Carla's Corner: Judging the Perfect Burger

I know a number of people think that I'm a vegetarian because I was so vocal about making vegetarian dishes when I was on Top Chef. Truth be told, I'm not; but I care deeply about vegetarians getting a well thought-out meal as opposed to sides and lettuce leaves. Now that I’ve put that speculation to rest, let’s get to the topic of today's blog—burgers!

Those of you who knew I wasn’t a vegetarian may have even heard me talk about what I would want for my last meal—a hamburger. Nothing fancy, just a good old-fashioned hamburger on a soft bun that is the same size as the burger and preferably toasted on the inside. It should feature lightly seasoned, high-quality meat cooked medium rare. It should be complemented with melted aged cheddar cheese, thinly sliced onions, good mayo, mustard, thinly sliced dill pickles, tomatoes (if they’re in season) and crisp lettuce. I’ll take that with a tall glass of homemade lemonade, a couple of onion rings and some perfectly cooked fries, please. That’s it. Simple, but perfect. So, when I was asked to judge the Amstel Light Burger Bash presented by Allen Brothers and hosted by Rachel Ray in South Beach it was a no-brainer. I jumped at the opportunity. It was like getting the chance to interview for my dying wish or something like that. Nothing morbid, just something that would make me smile and lick my lips before I left town—for good.

There were a total of 27 chefs showing off their burger chops—20 of whom used Allen Brothers' products and competed for the Golden Grill Award. The burgers featured everything from turkey to pork belly to kobe beef. The general public also got to weigh in and choose their favorite burger out of the 27. Joining me as judges were Art Smith, Divya Gugnani, Kate Krader and Ryan D'Agostino. I took my judging duties very seriously, and I wanted to be prepared. So, knowing that I was going to have the equivalent of five full-sized burgers, I started my day with a double serving of oatmeal with raisins and some grapefruit. It’s counter-intuitive, but I ate constantly during the day to get my belly ready for what was to come.

All the burgers had to feature the Idaho potato in some way. Of course, right? There’s nothing more perfect than a great French fry, but some of the chefs really showed off the range of the Idaho spud. Tater tots were a popular and yummy choice, we saw perfectly crisped shoestrings and David Burke's puffy pillows of fried goodness—pommes souffle. Now those were impressive. I was glad we arrived early because I got a chance walk around and check out what the chefs were doing before the fray. I swooned when I had Spike's pink cotton candy milkshakes. Talk about a throwback to childhood! It tasted like Nestle's strawberry Quik. Am I dating myself?

For the most part, the burgers were degrees of goodness, and there was something for everyone. Well, almost everyone. No veggie burgers. Dr. Arthur Agatston represented with his South Beach Diet turkey burger on a flax seed whole wheat bun. I must say, though, that fat is a very important component to a great burger. So here are my favorites:

Michael Schwartz’s of Michael’s Genuine did a Bacon Burger with smoked cheddar, heirloom tomatoes and local lettuce. Marcus Samuelsson banged out the kobe burger with chips on it. I loved the crunch and the bun was so buttery and soft. This was burger number 15 or so for me, and I still wanted to finish it all. I mentioned Spike's cotton candy shake before, but I didn't talk about his burger. It was a straightforward bacon cheeseburger without a lot of fuss, and I liked it. I might be a little partial to my Top Chef D.C. homey, but it would totally be in the running for my last meal. Some of the burgers were a bit rare for my taste, but I was all over David Burke's 40 Day Dry Aged Burger with Cheddar, Maple Pepper Bacon and Pickled Watermelon Skewer. It was like eating steak tartare on a bun. The meat was sooooo good.

You wouldn’t expect anything less from an Iron Chef, so it’s not surprising that Michael Symon (B Spot), Bobby Flay (Bobby’s Burger Palace) and Masaharu Morimoto (Morimoto) all had amazing burgers. Michael Symon’s burger had swiss cheese, pastrami and coleslaw on it. Can you taste it? There's a reason this is a classic combination. I love, love, love coleslaw on my sandwiches. Bobby Flay did a spice-crusted burger with coleslaw, jack cheese, barbecue sauce and a cactus pear margarita. Nice! There's that coleslaw again. When it came down to announcing the winner, Michael Symon and Bobby Flay were neck and neck with Morimoto taking the Best Dressed Burger with his glazed pork belly. Now that was a tasty burger! It was eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-your-head good.

Mark Zeitouni of the Standard Hotel took the prize for the Best Side Dish with his tater tots. There's definitely something fabulous about catapulting the diner back to yesteryear and a childhood memory.

So people's choice winner was Michael Symon, with Bobby Flay a very close second. Michael Schwartz was the winner of the Golden Grill Award. Congratulations to all the chefs for a job well done. It was a great party, and I'm happily wearing my "medium rare" tattoo on my right bicep to prove it.

Until next time...cook with love!


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