Grilling season is upon us, and with a new summer comes a new opportunity: do you want to throw the same old frozen patty on the grill, garnish with lettuce and tomato, and serve? Or do you want to up your burger game from so-so to insane?
We’ve enlisted one of the world’s most innovative burger chefs to tell us the story of his wild creations and offer up some practical wisdom for unlocking your own creativity when it comes to America’s favorite food between two toasty buns.
In the world of gourmet burgers, chef Mathew Ramsey is a legend. He broke on the scene in 2014 when he began posting achingly delicious stacks with funny, irreverent names. It was a fusion of food-porn-meets-meme the internet was hungry for and the site, the aptly named PornBurger, went viral. He's since taken the PornBurger site down, but the media hype led to a coffee table book of the same name.
The images are sensual and maximalist, and you might think Mathew Ramsey has an entire production team spritzing and fluffing behind the scenes for the perfect shot. Not so. The PornBurger project is a one-man operation, which makes it that much more impressive.
Chef Ramsey’s burgers may be half art project but that doesn’t mean backyard grillers like you and me can’t learn from his approach. Read on to discover the mindset, approach, and practical tips for making your own naughtily delicious stack.
Primer: Tell me about the origins of the PornBurger project – where did the idea come from?
Mathew Ramsey: The actual idea for the site came to me in the shower, which is ironic considering something so filthy came from something so clean. I was in desperate need of a creative project to pull me through some seasonal doldrums, so I leaned on my ever-gluttonous nature and my classical trainings in photography and food to challenge myself. The burger seemed the perfect vessel to explore, explode, and reassemble. Thirty minutes later I had purchased PornBurger (dot) me (.com was already taken), and an hour after that, I was cooking.
So PornBurger was, in a sense, a playground in which to express your creativity with food?
That's a really good way of putting it. I've always worked really well having creative parameters that I can bounce between, and potentially bend. PornBurger became this deep dive into what makes a burger, a burger. It was almost like a game of Jenga: which elements could I add or remove and still keep the stack intact.
What was your first stack? How did it turn out?
The Bambi, which was comprised of a seasoned venison patty, smothered in melted taleggio cheese, creamy sauce chasseur (“hunter sauce”), pickel beets, pan-fried spam, and sandwiched between two buttery buns. While it pairs nicely with 70's porn, it was definitely my first. I mean, it tasted great, but stylistically I was still finding my voice.
What was the response?
My close friends and family seemed to be excited by it, which eventually led to some of my earlier stacks going viral.
Was it always about sharing your creations on the website or did it start off as a purely personal project?
The need to create was purely personal. I had hoped that by the end of it, I would have some collection of food photography to use for my portfolio and maybe some recipes I could gift to my mom. I've always found I'm happiest when I'm creating. Over the years the medium for that has changed from oil painting, to photography, to filmmaking, design, and now cooking. At the end of the day, working with food, encompasses all of the sensory elements, making it truly the ultimate medium.
The images are sizzling (GET IT). How did you capture such amazing photos?
Late nights, weed, and whiskey fueled those images. Photographing food can be challenging. The moment it is cooked and assembled is the moment it starts decomposing and breaking down. So time is of the essence when capturing those oozy sauce drips. My basic approach to photographing food for PornBurger is to flood it with “day” light, so that each element pops. Essentially, that involved three different LED flood lights, because I live in a dark basement apartment.
When did you hit that tipping point where you were like, “Damn. This is serious.” And what was that moment?
I was eating a ham sandwich alone in my basement and watching my site stats jump from the usual 50 page views to over 500k in a single night. So, naturally, I started choking on my ham sandwich. As I looked around for a chair to heimlich myself on, I actually thought…”Fuck. This just got real. DON'T YOU DIE ON ME.”
What’s the weirdest email you’ve ever gotten about PornBurger?
After a couple of years of flying my burger freak flag, I have had a lot of fun opportunities open up. Burgers seem to be a universal language, that cultures all over the world can wrap their lips around. I've gotten a few indecent proposals out of the deal, but mostly a lot of fun conversations about collaborations. One that never fully came to fruition involved 3D printing a burger, using cells harvested from my own leg. I wanted to call it, “The Manwhich.”
Speaking of: where did the PornBurger site go? Too many accidental navigations to PB.com?
What started off as a year long project turned into something closer to a two year endeavor climaxing in a book from HarperCollins. The site had become slow and clunky, and I wanted to do a hard reset as I begin work on my next project. Impermanence makes life infinitely more interesting, wouldn't you say?
Visually, your stacks are works of art. Do they also taste good?
The only burger I can whole heartedly say did not taste good, was the Trumple Foreskin. I'm biased though. It's hard creating something you love about somebody you hate. That said, Pornburger was always at least one-part debaucherous consumption. Even though, I was the only one actually eating these burgers, I made sure each component was to my liking before showcasing it on my site.
When you sit down to build a stack, where do you start?
My gut certainly has a mind of it's own (think Krang from TMNT), and it's usually the intellectual muscle I flex when coming up with new combinations. That said, inspiration can come from anywhere, especially when you've committed to a culinary slog. For a solid year, PornBurger became this lens through which I interpolated the world. Sometimes a horrible food pun (like the James Franco-phile, or A Fish Called Hitachi Wand-a) would set me on a path, sometimes it was a technique like sous vide (Bill U Murray Me?) that would titillate my curiosities, and sometimes it was ingredient driven (like the My Bloody Valentine, or the Lolita). Even a simple question like, “Can I drink it?” would send me down a dark rabbit hole.
What is your advice for regular guy who wants to create their own stack & entertain their friends this grilling season? Where should they begin?
I like to say that a good stack operates like a well oiled orgy – every component has its part to play. While the patty should obviously be given a spotlight, without an all-star support squad of condiments and accoutrements, your burger is going to fall flat.
When constructing a patty, I always make sure that it actually sizes up with the bun, so that I'm getting a hot beef injection with every bite. There's nothing less satisfying than biting into a burger and getting only bread.
Also, starting with quality ingredients is always going to put you well on your way to a quality end product. Befriending your butcher will help with that.
Broadly speaking, how can someone unlock their creativity with food?
Experiment. Get weird. Play with your food. Use ingredients you've never tried. Some of the greatest adventures in eating come from the unexpected. It's kind of like fashion – there's a time and a place for the standards, but where's the fun in wearing khakis every day? Sure, bacon is great on a burger…. BUT, what if I were to rub the bacon with white miso and parmesan? It's a very satisfying and easy way to level up.
You’re also a classically trained chef. Any tips for getting that $15 gastropub burger flavor at home? At the Primer Test Kitchen we’ve tried mixing different cuts, cooking in cast iron, etc., but just can’t get that maximum flavor?
When it comes to making burger patties, fat is not only your friend, it's where all the flavor is. If you're going with pre-ground and packaged beef, aim for nothing less than a 20% fat blend. If you're grinding your own, fat can be added in many forms; from pork belly, to aged beef fat, to even cannabis infused lard. Embrace the dark side.
As far as cuts go. I've spent a lot of time researching what would become the PornBurger blend. Use it. Abuse it.
The PornBurger Blend
1 part sirloin (preferably aged)
1 1/2 parts short rib
2 parts chuck
What’s next in the crazy, questionable thrill ride that is your life?
After working at DC's Pineapple and Pearls for the majority of last year, I'm excited to be working on my own project which will shine a light on my tacosexuality. Myself and a rag-tag team of adventurers will be opening up a Mezcalaria and Oaxacan-inspired cocina in the coming year.
For more from Chef Ramsey, check out the PornBurger book on Amazon.