March, 2013. A fire erupts in Albion Street Kitchen, Warren Turnbull’s two-month-old bistro in Surry Hills. The fire wrecks the place, including the restaurant’s graffitied back alley; where Turnbull had set up a small, casual burger and milkshake section of the restaurant. Feeling castrated and confused, Turnbull (fresh from closing poplar fine-dining restaurant, Assiette) decides to ditch the bistro completely and reopen as Chur Burger; a burger-only restaurant run by a fine-dining chef. When it opens there’s nothing like it in Sydney. “There were good burgers in good restaurants with good chefs, but I saw this opportunity because there wasn't really a burger restaurant apart from McDonald’s or Grill'd. There was an opportunity to open somewhere where people could go and sit down with a burger and a glass of beer or wine in a cool environment,” says Turnbull.
The only thing comparable at the time was Mary’s, a Newtown pub pumping out American fast food inspired burgers with the help from Tetsuya’s Alumnus Luke Powell (head chef at LP's Quality Meats). “I had a beer with Kenny (Graham) and Jake [Smyth] and they knew exactly what they wanted to do, burgers and fried chicken. They knew exactly the flavour profiles and everything they wanted," Powell says. Smyth and Graham had been working on four burgers, a fried chicken burger, a vegetarian burger, a cheeseburger and a Mary’s burger with special sauce. They gave the recipes to Powell and he provided the technical nous of how deliver it. “Our reference points to Luke were MacDonald’s and Shake Shack because he hadn't had all the burgers I'd had overseas. Shake shack did a really good job of making a bar burger approachable to families,” Smyth says.
Mary’s had nostalgic, soft and classic American burgers. Chur made chefy new-style burgers with brioche buns, pork and slaw. Together their success set the precedent for a new wave of burgers across Sydney. “Mary's and I started at the same time. The next six months was crazy and even now it's still going crazy. There are places opening up all over the place,” says Turnbull.
July, 2015. Neil Perry, executive chef of the Rockpool Group announces his recently opened Burger Project is going to expand to six new sites across Australia by the end of next year. Along with Perry’s new burger chain, the previous two years in Sydney welcomed Tomislav Martinovic’s (ex Fat Duck) Five Points Burgers, food trucks Mister Gees and Nighthawk Diner, Eat Burger, The Tuckshop, Cheekyburger as well as new stores from Mary’s and Chur Burger. “I'm not surprised by it because I've seen how big it's become overseas. American fast-food culture in the last few years has become a very big part of what's happening here,” says Perry.
While the stories and fame of Chur Burger, Mary’s and Burger Project have been well documented, another big influence on the scene comes from a more surprising place.
Early last year Ani Green set up a Facebook group with three of her friends. “I had a friend email me a list of burgers they wanted to try. There was about 10 on the list. I said, ‘I ‘wanna do this, but logistically, we won't be able to go to all these together’.” They called it the Fatties Burger Appreciation Society, a place where they could post reviews of burgers and send them to each in order to, “find the ultimate burger”. Not long after, a few friends joined. They invited their friends, who invited a few of their friends and now, to the great surprise of Green and the other moderators, the page is monstrously popular, with 20,000 members, and burger reviews are published every hour.
Armed with thousands of hungry members, the group quickly grew in influence. Good reviews and news about new openings caused restaurants to be suddenly inundated with “Fatties” (what members call themselves). “Some of the businesses that have jumped on the page and been involved have changed as a result,” says Chris Burrell, one of the page’s moderators. Burrell mentions Bar Luca, a relatively unknown city bar that gained an enormous increase in popularity after interacting with FBAS and its members. Another good example is Danno’s, a somewhat anonymous Dee Why cafe that exploded in popularity after its experimental burger chef Josh Arthurs (now at Burgers by Josh) posted his images of his creations to the FBAS page.
It’s difficult to measure exactly how influential the group has been when it comes to the proliferation and success of speciality burger shops; it becomes even more ambiguous when you consider its potential impact on burger styles. Although it’s difficult to generalise the opinions of thousands of burger fans, the page seems to have taste for two particular styles: anything gluttonous or excessive – think double patties, extra cheese or anything with bacon in it or on it – and Americanised cheeseburgers. Whether FBAS is an influencer or merely a representation of a wider trend, there has certainly been a shift in Sydney towards elaborate, creative burgers, and classic American cheeseburgers with mustard, pickles and American cheese.