The 2011 CHOW 13

Adam Fleischman: Postmodern Burgers

We're used to burgers that come wrapped in nostalgia, from the Fonz-grade flash of Johnny Rockets to the drive-in redux of In-N-Out. Even Shake Shack, with its Concretes and cheese fries, feels like Danny Meyer's play to purify the 1960s boardwalk burger stand.

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SCULPTED ILLUSTRATION LIZ LOMAX

But in just over two years, Adam Fleischman has made all that burger nostalgia seem older, even, than Henry Winkler. His Umami Burger, opened in LA in 2009, blew the roof off the concept of what a burger could be, using sophisticated cooking techniques and complex, unusual flavor combinations.

Umami's burger patties (the precise cuts of beef, ground on site, are a secret) are first slow-cooked in CVap vapor ovens, then seared on the same plancha-top ranges that modernist-cuisine chefs like Daniel Patterson use. Toppings on Fleischman's basic Umami Burger include roasted tomato, caramelized onion, sautéed shiitakes, and Parmesan frico (that's a cheese crisp), with house-made ketchup.

Fleischman was a liberal arts major at the University of Maryland, with no formal culinary training. Before opening Umami, he had been a wine guy, first working for an importer, later opening a couple of wine bars in Southern California's Culver City. Probably nobody swirling Barolo at Fleischman's BottleRock in 2006 could have guessed its thirtysomething owner would become a restaurant mogul with international aspirations.

Fleischman came under the spell of umami, the so-called fifth taste, through books and the Umami Information Center (there's a link to the Japanese website on Umami Burger's site). In his home kitchen, Fleischman tinkered with every conceivable way to lavish hamburgers with umami-rich ingredients like tomatoes, kombu (seaweed), Stilton, shiitakes, even anchovies.

Fleischman wants to open as many as 40 Umami Burgers across the country, and a hundred Umami Ko fast-food spin-offs around the globe. Meanwhile, his Neapolitan pizza concept, 800°, is due in LA later this fall, and his Umamicatessen food court is scheduled to open in Los Angeles in January 2012. —J.B.

How did you get your obsession with umami? In Japan?
No, never been to Japan. Umami? I first became aware of it through cookbooks, really. Heston Blumenthal talks about it a lot; I'd been a fan of his for a long time. And then I guess the epiphany was when I was eating one of those In-N-Out burgers: They had packed so much umami into that product I wanted to see if I could pack even more. I knew how to cook by then, so I thought, "Let me see if I can make this work."

Were you consciously determined to remake the burger as adult food, rather than some nostalgic artifact of childhood?
Absolutely, that was totally the intention. Johnny Rockets, In-N-Out: I would say that they're entirely backward-looking. Even Shake Shack—I know Danny [Meyer], we're friends. But I'd say as far as style, cooking technique—it's a nostalgia-based setup that's not that interesting to me. There were just so many nostalgia-based burger chains out there. We wanted to look forward. I think we did it.

NEXT: SAM BOMPAS AND HARRY PARR