When hes asked, as he often is these days, about the much-anticipated smackdown between Danny Meyers East Coast Shake Shack franchise and his West Coast Umami Burger, which is coming this summer to a New York neighborhood near you, Adam Fleischman likes to make a few things clear. First off, he wants New Yorkers to know that his L.A. Umami Burger empirewhich has grown, in just four short years, from a $40,000 investment to a multimillion-dollar enterprise with madly popular, ever-multiplying outlets in San Francisco and Miamiisnt a burger joint in the usual ho-hum, utilitarian way.
Burger chains like Shake Shack are all designed the same, he explains. The food is all designed to taste the same. We dont do that. Each of our restaurants has its own character. We want our customers to have a unique experience. We wanted to be a restaurant group, not a chain.
Then theres the delicate matter of distinguishing between Danny Meyer, whom Fleischman admires, and Danny Meyers ShackBurger, which he admires slightly less. Like Meyer, 42-year-old Fleischman is an outsider from the provinces (Meyer left St. Louis for New York in his twenties; Fleischman was born in Queens and grew up in the suburbs of D.C.). And like Meyer, hes a stickler for a relentlessly cheery brand of customer service and is famous for micromanaging every last detail of his restaurants.
But when it comes to the iconic American hamburger, the two restaurateurs have radically different visions. Meyers ShackBurger is an ode to the middle-American burger shacks of his youth. Fleischmans goal, in creating his original Umami Burger, was to take the same nostalgic templatethe store-bought bun; the pale, not-quite-fresh tomato; the prepackaged patty; the processed yellow cheeseand blow it, politely, to smithereens. When I created the Umami Burger, I wanted a forward-looking burger, he tells me. I wanted a burger that was global and that had all sorts of modern influences.
And Fleischmans Umami Burgerwhich, according to legend, he invented, with no prior culinary training, in his home kitchen using ingredients rich in the mysterious, controversial Japanese fifth taste called umamiturned the L.A. burger world on its ear more or less overnight. Since its debut in 2009, local celebrities (Ashton Kutcher, Jay Leno) and chefs (L.A.s popular Michael Voltaggio) have attested to its addictive powers, and several highbrow critics, including skeptical New Yorkers like GQs Alan Richman, have declared it the finest burger in all the land.
Now, if Fleischmans carefully plotted umamification of the Eastern Seaboard goes according to plan, its New Yorks turn. Never mind that the two coasts are deeply territorial when it comes to their burgers (theres a reason Shake Shack has never gone into California and In-N-Out Burger has never come here). Never mind, also, that New York has been a dead end for ambitious, cutting-edge cooks from out of town (theres a reason the canny Wolfgang Puck, to whom Fleischman is often compared, never really brought his newfangled pizzas here), and that New Yorkers, like Los Angelenos, have been experiencing their own profound haute-burger renaissance over the past ten years.
This July Fleischman and his major investors, SBE and the Fortress Investment Group, will start opening their Umami Burger restaurants in the city, with more possibly to come. The New York locationschosen for maximum buzzy impact by Fleischman himselfare a Williamsburg spot on North 4th Street, a Sixth Avenue Umami Burger in the West Village, and a third, next year, at the World Financial Center in Battery Park City, coincidentally around the corner from a Shake Shack. They will be sit-down establishmentsexcept for the Battery Park locationwith a full list of cocktails and fine wine. The burgers will be ground in-house according to secret blends, seasoned with special umamified sauces and powders, then hand-molded before being slow-cooked in high-tech CVap humidifier ovens, then seared. Theyll have theatrical names (the Greenbird, Truffle Burger, Port & Stilton Burger) and a veritable blizzard of addictive, umami-rich toppings (shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan crisps, truffles mingled with port wine) carefully calculated, according to their creator, to alter New Yorkers tired, old-world perceptions of what a hamburger should be.
New York has some okay burgers, says Fleischman, who arrived in L.A. in 1998 with vague dreams of being a screenwriter and still talks in exuberant, exclamation-punctuated sentences, like hes pitching an endless spool of story ideas. He enjoys the blend of meat April Bloomfield uses in her Spotted Pig burger, but wasnt wild about the puffy, non-traditionalist bun. He has kind things to say about Keith McNallys aged Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, but balks at its price ($26). Besides, burger chefs in L.A. have been using aged beef in their blends for over a decade now. As for the ShackBurger, he feels its merely an imitation of the classic nostalgia burger, and a not great one at that.
On this bright Southern Californian afternoon, L.A.s emperor of Umami is dressed in an Umami Burger T-shirt, surfer shorts, and a pair of retro cloth sneakers with the shoelaces removed. When he opened the first Umami, on La Brea, he ran his corporate office from a disheveled room in his house. Now the Umami empirewhich includes a popular L.A. pizza restaurant, a neo-Vietnamese joint, and multiple other umami-themed projects in various stages of developmentoccupies a suite of offices on Beverly Boulevard, complete with private executive parking spaces and a state-of-the-art videoconferencing room.
On display in Fleischmans office is Nathan Myhrvolds dense, six-volume treatise Modernist Cuisine, which he keeps in a gleaming Plexiglas box. He claims that hes read most of Myhrvolds learned study on the world of molecular gastronomy and its arcane techniques. But the book he cant stop talking about is a little volume called Umami: the World, which he found in 2008 on the website of an obscure Japanese organization called the Umami Information Center, shortly after experiencing a eureka moment while devouring a Double-Double Burger at In-N-Out.
By this time, Fleischmans dream of being a full-time screenwriter had long gone up in smoke. Hed worked in finance and the wine business and was casting around for a place to invest some money hed made after selling his share in a wine venture called BottleRock. As he pondered his In-N-Out burger, I asked myself, Why, over the years, do more pizza places and burger joints open up than any other kind of restaurant in this country? The answer was umami.
The word umami was first popularized in the early 1900s by a Tokyo scientist named Kikunae Ikeda, who invented the term (the very loose translation in Japanese is deliciousness) to describe the flavor-enhancing properties of glutamic acid, essentially known as MSG. The fifth taste (the other four being sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), as its believers call it, and I am one of them, is the tangy, faintly acidic, deeply addictive flavor that you feel in the back of your mouth when you eat a whole range of foods like gently cooked tomatoes, or anchovies, or a crunchy, caramelized, well-seared piece of beef. Its one of the keys to the enduring appeal of the great Asian-food cultures (Japanese miso, soy sauce, and Thai nam pla fish sauce are veritable umami bombs), and its no accident that many of the most celebrated cooks in this comfort-food-obsessed era (David Chang, April Bloomfield, Danny Bowien at Mission Chinese) are adept at manipulating its magical properties.
Fleischmans radical idea was to take the simple burger and double down on its already formidable umami potential. By using various ingredients naturally high in umami, he boosted the flavor. Fleischman spent two months in his home kitchen, obsessively mixing and remixing seaweeds, cheeses, and stinky dried fish. He discovered that umami-rich ingredients dont work when you blend them into the beef, so he developed natural flavorings (Umami Master Sauce and Umami Dust), which he used to umamify the patty after it was gently precooked in the CVap oven. He decided that his beef patty should be smaller (six ounces is the ideal) and coarsely ground in-house, instead of prepacked and delivered to the restaurant in a truck. To solve the problem of the dreary tomato slice, he slow-baked his tomatoes overnight with a soy-based sauce, which enhanced their umami properties.
Then there were the problems of the cheese and the bun, which among burger geeks are the subject of endless Talmudic discussions and debates. Parmesan cheese is high on the Umami Information Centers list of umami-rich foods (behind kombu seaweed and in front of nori seaweed), but Fleischman discovered that it doesnt melt very well. After much trial and error, he took the crisped Parmesan frico wafer, which other chefs around L.A. were putting on salads, and plopped it on top of his burger. For his bun, he wanted something that felt store-boughtin the Shake Shack and In-N-Out moldbut didnt taste that way.
I must have tried a million buns, he says. The bakers kept bringing me these brioches. I didnt want an artisanal bun that screamed a chef made this burger. Nor did he want a cheap bun that screamed Im going to pay $4 for this burger. The bun he settled on was from a small Portuguese bakery, whose name and location he still wont identify. To me, it was a familiar, soft, supermarket-style bun, but it was artisanal at the same time. It wasnt too hard. It was beautiful and round, like a brioche, but not too big and too showy. When I found it, I jumped for joy. It was the last piece of the puzzle.
The original Umami Burger opened in a space formerly occupied by a doomed Korean-taco shop. Because Fleischman didnt have the cash to remodel the space, he left most of the old Asian décor intact. There was no carryout operation, and you could enjoy your New Age truffle burger with wine brought from home for a modest corkage fee. After a month, there were lines stretching out the door and down the block. Two years later, when Alan Richman arrived in L.A. to see what all the fuss was about, there were four Umami Burger outlets, with several more on the way. Richman spent a few days tasting the burger unadorned and with a multitude of umami-laced toppings, and he concluded, with a flourish, that Fleischmans face belonged on the Mount Rushmore of the burger world.
Naturally, not everyone in L.A.s fractious burger community agrees. Some traditionalists thought the concept was contrived (on his influential food blog SinoSoul, Tony Chen called it a bullshit burger). Others accused the Umami restaurants of liberally sprinkling actual MSG on their food, a claim that Fleischman hotly denies. Last year, a chef named Ernesto Uchimura, who helped open the original La Brea restaurant and who now runs his own popular comfort-food joint in West L.A. called Plan Check, told the press that while the concept for the original Umami Burger was Fleischmans, the cooking techniques used to create it were his. When I came onboard, there were no real recipes written, no method, he told Los Angeles magazine. Adam had been messing around in his kitchen, but I developed all the burgers under his direction.
Not surprisingly, Fleischman denies this too. The Umami Burger was ready to go the first time I made it, he says. Believe it or not, it was all in my head. SBE invested $15 million two years ago, and since then, Fleischman, the undisputed CEO of the Umami Restaurant Group, hasnt had to worry about who takes credit for any of the companys burger schemes. Hes recruited a stable of high-powered consultants, like the Top Chef Masters champion and noted offal savant Chris Cosentino, to help brainstorm new brand concepts, and everything that emerges from the companys test kitchens does so with his input and ultimate approval.
For this skeptical New York critic, Fleischman arranged a tasting at his large deli concept in downtown L.A. called Umamicatessen. When we arrived, the cooks in the kitchen were experimenting with all sorts of strange creations. We tasted a brownish, aïoli-like substance called Brainaise (concocted by Cosentino with whipped pig brains, among other things), and a faintly sweet pork-belly burger for the Miami restaurant designed to perfectly mimic the taste profile of that local delicacy the pressed-pork sandwich, or Cubano.
The first thing you notice about Fleischmans Umami Burgers is that they arent the kind of giant, messy, hungry-man meat bombs designed to be consumed with two fists in the corner of some funky-smelling bar. Theyre medium-size, almost dainty-looking objects, intended to be admired (and Instagrammed) as much as to be eaten. Each hamburger is carefully plated on porcelain, by itself, like a fine restaurant entrée. The toppings come in a multitude of festive colors, and every shiny bun is stenciled with a U-shaped tattoo made of vegetable ink.
The Truffle Burger, which was the one I tried first because I dreaded it the most, tasted of seared beef, melted cheese, and the essence of port, mingled with some vague, intoxicating taste memory in the back of your mind, which may or may not be truffles. The Greenbird turkey burger was topped with crushed avocados and fresh sprouts, which smell like theyve just come from the garden. It was flavored with a creamy, housemade green goddess dressing tinged with anchovies, which seemed to set off all sorts of tingling umami sensors on my tongue. In taste and texture, its about as different from your standard-issue East Coast turkey burger as a bag of frozen shrimp is from a fresh-cooked lobster just hauled off the coast of Maine.
Who knows, we may flop in New York, thats totally possible, Fleischman told me as I ate my turkey burger. He said hes not worried about the obvious pitfalls of rapid expansion (along with New York, multiple Umami Burgers are being planned for Philly and Washington, D.C.), because were selling hamburgers here, not rack of lamb, and as long as we keep our focus, we should be okay. And hes convinced theres a niche in the New York market for his $10 hamburgers. Were not copying anyone. Were not copying Shake Shack. Were creating a whole new genre.
Its difficult to disagree. As his burgers kept coming out of the kitchen in seemingly endless varieties, Fleischman expounded on his other umami-based projects and schemes. Hes working with the former New York pitmaster Robbie Richter on a modern-barbecue restaurant called Roadhouse L.A., which will be opening at the Improv. His L.A. pizza parlor, 800 Degrees, which combines the classic Neapolitan pizza and the build-it-yourself philosophy of Chipotle, is spinning out cash like a broken ATM. Hes also interested in expanding to the Middle East, and last year, Fleischman bought into a local ice-cream purveyor called L.A. Creamery Artisan Ice Cream, which means hes been busy concocting exotic ice-cream flavors with names like Porc Phat and Gin and Juice.
For the big New York opening, Fleischman plans to introduce a French-dip burger, made with braised beef and served with umamified gravy on the side, just like the classic L.A. roast-beef sandwich. He would later tell me that theyve been working on something called a Moco Loco, based on a Hawaiian fried-rice specialty; its made with an all-beef patty, a fried egg, and a demi-glace, and squeezed between two rice buns. And dont even get him started on the Five Spice Duck Burger, which hes been fiddling with in his home kitchen, because as he put it, duck isnt represented enough in the burger world. When he described the ingredientsChinese five-spice powder, ground braised duck breast and leg, and fennel-and-apple compotehis eyes grew wide and he waved his hands in the air for emphasis. This duck burger, Fleischman said, will blow your mind.