Eater Chicago correspondent Daniel Zemans tried all the goods at Hamburger Hop to deliver this report.
[Photo: Daniel Zemans]
The night before the main course that is Chicago Gourmet, about 1,000 people gathered at the Harris Theater Rooftop at the north end of Millennium Park for the Hamburger Hop, the burger competition that has become the traditional opening night of Chicago Gourmet festivities. The fifteen chefs and their teams grilled up impressively diverse selection of burgers in massive quantities. Each restaurant delivered 600 half-pound burgers, cut into quarters for rapid consumption by eager ticket-holders to the sold out event.
The doors opened at 6 p.m. on a nice fall Chicago evening and hungry diners quickly filled the place. Early on, the chefs couldn't put out their burgers fast enough as everyone in the sold out crowd seemed determined to try each burger offered. Even though the patties, other than a couple of sliders, were cut into quarters, I suspect only a small fraction made it through all of them. The lines certainly dwindled as the night moved along and people turned their attention to conversation and booze, though not necessarily in that order.
While a few chefs stuck with traditional chuck for their burgers, most opted for a blend of different cuts of meat. Unlike previous years, when chefs had the option of bringing their own beef rather than using that provided by event co-sponsor Allen Brothers, this year everyone had to use the sponsor's beef. For some chefs, especially those who ground their own beef, that was fine. But for others, including one chef who was not at all happy about getting stuck with freezer-burned frozen patties, the beef posed a problem.
When it came to the toppings, there were no constraints whatsoever and that was where things really got fun thanks to a collection of chefs who enthusiastically embraced the event. The innovative accoutrements ranged from red wine ketchup (Dirk Flanigan) to jicama spread (Clark Grant) to a mizuna and pickle salad (Steven Lawhorn). In fact, with the exception of Gene & Georgetti's basic and nearly inedible bacon cheeseburger, every single restaurant served up a flavor combination that quite possibly had never been put into burger form.
As the night wound down, Bon Appétit Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport and the magazine's Restaurant and Drinks Editor, Andrew Knowlton, announced the winners. Judges John Besh (Besh Restaurant Group), Lin Brehmer (WXRT), Sheamus Feeley (Hillstone Group), Sue Ontiveros (Chicago Sun-Times), Nick Roach (Chicago Bears), and Keith Villa (Blue Moon Brewing Co.), weighed creativity and deliciousness and picked Yoshi Katsumura of Yoshi's Café as the winner. And his burger, which came with a panko-crusted fried green tomato along with brie cheese, micro wasabi and "smoky Asian style BBQ sauce," was excellent. Chef Katsumura was one of the few chefs who offered a side dish, putting a refreshing chuck of spicy watermelon on each plate.
There's been a lot of turnover among the chefs at the Hamburger Hop (only 6 of the 15 were repeat participants), but the quality of the offerings hasn't missed a beat. Chicago has established itself as an incredible burger town and there's no better celebration of that fact than the Hamburger Hop.