PARIS: Even if you couldn't be on the Champs-Élysées for Bastille Day on Monday to watch seven parachutists float down in front of President Nicolas Sarkozy, you can still celebrate the greatness of France with a new local tradition.
Eat a hamburger.
Beginning a few years ago but picking up momentum in the past nine months, hamburgers and cheeseburgers have invaded the city. Anywhere tourists are likely to go this summer — in St.-Germain cafes, in fashion-world hangouts, even in restaurants run by three-star chefs — they are likely to find a juicy beef patty, almost invariably on a sesame seed bun.
"It has the taste of the forbidden, the illicit — the subversive, even," said Hélène Samuel, a restaurant consultant here. "Eating with your hands, it's pure regression. Naturally, everyone wants it."
It is a startling turnaround in a country where a chef once sued McDonald's for $2.7 million in damages over a poster that suggested he was dreaming of a Big Mac. Hamburgers were everything that French dining is not: informal, messy, fast and foreign.
But as French chefs have embraced the quintessentially American food, they have also made it their own, incorporating Gallic flourishes like cornichons, fleur de sel and fresh thyme. These attempts to translate the burger, or maybe even improve it, strongly suggest that it is here to stay.
"It's not just a fad," said Frédérick Grasser-Hermé, who, as consulting chef at the Champs-Élysées boîte Black Calvados, developed a burger made with wagyu beef and seasoned with what she calls a black ketchup of blackberries and black currants. "It's more than that. The burger has become gastronomic."
Some of the most celebrated chefs in the city have taken up the challenge. Yannick Alléno, who earned a third Michelin star in 2007 for his precise, rarefied cuisine at Le Meurice, serves a thick, succulent hamburger at his casual restaurant, Le Dali. Alléno's baker, Frédéric Lalos, a winner of one of the country's fiercest cooking competitions, makes the buns. With smoked bacon, lettuce, dill pickles, mustard, mayonnaise and fries, the burger at Le Dali costs 35 euros, about $56.
Romain Corbière, the chef at Alain Ducasse's restaurant Le Relais du Parc, in a Norman-style manor near Trocadéro, cooks a seasonal burger a la plancha. This summer Corbière, a veteran of Ducasse's Louis XV in Monaco, is substituting a shrimp and squid patty for the beef burger he served in cooler weather.
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon offers Le Burger, actually two small burgers topped with slabs of foie gras of almost equal size.
The only thing more surprising than the about-face in chefs' attitudes may be the enthusiasm with which their patrons have devoured these haute burgers.
"I didn't think we would sell so many," said Sonia Ezgulian, guest chef at Café Salle Pleyel, which Samuel opened last fall in an airy, modernist space inside one of Paris's most prestigious concert halls.
On some days, as many as a third of her customers order the burger, which is offered alongside Mediterranean-inspired dishes like sea bass with fennel confit and pistachios. "Sometimes we say we have no more," she said. "It's just too much."
When a new guest chef replaces Ezgulian at the end of August, he will keep the burger on the menu. It's in his contract.
IT is not as if hamburgers were unknown in Paris. American restaurants here like Joe Allen have long served them. Grasser-Hermé ate her first in 1961 at the American Legion, 11 years before McDonald's unveiled its golden arches in France. But with few exceptions the local burgers were flat, overcooked and shunned even by American expatriates.
Other forms of ground or chopped beef have been enjoyed here for years as well. Butchers sell kilos of ground meat destined to become steak haché, a pan-seared patty made with lean meat, pressed into an oval, and served without a bun.
And while steak tartare shows up on practically every brasserie menu, chefs now recognize that a hamburger is not simply six ounces of chopped lean beef grilled until crusty.
"No, that would be an error," said Grasser-Hermé.
"A hamburger is the architecture of taste par excellence," she explained. "The meat needs to be a mix of fatty and lean. Not raw, not rare. It must be medium rare. At the same time the bread needs to be smooth, tepid, toasted on the sesame side. I like to brush the soft side with butter. There needs to be a crispy chiffonade of iceberg lettuce. Everything plays a role."
In developing the Salle Pleyel burger, Samuel and Ezgulian felt the weight of tradition. "We're a little terrified of making a mistake," said Samuel. "We cling to things like the soft buns, sweet-and-sour pickles, onions, tomatoes, cheese. We need these guideposts because we don't have the history, the context. Otherwise, for us, it's not a burger. It's a hot sandwich."
Yet Ezgulian has taken some liberties. The current version of her burger is a riff on steak tartare. She's kneaded a mixture of chopped sun-dried tomatoes and tangy cornichons and capers into the ground meat. Parmesan shavings stand in for the usual Cheddar.
Céline Parrenin, a co-owner of Coco & Co, a two-level place devoted to eggs that opened in St.-Germain last year, didn't feel any such compunction when she and her business partner, Franklin Reinhard, invented the Cocotte Burger. The Cheddar cheeseburger, with pine nuts and thyme mixed into the meat, sits on a toasted whole-wheat English muffin pedestal. In a wink at the restaurant's egg theme and recalling the time-honored steak à cheval, a fried egg is placed on top.
All the chefs are making hamburgers for the first time, and they are uncertain about the exact cuts of beef they are using. Alléno, for example, simply relies on his butcher, Yves-Marie Le Bourdonnec, whose shop, Le Couteau d'Argent, is in the Paris suburb Asnières.
For Alléno's burgers, Le Bourdonnec delivers a mix of chuck and beef rib. But the butcher thinks the American T-bone steak is an ideal cut. The T-bone does not exist in France, but to make his point, Le Bourdonnec made his own. He combined a piece of filet, which is tender but less flavorful, with a piece of contrefilet, which is marbled and tasty, but slightly less tender.
Using a long, razor-sharp knife, he sliced the meat into quarter-inch dice, chopped it fine with a cleaver and shaped it into patties, to be cooked rare in a hot skillet filmed with olive oil. No bun, no pickles, no cheese, no special sauce; only a few grains of fleur de sel.
"What you have is texture and the flavor of meat," he said. "No artifice."
"That's not a burger, Papa," pointed out his 13-year-old son, Paul. "There's no bread."
HOW did the dripping, juicy hamburger come to be one of the signature dishes of Paris? For one thing, expatriate French chefs reinventing American classics in the United States made it safe for their countrymen to try it back home.
"I didn't have this burger culture," said Samuel. "A hamburger, what's that? I didn't get it. Then I tasted it at DB Bistro Moderne," she said, speaking of Daniel Boulud's restaurant in New York. "If Daniel hadn't done it, maybe I wouldn't have either. He helped me understand."
Corbière grew up with burgers, but he didn't think of putting one on the Relais du Parc menu until he tasted Laurent Tourondel's Black Angus burger at BLT Market in New York last October.
Both Tourondel and Boulud laughed when they were told that they had helped the hamburger conquer Paris.
"I think it's shocking, but at the same time the French are realizing that a burger is real food, it's good," said Boulud.
Tourondel grew up in a small town where, he said "nobody ever saw a burger until 10 years ago. Everybody was against it, but everybody goes to eat it."
Whether the interpretations are classical or whimsical, Americans would probably recognize most of the burgers in Paris. They might be flummoxed, however, by the etiquette associated with eating them.
Ketchup does not automatically come with a burger. If requested, it may appear in a porcelain bowl. At the Café Salle Pleyel, servers do produce a ketchup bottle on demand. At lunch there one recent day, a businessman shook the ketchup onto his plate, then, taking a knife in his right hand, spread the condiment onto a forkful of hamburger in his left hand before lifting it to his mouth.
Alicia Fontanier, the co-owner and chef at the tiny gourmet bar Ferdi on the rue du Mont-Thabor, laments that many of her customers insist on using silverware. Fontanier is the sister of Maria Luisa Poumaillou, who owns a couple of boutiques down the street, and many of the socialites, expatriate international types and fashionistas who shop there invariably stop in for her burger, the Mac Ferdi, and guarapita de parchita, a potent drink of cachaça and passion fruit juice
"Eating with your hands is part of the pleasure," Fontanier said, seated in a dining room decorated chiefly with her 15-year-old son's childhood toy collection. "But nine out of 10 people use knife and fork. I'm happy not to see it. I'm in the kitchen."
At Floors, a three-story diner in a former printing shop near Sacré-Coeur that features custom burgers, Emil Lager, a waiter, said that many of the diners seem self-conscious about ordering.
"Another thing I've noticed is that the muscled guys order the boeuf double with bacon, egg and fries, and a Diet Coke," he said. "Then they share a cheesecake. They don't want to gain weight."
Also, he explained, Parisians don't really understand about drinking a milkshake with the burger. They order it as dessert.