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Hamptons Life

Burger Throwdown In Montauk

Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Heather Girgenti   Aug 21, 2012 10:49 AM
Aug 21, 2012 10:58 AM

There’s usually room for only one grill master at a barbecue and typically that person is known for making a solid burger. But what happens when more than one person at the cookout thinks that they are the best candidate for the job?

About six years ago, co-founder of eater.com, Ben Leventhal, decided to settle the ongoing feud between himself and his buddies about who makes the best burger. And thus, the idea for the Montauk Superburger competition was born.

“It really started with a couple of us in someone’s backyard,” Mr. Leventhal said during a telephone interview last Thursday. “Then, everyone kept asking for more and more and I just kind of let it grow as organically as possible. Every year we would add one or two interesting folks to the competition.”

Last year, the competition was public but only through minimal ticket sales. Now, the Superburger coordinators finally have a venue that is big enough to accommodate a whole bunch of burger lovers. The sixth annual Montauk Superburger competition will be held on Saturday, August 25, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. at the Montauk Yacht Club.

Being one of the premier food experts in New York, Mr. Leventhal takes on the responsibility of selecting an interesting lineup for the competition.

“I just invite people that I think would cook a great burger,” he said simply.” To me, the most fun about it is that there are always a few chefs in the mix who don’t even cook burgers in their restaurants and it is cool to see what their take on a burger is. I try to find some really great chefs who might do something interesting and shock everyone with how great a burger they do.”

According to Mr. Leventhal, last year’s runner-up was a regular guy, not a chef. Jesse Gerstein of Brooklyn cooked a killer burger. He’s been invited back to give it another go.

“Jesse was an amateur last year but he did an awesome burger, I’m excited to see what he does this year,” Mr. Leventhal said.

Mr. Gerstein has never cooked in a restaurant but that is the beauty of the competition, Mr. Leventhal said, pitting chefs up against home cooks.

“Nothing beats being outside in the fresh air, with a cold beer, and something sizzling on the grill,” Mr. Gerstein said during an e-mail interview last week. “That’s what summer is all about.”

Having had the opportunity to work with some enormously talented chefs, last year’s winner said he has picked up a lot of tips and tricks to help him in the competition.

“I really enjoyed watching people enjoy something I cooked last year,” he said. “And I learned to drink plenty of water, wear a ton of sunscreen, and have only one shot of bourbon before it all gets started.”

This year, Mr. Gerstein plans to stay true to his ideal version of a bacon cheeseburger. He said he feels strongly about keeping it simple.

“Burgers are such an integral and familiar part of just about everyone’s summer experience that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Just pay attention to the important things like the meat, the seasoning and the temperature of your grill and you’ll be fine.”

Mr. Leventhal agreed with that notion and said his favorite burger last year was cooked up by Wylie Dufresne, owner and chef of wd-50 restaurant in Manhattan.

“It had this really pure American burger flavor,” Mr. Leventhal said. “Wylie rarely does anything that basic, he made his own cheese and had flavored the meat perfectly, but it was a surprise in terms of the way it was presented. Coming from him, it was a great contrast. For such an intellectual and leading edge chef to do something so straightforward, that was great.”

The competition is pretty loosely formatted, according to Mr. Leventhal. The contestants come in a team of two and they have two hours to plate their burgers, making it a contest that measures both concept and timing.

Each judge grades every burger on a 100-point scale and the team with the highest average wins. This year’s judging panel includes well-known food experts such as Pat LaFrieda of LaFrieda Meat Purveyors; Spike Mendelsohn, former “Top Chef” competitor and the 2009 South Beach Burger Bash Winner; Josh Capon, the 2009 and 2011 NYC Burger Bash People’s Choice Champion; Kate Krader, senior editor of Food & Wine Magazine; and Lee “The Ring” Schrager, of NYC/South Beach Wine & Food Festivals.

“It’s an amazing panel, they know what they are doing,” said Mr. Leventhal.

Competitors this year will include: Michael White, Mike Defonzo, Seamus Mullen, Dan Aldworth, Ryan Solien, Mehdi Brunet-Benkritly, Alex Stupak, Zak Pelaccio, Sarah Simmons, James Ramsey, Stu “The Grifter” Willson, PJ Calapa and Harold Moore. Restaurants such as The Burger Joint, Momofuku Milk Bar, PJ Clarke’s Tertulia, Fatty Crab, Montauk Yacht Club, Commerce, Fedora and City Grit will be represented.

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