We ate in, I ate with my hands, the juices dribbling down my arms and gathering in little pools just below my elbows. It was meaty, the smoky bacon was crisp. All the flavours combined in each and every mouthful. I had my legs tucked underneath me, and would occasionally prop myself up to sip my milkshake from its silver canister, through its paper straw. It was vanilla, double malt.
I don’t recall what I had done that day to deserve the treat. However, I do remember hamburgers were the talk of the neighbourhood. Paul’s Hamburgers, a Sydney institution to this day, had opened in my area in 1957, the year I was born. However, it was at the local milk bar, or “the Greek” as many were known, that I had my first. I’m sure it’s a familiar tale for many of the kids of my generation.
The concept of the milk bar, a family-friendly alternative to the local pubs and tap houses, was pretty firmly engrained in the Australian landscape by then. In fact Australia boasted up to 4000 registered milk bars in their heyday. Sadly, that number would be greatly diminished now.
The milk bar sold a variety of groceries alongside mixed lollies and a few cooked items, it was quick to become the cornerstone of every country town and every city suburb. Interestingly, given the Greek heritage of many of the owners, the culinary, and indeed aesthetic, leaning of these milk bars was largely American. There was often a pinball machine, a juke box (and American music within) and, of course, there was the food they served.
The question as to why the Greek’s found themselves as unwitting Trojan horse for American culture is an interesting one. The early immigration wave came to our shores after America had shut her door to Greece. However, the ties to other family members and travellers, the diaspora, meant that the American way of life and culinary culture was shared among the Greek community across the ocean.
Of course, nothing exists in a bubble and it wasn’t long before our own flavour was imparted on the milk bar and, indeed the humble hamburger. It is thought the opening of the Edgell cannery in 1926 and Golden Circle in 1947 played a role in the next development. Enter the ring of pineapple. Enter a slice of tinned beetroot.
In 1971 the game changed again. The Americans took back control of their own culinary heritage, bringing their version of the hamburger joint to Australia. In that same year, both McDonalds and Hungry Jacks opened their first outlets in Australia. The hamburger became a commodity and fast food was born.
You all know the story. The golden arches, the fries, the big mac special sauce lettuce cheese pickled onion on a sesame seed bun. The consistency, the sameness, the monotony, the Mcdonaldisation of our food culture.
The steady march of McDonalds stole the limelight away from the milk bar. But it did have positive ramifications. It created jobs, particularly for young kids. It was an easy place for the unskilled to work their way up the ranks. It provided an entry into the world of hospitality.
Ten years after my first hamburger, I found myself engulfed in the world of the commercial kitchen. I worked in restaurants, I worked up the ladder. I opened my own restaurant. Rockpool was all about fine dining. I was focussed on the top end of the market. The very best produce, the importance of provenance, the environment, sustainability.
Nearly half a century after that first burger, in 2006, we opened our first Rockpool Bar & Grill. I found myself focussed on the grill, on meat, and my interest in the humble hamburger returned. I wanted to elevate the burger from humble to incredible. I made it my mission to make one of the world’s best. I travelled Australia and the world to get a grasp on what that meant.
It began with a local producer – with David Blackmore’s full-blood wagyu. The wonderful fattiness of the Wagyu picks up the smoky quality of the wood-fired grill perfectly. (A good caramelised crust on the patty is one of the keys to the right flavour.) David is one of the most thoughtful farmers I know, he produces the best Wagyu outside Japan. His wagyu program is all about breed and feed. His cows are ration-fed, allowing them to also graze the land, it is an incredible system run by an incredible man. This is where I decided to begin building an incredible burger.
Travelling a little further afield, I was inspired by Judy Rogers and her great burger at Zuni Café in San Fran. In particular, I was taken by her pickles; we now use her pickle recipe from her wonderful book – it’s a significant part of what the burger is about. To finish we added bacon, a slice of nutty gruyere, our house-made tomato relish. All these flavours are brought together on a brioche bun. It was an instant hit. It remains on our menus today.
As soon as the burger had been elevated I felt the need to pull it back down to earth. The obsession became my project and in November 2014 Burger Project was born.
I wanted to create fast food using slow food values – I wanted to prove it was possible. All the same care regarding the provenance of the ingredients, making it accessible to everyone. We swapped the Wagyu for 36 month grass-fed Cape Grim beef, using chuck and brisket that we hand-grind on site. The focus on the environmental sustainability of the produce remains; we use only free-range chicken and eggs, we source the best grass-fed beef. Even our packaging is sourced with the environment in mind.
However, the commitment to sustainability goes much further than the products. This humble hamburger project has allowed us to consider the sustainability of our industry. How do we encourage and nurture youth? What do we need to do to help give them the tools they need to develop?
The Burger Project gave us the vehicle to start conversations with local governments, with tafes and employment agencies. With their help we have created programs to encourage youth, the unemployed and refugees into the hospitality industry. We are working together to create a pre-employment program that helps them to receive a certificate 2 in hospitality. It’s a platform, from there they could end up running the store, running the floor or running the kitchen in one of our fine dining restaurants and indeed the greater industry.
In a lovely twist of fate, one of the Burger Project sites is situated in Martin Place, where Sydney’s very first milk bar opened in 1932. People queued in their thousands for a taste of America. I am proud that we can now offer a burger to the people of Martin Place that comes from such a good place, with a taste that is specifically that of Australia, her people, her produce. A taste of our heritage in one mouthful, thanks to the humble hamburger.