Like all the best ideas, it seemed so simple in the beginning. The alpha. team would establish a benchmark, create a reference burger against which we could then compare and rate the others.
The UAE loves its burgers, with everything available from the American classics and home-grown favourites to the gourmet versions of the high-end steakhouses and grills. How on earth were we going to be able to compare a McDonalds or a Wendy's with Johnny Rockets or a GBK, or the kind of burger extravagance of our highest ranked hotels, with their wagyu and foie gras toppings?
So first, we had to define what a burger is, and even that got complicated. We needed some help. So the call went out, and Nitin assembled a team of crack professionals, starry chefs, burger aficionados, and me. Well, I like to think I can cook a bit.
In fact, our expert panel really is that - expert. Under the leadership of editor Nitin and his right hand man Craig, and myself, we were to be joined by the real pros, some of the hottest chefs currently working and wowing diners in the city of Dubai.
Step forward Chef David Attwater, currently doing a fiercely good job leading the brigade at Nineteen, the Address Montgomerie's signature grill and fine dining restaurant. Joining him are two of the hottest Chefs in the city, the newly liberated Scott Price and Nick Alvis, finally able to realise their culinary and creative vision as the force behind Table 9, where they are serving some of the most exciting 21st-century cuisine in the space where they previously worked for Gordon Ramsay's Verre.
Nick and Scott's food is modern, inventive, playful, clever, entertaining, bold and delicious, truly cutting edge and original, profoundly refreshing in a city dominated by celebrity clones, and one of the few high-end cuisine outlets that does not depend on the endorsement of its imported creator. To have them take time out of their busy schedule to help establish the alpha. Burger Standard (ABS) is an honour.
Completing the panel is all-round creative and PR man, Damian Brandy, a true burger connoisseur, and myself, bringing to the table my unique experience as the part-time emergency back-up second chef of a certain Tex Mex restaurant in Edinburgh. Where I did actually make and grill burgers, which the public did eat and appear to enjoy.
These then are our experts, but ask them to describe the perfect burger, and you get seven different opinions. It would have been easier to say what a burger is not. So that is actually where the panel began. After several rounds of heated discussion, it was decided to keep things simple, and though there is an almost infinite variety of burgers to be found, we wanted to establish a standard, not just a theme and variations.
So, it had to be beef. This meant that despite their undoubted popularity and creativity, we ruled out everything else - no lamb burgers, no chicken burgers, no fish burgers, no veggie burgers, nothing that didn't start out with a moo and horns. At the end of the day, a burger is all about the beef.
Yes, but which beef? Actually, this was slightly easier. General consensus was that different chefs used different cuts according to their own preferences, and the type of burger they were trying to create. Suggestions included neck, rib-eye, sirloin and others, but what everyone agreed is that there must be a certain amount of fat, either as marbling in the original meat, or added to lean mince. This keeps a burger moist and juicy, and adds important amounts of flavour to the finished produce. Lean mince does not a good burger make.
Where from? Another debate, with champions around the table calling for Aberdeen Angus, Australian, longhorn, Highland, wagyu and Charolais. But the consensus did seem to come down to a matter of quality and husbandry, rather than country of origin. If the animals were raised and respected, decently fed and free of chemicals, then it was reckoned to be a matter of personal choice. In fact, in the end, the panel opted to use wagyu in a search for true perfection.
So if we've finally chosen our beef, what else is there to consider? The bun. We fairly quickly agreed it has to be white bread, quite open and light in texture, and definitely not wholemeal. Has to be absolutely fresh, too. Toasted or not? Up to you, but there was a general agreement that crisp on the outside and warm in the middle was ideal. Nothing too enormous, however - a burger must be something you can pick up with your hands and bite into without struggling.
Toppings? Again, for simplicity and consistency the panel ruled out lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, mustard, ketchup, onions and other such complications. They are a matter of personal choice and certainly have a role to play in customising a burger to your own tastes, but distract from a standard.
The panel did, however, allow the inclusion of cheese, and left open the choice of blue, Cheddar or Lancashire Tasty. The cheese in fact serves to act as a seasoning component, and as it melts, enhances the inherent juiciness of the beef.
Other components were debated - chopped shallots, for example, in with the mince? Salt and pepper, obviously, but what about garlic, or herbs, or Worcestershire sauce? My own recipe for perfection includes miso paste, to give the flavour an umami component, but was deemed unnecessary when using wagyu beef.
So, with the basic elements in place, it was onto Stage Two. Nick and Scott invited the panel to reconvene around their Chef's Table 9, and to taste their version of the alpha. Burger Standard. Nitin supplied the wagyu, and they spent the morning experimenting with seasoning and cooking times. Nick made up a light focaccia-style bread, and the table was set.
In their final version of the standard recipe, they included some finely diced capers as a seasoning element, panko breadcrumbs as a binding agent, worked in with an egg yolk. A little salt only, and a generous amount of pepper. This was then formed into thick patties, cooked all the way through on a flame grill, topped with a thin slice of Beenleigh Blue cheese (more seasoning) and served ungarnished with the focaccia that Nick baked, lightly toasted on the outside.
Verdict? The boys did alpha. proud. Table 9's take on the alpha. Burger standard sets the bar very high indeed. It was juicy, delicious and moreish, and more than one member of the panel judged it to be ‘the best burger they had ever tasted'. Stripped back to absolute basics, made with care and superlative ingredients, this was the ultimate expression of all a burger could be. Accompanied by thrice-cooked chips and superb fresh, home-made mayonnaise, it was as close to burger heaven as you can get.
So what happens next? The panel will choose a number of rival burgers to see how they measure on the alpha. Burger Standard. We'd like you, the reader, to be involved too. Go to our facebook page, nominate your favourite burger, tell us what makes it so good. Two winners and four of their friends will get a chance to sample the alpha. Burger at Nineteen, The Address Montgomerie courtesy of chef David Attwater.