Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Burger That Could Fix Fast Food

The cooks at Coi, Daniel Patterson’s tiny, two-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, are used to producing dishes of supreme delicacy and surpassing refinement. Morels stuffed with ricotta and fava greens. Wild king salmon wrapped in yuba with charred cabbage and dried-scallop ginger sauce. The kind of food, in short, that has earned Coi a reputation as the best restaurant in one of America’s finest food cities and a perennial spot on San Pellegrino’s list of the top 100 restaurants in the world.

Yet the dish that Patterson has just put in front of me seems like the opposite of all that.

“This is our veggie burger,” Patterson says. He watches, tentatively, as I take my first bite.

“So what do you think?” he asks.

Over the past six hours, Patterson and his partner, Roy Choi, the Los Angeles street-food savant who, with his stoner vibe and hip-hop threads, is the yin to Patterson’s professorial yang, have transformed the Coi kitchen into a secret laboratory for LocoL, their forthcoming restaurant project.

LocoL (the name is a cross between “local” and “loco,” the Spanish word for “crazy”) has been in the works for a while now. In August 2013, Choi delivered a speech at MAD, the cutting-edge annual food conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, about Californians living in hunger. Patterson was impressed. A few weeks later, he flew to Los Angeles with a proposition: What if he and Choi used everything they knew as chefs, from the latest food science to the most ancient cooking methods, to create a new fast-food chain that was good for you, good for the planet, and just as guilty-pleasure delicious as, say, Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme? What if they opened in America’s notorious “food deserts” — the large, mostly urban swaths of the country where it’s hard to find anything to eat or drink besides a Big Mac and a Big Gulp? And what if they went toe-to-toe with McDonald’s and company by pricing everything from $.99 to $6? (...)

“Our business model revolves around volume,” Patterson explains. “If we don’t do a good job making delicious food, we’re going to have a problem.”

Today’s research-and-development session is the fourth that Patterson and Choi have conducted since the start of the year, but it’s the first, they say, at which they’re starting to settle into a groove.

It’s also the first time they’ve allowed a total outsider to taste their prototype menu items. Hence the veggie burger that Patterson has set before me.

I behold it before taking a bite. The thing is hefty. Not huge like those behemoths they serve at upscale Manhattan bistros. But much denser and weightier than your typical Whopper. The patty is mostly made of grains — raw, sprouted and cooked. There’s some jack cheese on there, some grilled-scallion-and-lime relish and a spunky concoction that Patterson and Choi have taken to calling Awesome Sauce: tomato, onion, garlic, vinegar, oil and gochujang, or Korean chili paste. Layer all the above onto a long-fermented bun custom-made, partly with rice flour, by renowned San Francisco baker Chad Robertson of Tartine, who also serves on the LocoL board, and press it on the griddle like a panino until the crust gets crispy and the cheese starts to ooze — a recent Choi brainstorm meant to improve the burger’s “mobility” and “make it easier to eat while skateboarding or riding a bike” — and there you have it: LocoL’s mission statement in sandwich form.

Patterson chimes in as I chew. “We wanted it to be addictive,” he says. “You have to want to take another bite, and then another. We wanted it to be so good that someone who eats meat would willingly choose this instead. You wouldn’t even think of it. You’d just think of it as food.”

“So,” he repeats. “What do you think?”

Sadly, I’m too busy taking another bite to tell him what I think. This isn’t just the best veggie burger I’ve ever tasted. It’s one of the best burgers, period. (...)

Could LocoL be the future of fast food?

It’s clear the industry is at a crossroads. Thanks to a steady stream of exposés (“Fast Food Nation,” “Super Size Me,” “Food, Inc.”), many human beings now accept that a Big Mac is basically inhumane: to the animals that become it, to the workers who serve it, to the customers who eat it and to the planet that absorbs it. Meanwhile, various food movements — organic, anti-GMO (genetically modified organism), slow-food, vegan and so on — have popularized healthier, more sustainable ways of producing and consuming calories. That’s why fast-casual chains such as Chipotle and Shake Shack, with their locally sourced veggies and antibiotic-free beef, are all the rage these days; it’s also why last August marked the worst sales month for McDonald’s in more than a decade, and why the company sacked its president and CEO in January. Customers are gravitating toward more “natural” meals.

Still, a fundamental problem remains: Fast food is incredibly cheap, and fiendishly tasty, and a lot of Americans can’t afford, and don’t have access to, much else.

Not many people are bothering to come up with alternatives. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the industry itself, which in recent months has sought to improve its image by getting rid of artificial colors and flavors (the Yellow No. 6 dye in Taco Bell’s nacho cheese, for instance) andpromoting items that more closely resemble actual food (McDonald’s “premium” sirloin burgers). A Penn State food-science professor accurately described these maneuvers as a way for the fast-food Goliaths to give their products “a healthy glow without making meaningful changes to their nutritional profiles.”

On the other end of the spectrum are Silicon Valley biochemists like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who is trying to invent a “plant-based burger that bleeds like beef, chars like it, and tastes like it.” It’s an inspiring idea, but it’s also unlikely to filter down to the streets of South Central Los Angeles anytime soon.

Patterson and Choi think they’ve hit upon a more sensible approach — one that goes much further than the industry’s inconsequential, image-conscious tinkering but still has the potential to be a blockbuster business before, say, the end of the century. They want to reengineer fast food in the kitchen, not the lab. We’ve seen how corporations make quick, cheap, addictive food for the masses, they say. But how would chefs do it?

In January, Choi invited me to one of his newest restaurants, POT, to elaborate on LocoL’s vision. I wandered through the sci-fi lobby of The Line hotel in Koreatown — Choi is a partner — and past a glowing neon “Pot” sign in medical-marijuana green. “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio was blasting on the stereo. It was still early — 5 p.m. No one else had arrived yet. Choi and I snagged a table, ordered some marinated rib-eye bulgogi, crab hot pot, uni dynamite rice and pickled sea beans and began to talk.

Choi is a good talker. Occasionally he’ll cop the streetwise swagger of the SoCal gangbanger he briefly was, but most of the time he sounds like a thoughtful, heartfelt dreamer riffing on big ideas in the mellow haze of a late-night bull session. (...)

Chefs who want to make good, cheap food, Choi continued, have some tricks of the trade at their disposal. The first is waste. According to a 2012 report, the amount of wasted food in the U.S. has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, to the point where more than 40 percent of all food grown or raised in the United States now goes to waste somewhere along the supply chain. Fast-food joints are the worst offenders, with “large portion sizes, standardized menu items that use only parts of animals and quality-control codes that mandate, for example, that McDonald’s fries must be thrown away if they’re not sold within seven minutes of being cooked.”

LocoL will be different. “We’re following a zero-waste model,” Choi told me. “Everything we buy, we use, and the things we use are going to be things we can shred, chop, braise, cook down, pickle, peel and turn into something else. We’ll transform bruised, misshapen vegetables into purées and sauces. We’ll buy off-cuts of meat and make them work.”

The chefs’ second secret weapon is culinary science — the techniques and tactics that the world’s finest kitchens use to wrest extraordinary flavors from ordinary ingredients.

“The beef burger is our biggest example,” Choi explained. (LocoL will offer both vegetarian and nonvegetarian patties.) “Cutting the burger with cooked grains so that it’s not all meat. Processing the grains to the same size and mouthfeel as ground beef, then finding a way to bind it and emulsify it so it eats just like a regular patty. That obviously reduces cost and creates a healthier burger — but it also tastes just like a burger.”

And then there’s tradition. Most of this planet’s inhabitants are poor, but the cuisine that has arisen from poverty — tacos, stews, noodles, shawarma and so on — is delicious. Seasoning doesn’t cost much. Neither does brining, braising or curing. They’re all methods for making the most with the least. Why can’t a fast-food restaurant operate the same way?

Choi sucked the last bit of crabmeat from a little red claw. “What we’re trying to do is, like, ask a question,” he said. “Are these our only choices as humans? Is this the only way to be a profitable business? To do this to animals? To do this to each other? To fill foods with so many chemicals and preservatives that it basically changes the whole ecosystem of someone’s body?

“LocoL is me and Daniel saying, ‘We don’t believe you,’” Choi added. “‘You’re telling us these are the only options on the table? We don’t agree with that — and we’re going to show you why.’”

by Andrew Romano, Yahoo News |  Read more:
Image: Tiffany Yam