Mustachioed servers in plaid shirts and caps — French clichés come to life — called lunch orders as a throng of hungry hipsters lurched forward at Big Fernand. The house special that had customers lining up? The hamburger. Make that the hamburgé. In a marketing move worthy of a “Saturday Night Live” skit, the restaurant has instituted its own name for the simple sandwich, which Parisians are embracing citywide whether with Tomme de Savoie cheese or with good old cheddar.
This might surprise me if I didn’t know a secret: They have an insatiable appetite for all things American here. Much of what counts as cool — or “super cool,” said with a French accent — has roots in the States, Brooklyn, N.Y., being the mecca. To my continued bemusement, fashion-forward fathers consider Abercrombie & Fitch the last word in casual wear. Chucks have recently been chucked for Vans, brunch for bagels. Now hamburgers have become ubiquitous.
“It’s the mode,” said Brice Morvent, whose “sliders” have a cult following and account for 50 percent of sales at his eponymous cafe. “I thought it was [only] for a few moments two years ago. I thought it was finished, [but] even today more and more restaurants do the burger” — which is good news for travelers who prefer their beef brown to bloody and could leave Paris fulfilled without having touched tartare.
The trend started in 2011, when Kristin Frederick opened Le Camion qui fume. Frederick, a California native who attended culinary school here and married a Frenchman, had the idea for the food truck first, then settled on her staple. “There were burgers on every menu in town,” she recalled. “They weren’t good, but if there was one that was even mediocre, everyone ordered it.”
As it happened, her version was far from mediocre — it was mouthwatering. The critics went crazy for the “barbecue” and its exotic onion ring, turning her truck into a local phenomenon. Lengthy queues remain her biggest complaint, but apparently not so big: “Kristin, it was great meeting you, and any line would be worth the wait!” an American tourist shouted after polishing off her meal during a September lunch rush.
Frederick had been busy, chatting up her cooking crew and clientele. Dressed in skinny jeans, studded flats, and a leather jacket, she blended in with the crowd. A trio of students from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers epitomized the overarching look: denim, flannel, and scruff. “It’s very good. It’s different,” Yoann Tardy said of the burger’s popularity.
What makes it different is the meat: “Their ground beef isn’t meant to be a hamburger. They’re meant to be tartare,” Frederick explained of the French options. She solves this problem by grinding her own mix, which doesn’t shy away from fat. “I think of all the burgers in the city, ours is the most American,” she said as we tucked into two barbecues ($10.86 each) — dressed with cheddar, bacon, onion ring and sauce — on the steps of the Madeleine church, around the corner from the truck’s parking spot. “They all have their thing,” she added.
Of course, the foodies have their favorites, including hers and a few other places that launched in recent years. Frederick gamely agreed to taste the competition with me, and we met at noon the next day to begin our burger bender at Morvent’s Au Comptoir de Brice. From our barstools overlooking the open kitchen, she was like a scientist surveying another researcher’s lab.
After exchanging pleasantries, Morvent — known here for appearing on French “Top Chef” — admitted that he still hadn’t made it to Frederick’s truck. She graciously conceded that the hours could be tough and set about watching him empty trays of house-made buns. “They look really good. They’re beautiful,” said Frederick, who pays similar attention to her brioche variety sourced from an American pâtissier.
The similarities end there. “I said, I’m going to do a hamburger that’s healthy,” Morvent said. “We don’t have the same meat. There’s no fat.” This fits with the overall green aesthetic of the comptoir, which sits across from an organic fruit-and-vegetable stand in a covered market. To add flavor, he applies two sauces to his sliders, which come in a set with salad and fries ($20.36). “Yum, good,” said Frederick, noting the use of tarragon. “The sauce is super-present.”
The dish was less familiar comfort food than a tasty interpretation. “It’s really interesting for me how French people do hamburgers,” she continued. (Not to mention how they traditionally eat them: with a knife and fork.) “They don’t have the same point of reference. And for me, that’s awesome.” For Steve Burggraf of Big Fernand, that’s the point. “It’s 100 percent French,” he said of his so-called atelier and its hamburgé. “No cheddar chez nous.”
Instead, he offers takes on the sandwich like Le Bartholomé ($16.28) with raclette cheese and onion confit. Customers can also create their own, choosing a meat, a cheese, a vegetable, a sauce, and an herb from a list of regional products. “This is the French way of doing the hamburger,” he explained at the restaurant’s location in the ninth arrondissement. Apparently, it works, as a late lunch line stretched down the sidewalk, snaking into the small space where rubbing elbows was a given.
Lucky for those fans killing time by the curb, the restaurant is fast. Burggraf soon brought our burger to the table and ceremoniously cut it in half — after pulling on a pair of latex gloves. This was serious business, I joked. “Oui, c’est toujours sérieux,” he deadpanned back. More than Morvent, whose demeanor and restaurant felt understated, Burggraf seemed made for reality television. Big Fernand is an extension of his personality: animated, high-energy, appealing.
He and Frederick talked shop while we ate contentedly. He told her Morvent gave him the idea to apply two sauces, but on meat they stood opposed. “Me, I’m pro-fat,” he said. “Me too,” she agreed. So are plenty of Parisians unsurprisingly, and both are building on their success. Burggraf plans to bring his hamburgé to the world — or at least to franchise in London next — and also has a hot dog joint. Frederick has a new deli and other concepts in the works, including gourmet popcorn.
Walking to Blend, which brought us to our burger breaking point and would require another visit, we concluded that if hers was American, Morvent’s was novelty, and Burggraf’s was French. Still, there will always be others to try. Instead of an afterthought, “a hamburger has become a staple,” Frederick said. “It’s in the habits.” Indeed, it’s practically gone native — which any expat will attest is no small triumph.
Megan Lisagor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.