Last month, BurgerBusiness reviewed “Burger Bar,” Hubert Keller’s new cookbook that collects recipes from his innovative Burger Bar restaurant in Mandalay Bay resort-casino in Las Vegas. His restaurants and his cookbook are generating so much industry buzz that we called on the French-born chef to relate the story of his transformation from fine-dining master chef to influential burger maker.
You must be a little surprised to find yourself talking about a book about burgers.
I still pinch myself once in a while and say, who’d have imagined that I’d be part of the burger business! But it is one of the best things to have happened with me.
So how did you make the leap from fine-dining Fleur de Lys restaurant in San Francisco to burger king of Las Vegas?
It was more like an accident. It wasn’t really planned at all. I had signed a deal with Bill Richardson, who at that time was [vice chairman] of Mandalay [Resort Group], to open a Fleur de Lys in Las Vegas. He was a good customer of Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. We signed the deal and then I moved my chef and my manager and their families to Vegas to get ready.
As usual there were delays. Mandalay Place [a shopping center in Mandalay Bay resort] was also supposed to open, and there was a space there where another team was to put a restaurant. I think there was some disagreement or something and it fell through.
Bill called me and said, I’m going to be opening Mandalay Place and I have an empty spot. Could you help me out since you have your guys here? Put anything in there so that it’s not empty. I promise you that after three months I will take it over and run it myself or find another management team. You won’t be stuck with it. That’s how it happened.
When you decided to do a burger restaurant, did you really know anything about burgers?
My chef, Laurent Pillard, and all of us are French. We probably hadn’t eaten more than five burgers before we got into it. We ate burgers all over the place. It was a blessing that none of us knew burgers at all because that’s why we took off in a different direction. That’s how the “build your own” concept came about.
The whole thing came together, but I remember the day when we opened the doors I thought it was probably the most stupid thing I’d ever done.
When Burger Bar opened, were you more afraid of the opinions of restaurant critics or of your fellow chefs?
I was afraid the press would knock me out. I thought they’d say, “You know fine dining, but what are you doing with burgers?” All the chefs in Vegas, all my friends, came to see me when we opened, and that was nice. But then they came back.
As soon as I saw the industry coming back, then I knew I was right. The press followed after that and Burger Bar took off.
How did you research the burger business?
We ate a lot of burgers and watched people to try to understand what they liked. We ate all the burgers in Vegas and then we went to San Francisco. Sometimes we couldn’t understand how people could like burgers that were so thin! But we watched how they ate, and what sauces they used and so on. It was really an experience.
What role did Emeril Lagasse play?
Were there burgers you particularly liked?
One burger that was great was here at Emeril’s Delmonico Steakhouse. In San Francisco at Balboa Café we ate another great burger there.
After checking them all out, we said, if we do a burger restaurant, we have to do the best burger we can. That means we grind the beef ourselves. Burger Bar has a butcher shop in the back and everything is ground fresh and shaped by hand. Even if we do 1,000 a day, they’re all done by hand.
Sometimes when I talk to people at Burger Bar they say, how do you make it so juicy? I explain about the butcher shop but I can see in their eyes that maybe they don’t believe me. When I see that I’ll say, I would love to show you the back.
Does the second Burger Bar, in St. Louis, have a butcher shop?
Yes. In fact, in St. Louis we built a butcher shop that’s visible. There’s glass so you can see the guys making the burgers by hand. The one we’re doing in San Francisco, we’re going to do the same thing. The butcher shop will be visible.
When will the San Francisco Burger Bar open?
If all goes well, it should open at the end of August.
After San Francisco, do you think you’ll open more locations?
Yes, I think so. We’re trying to adjust Burger Bar to where we are. The one in San Francisco will have a wine cellar, which the others don’t have. In San Francisco, they’re going to drink beer but they also will want wine with a burger.
You also opened Sleek steakhouse in St. Louis. Is that a concept you can replicate elsewhere?
We have been extremely well received in St. Louis. It’s always difficult as an outsider to come in to a city but we have been well received. I think Sleek can work elsewhere. Steakhouses are still in, even with the economy.
How optimistic are you about the business? It’s a tough marketplace, isn’t it?
It is. I can see it when I talk with my friends. You know, when chefs and restaurateurs get together, one says “Oh we did 120 covers tonight” and you know it’s probably really 100. We always add 20 or 30 by habit. Now you can tell how bad it is because when we talk, we don’t even brag anymore. We tell the truth. One will say, “Tonight was not good; we had 65 covers.” No one even adds to it.
But I’m optimistic. It will come back.