever I was working on. They were also in their own cities and areas, bloggers and food writers. They’ve become my trusted group around the country. I usually refer to them as my first responders to hamburger discoveries. They’ll come to me and say, “I found this great burger, you should go try it out.” We discover old and new with the EBTs. There are plenty of them around the country, plenty of them.

How much overlap is there between “Burger America” and “Burger Land?”

100%. The show is basically the book coming to life.

So there isn’t a burger on “Burger Land” that hasn’t appeared on “Burger America”?

No, there are some. The show is definitely going to expand to include other restaurants, but at its core, it’s the book coming to life…The way the show works, it’s a four-act show. The first three acts of the show, we’re in a region or a city, and we take the viewer to the region to meet my hamburger heroes for the first three. And then in the fourth act, my local burger expert takes me to a place I haven’t been before.

If you could only eat one restaurant burger every day for the rest of time, what would it be and why?

Oh no. I can’t answer that question. I don’t play favorites. If you want a favorite, I’ve got 150 in the book. It’s like trying to choose a favorite child. I could tell you, though, that if I had to choose the type of burger, it would be a griddled burger. A grilled burger with onions is probably my favorite, but I never play favorites. That’s the one I make at home all the time.

That’s what I was getting to. Do you ever make hamburgers at home? If so, what are your preferred ingredients?

I do, but not very often. I’d much rather go out and have a burger at a place that makes 500 to 1000 a day. Why should I go out and make my own? I’m surrounded by hamburger greatness, why should I pretend I’m good at it? If I do make one at home, I usually make a smashed flat patty on a flat-top skillet with thin-sliced Vidalia onion and American cheese on a white toasted bun. That’s it.

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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[…] the bread is covered in sesame seeds or made without gluten, but according to George Motz in an interview with Food GPS, a fantastic hamburger is one that doesn’t overthink the bun. Keep the bread as simple as […]

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