How Did the Humble Cheeseburger Become a $20 Extravagance?
Knife's The Magic burger, made with 44 Farms beer, will set you back $16 — and its worth every juicy penny.
In Cameron, Texas, the afternoon's rain clouds scatter from the sky as if by request. I’m rolling along in a truck belonging to Bob McClaren, president and CEO of 44 Farms. James Burks, 44 Farms general manager, is in the backseat. We pull up next to an area that looks more confined than the rest of the farm’s seemingly endless pastures. A few Black Angus cattle putter around behind fences. They look up as we arrive.
“This is our retirement center,” McClaren says softly. “These are some of the bulls that have had great lives in our program. They just have a hard time getting around, so we keep 'em up here — that way they can talk to the young guys and tell 'em stories.”
As promised, adjacent to the Angus Retirement Center for Continued Living, about 100 young cattle are clumped together around troughs. “They love to eat,” McClaren says. “They fight each other, and they’re looking for love.” Somewhere between the two lots rests a cemetery for the fallen prize bulls of 44 Farms.
My fellow eaters, the state of the burger union is strong. This is an incredible, sometimes confounding time for this American sandwich. It's hard to miss: There are nearly $20 cheeseburgers mixed with bone marrow and beef cheek, some dotted with capers or carpeted with spicy, crunchy giardiniera. If I could go back in time, I’d disrupt the space-time continuum to warn 10-year-old me, who’d surely be slapping Kraft Singles in between bread. “Tiny Nick! All your favorite restaurants will use Kraft Singles on burgers when you grow up.” I'd tell him they will cost all of his allowance, too.
Love it or not, we live in the age of the high-end burger designed to capture the flavors of a simple, cheap burger.
At Knife, home of one of the best burgers in Dallas, chef John Tesar sits across from me in his trademark glasses and rustic apron. “What does it tell you about the state of the art of the restaurant business, how hard is it to make a profit in fine dining, that every chef seems to have to go to a fried chicken restaurant or a hamburger restaurant?” Tesar say.
Today’s designer burgers are created to send warm memories — of youth, of the diner, of our parents' way of over-cooking burgers on the grill — ping-ponging from our eyes to our arteries.
“The irony of John Tesar and Knife is that I started making hamburgers as my first job," Tesar says. "I’m talking back in the '70s in New York in an Irish Pub in the Hamptons. It was just a charcoal-grilled hamburger on an english muffin with sharp cheddar cheese and applewood-smoked bacon.”
And thus the burger cycle continues: We’ll pay a little more, and then even a little more, for chefs to do a high-end version of the burgers they grew up on. On a recent trip to Kitchen LTO, I had a great dry-aged beef burger for 19 bucks. Melted on top: a Kraft single.
How much are we willing to pay for a great burger, and what exactly are we paying for? And what, exactly, goes into some of Dallas’ best burgers?
Cameron's 44 Farms is the idyllic picture of the back-to-nature Texas cattle ranch.
The drought made things tough for 44 Farms. There was a real and visible cost.
Three thousand trees perished in the past five or six years, they tell me as we’re rounding the farm in the truck. They lost so many trees that they had to build new structures to shade the cattle from the blazing Texas sun.
The drought also forced them to change their feed program. They previously planted cotton, which thrives in arid climates. After the cotton ball is picked, the plant remains. 44 Farms began to process everything but the cotton for feed, and the cows downed it like ice cream.
“One of things our cattle love the most is the residue from a cotton plant,” McClaren says, piloting the truck past mountains of pulverized “silage," the cattle's fodder. “We alternate between corn and sorghum. We pack it into these bins and it’ll ferment over time. That’s the core of our feed program. It’s got a really sweet taste.” They add a molasses mix that’s packed with minerals and a product that keeps the flies off the cattle.
This is the essence of 44 Farms: Every decision, every action on the farm, trickles down to the cattle’s experience. They use a painless, dry ice branding process. They place donkeys into the herd to ward off predators. They use horses instead of mechanized farm equipment. They keep talking and driving to a minimum when inseminating the heifers, all to create a stress-free environment. After one trip through the green pastures, I felt so relaxed and peaceful, I’m sure my marbling went through the roof.
At 44 Farms, everyone moves with calm and care to ensure a peaceful environment for the herd.
Because everyone knows that a serene cow makes for delicious burgers.
The Ozersky, at $12, is all local — and it's all 44 Farms' 80 percent lean, 20 percent fat beef. It’s perfection housed in simplicity. The patty is given a good winter coat of salt and pepper — that’s it — and topped with two slices of American cheese. It’s served on one of those squishy, store-bought buns with slivers of red onion cut sheer-thin. The Magic uses the same beef but adds bacon and cheddar, and for the bun, an English Muffin, just like in Chef Tesar’s early days. Both burgers are magnificent.
“My cost on that is probably $2 for a six-ounce hamburger," Tesar says. "The bun is probably 30 cents; so $2.30. The french fries with the salsa verde ... that’s probably another two bucks. The corsicana pickle is like, a dollar, and then the condiments. So, at that point, you're looking at $5 for my cost to a burger. And I’m only selling it for 12 bucks. And you’re getting table service with that.”
Twenty-one restaurants in Dallas use 44 Farms’ product, including Lucia, Wayward Sons and The Porch. The spots that use their burger blends range in price: Wayward Sons’ is $15 (with cheese and thrice-cooked fries) and Mudhen Meat and Greens’ version, which was once delivered to my table drastically overcooked, is $14.
So, how much is too much for a good burger, and where do we draw the line? This is where Tesar really leans in.
“If you’re going to charge more than $10 for a burger, I want perfection, man," he says. "I don’t care if it's Whataburger, I don’t care if it's Hopdoddy, I don’t care if it's Filament or fucking Knife, if you’re going to charge me $10, I want something with it.”
The customer pays more when shopping at 44 Farms or dining at one of Tesar's resaurants. At 44 Farms, that cost is for beef that's consistently of a high quality. You pay for extraordinary care to a truly local product. On the restaurant end, you pay for beef that’s cooked with heart. And served with some damn french fries.
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