Burgers conquer France
The humble American hamburger has managed to seduce even the culinarily xenophobic French, enjoying a popularity in France due at least in part to the iffy economy and the search for modest dining options. In addition, a new generation of young entrepreneurs, inspired in some cases by sojourns in the U.S., has brought this scruffy mongrel home.
"Despite the perception of the French, they love American popular culture. The burger has become the medium of choice to get that pop-culture fix," said Canadian-American Jordan Feilders, proprietor of Cantine California, a food truck that in April also opened as a restaurant in Paris ( cantinecalifornia.com).
French hamburger sales exploded by 40 percent over two years, with 977 million burgers sold last year, out of a total of 2.14 billion sandwiches, according to a study released in February by French marketing company Gira Conseil. In 2000, hamburgers accounted for one in every nine sandwiches sold; in 2007, it was one in seven; in 2013, it jumped to nearly one in two.
In Paris, you can spot the burger madness from low to high. Burger King had ceded the French market to McDonald's and local chain Quick, closing shop in 1997, but now it's back with three franchises and plans for a large expansion.
BK's media-blitzed return to the capital in December had Parisians lining up outside the Gare Saint-Lazare for a taste of those flame-broiled patties.
Parisian hipsters have been willing to cool their heels for up to two hours for the fare at "gourmet" food trucks Le Camion Qui Fume (The Smoking Truck, lecamionquifume.com) and Cantine California, which started independently within a month of each other by California transplants.
Crowds also gather outside a crop of small, burger-centric restaurants focusing on quality ingredients, such as Blend ( blendhamburger.com) and the No. 1 favorite of French newspaper Le Figaro, Paris New York ( pny-hamburgers.fr).
You can even go upscale, dropping 29 euros (just under $40) for the popular burger at Ralph's ( ralphlaurenstgermain.com), in the Ralph Lauren store on the Boulevard Saint-Germain.
Amazingly, the hamburger humbles the French
"In the very beginning, in France our image of the hamburger was really McDonald's," restaurant consultant Helene Samuel said. Without any other reference points, "you can be afraid to interpret this American dish because you might not understand it."
Blend owner Victor Garnier Astorino, a graduate of the respected French business school Ecole Superieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales, also approached the hamburger with humility after being knocked down a peg while in an exchange program at Pepperdine University, in Malibu, Calif.
"I realized how large the gap was between France and California as far as the seriousness granted to hamburgers was concerned," he wrote in an email. "I thought I was a hamburger specialist! . . . I felt like a fraud!"
He decided to fill the gap with "burgerness" before going on to found his two Blend restaurants.
For him, that seems to mean doing a lot of research, from studying up on the history of the hamburger to working at Starbucks and McDonald's to find out how they operated, to eating tons of burgers all over the world. (He wrote us from London, then was going on to Phoenix, Minneapolis and Chicago on a burger-tasting binge.)
He also did careful sourcing, working with butcher Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, known for supplying Michelin-starred restaurants.
Finding a perfect bun
Another business-school grad, Rudy Guenaire, literally walked across the United States during a break from his studies at the top-notch Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales de Paris.
Over four and a half months, he hiked the Continental Divide Trail from the Mexican border to Canada by way of the Rockies. His meals at small burger joints along the way were eye opening.
He said he was impressed by "the mixture of cool architecture from the 1930s, the social scene in the diners and then the food. The beef was amazing, especially in Wyoming and Colorado."
Armed with cooking techniques he picked up during his trip, he decided to start Paris New York with fellow HEC grad Graffi Rathamohan.
The biggest challenge they faced, he said, was the bun.
"In France they don't know how to do buns," he said. "French bakers either do the French baguette, which is very crunchy and chewy, and then they have brioche, with butter and sugar, and in the middle is pain au lait, and that's it."
He had friends in New York send over Martin's Potato Rolls, the brand used by Shake Shack, so he could show French bakers.
Finally, the Paris New York team found American baker Rachel Moeller, of Rachel's Cakes, in a Paris suburb.
An American (food truck) in Paris
Blend and Paris New York get props for their sourcing, but if you were in Paris and wanted an American-style burger, you probably couldn't do better than to go to an American purveyor.
As long as you don't mind standing in the street (albeit two very nice streets, one near the Luxembourg Gardens, the other near the Place Vendome), the Cantine California food truck offers the kind of big, fat, juicy burger - a "secret mix" of organic beef - that you dream of when you have a red-meat craving.
Owner Feilders has a magnanimous view of his French competitors, whose products he tries regularly. "They do a French interpretation of a burger," he said. "We do California food by Californians. Together we're creating new references."
Sono Motoyama is a former restaurant critic for the Daily News who currently lives in the Paris area.