At lunchtime at the newly-opened Coffee Club in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, hungry customers were rushing in to fill their bellies with big, juicy, diner style burgers.
“The bread is the most important, then comes the meat and it absolutely has to have perfectly melted cheese in it,” said Julia, 31, describing her idea of a perfect burger.
Julia who has become a regular at the Coffee Club told The Local she only ate burgers in burger joints where she knows it’s a specialty.
“Traditional French restaurants usually have burgers on their menus because it’s a popular meal,” said Julia.
“But I don’t think they put a lot of work in selecting the right bread, the good meat, so that’s why I never order it,” she said.
3 steaks?, du frometon? en veux-tu en voilà, de la sauce maison?, des oignons frits, de la poitrine fumée?, des tomates séchées? et quand même quelques herbes fraîches?
Qui est capable de manger cet Hamburgé ? pic.twitter.com/OHMNx4ylfS
— Big Fernand (@BigFernand_FR) August 4, 2020
'A real French passion'
With 80 percent of restaurants in France serving a burger and specialist burger joints popping up around the country, the dish has become a real star of modern day French dining.
For several years now, France's burger consumption has been soaring. In 2019 some 1.7 billion hamburgers were digested by the French, according the restaurant industry expert Gira.
“It’s enormous, it’s the only product in the food industry that has multiplied by 10 in terms of volume in the last decade,” Bernard Boutboul, president of the restaurant industry expert Gira Conseil, told the Local.
'A magic formula'
But where does this “hysteria for burgers” come from?
Before 2012 in France, burgers were nearly exclusively found in McDonalds and Quick (two fast-food restaurants), according to Boutboul.
Today the iconic recipe, born in Hamburg and popularized in the US can be found in a wide range of French restaurants – streetfood joints, traditional brasseries and even starred restaurants.
“After the French restaurant Big Fernand introduced “the premium burger” in 2014, restaurant owners realised it was possible to create a burger of quality and 80 percent of them put one on their menu,” said Boutboul.
Eighty percent of the 145.000 restaurants in France (this includes brasseries, cafés, high standard restaurants…) which have a burger on their menu say it’s a top sell, according to Gira's statistics.
“To the point that burgers served in restaurants have replaced the traditional steak-frites (a meal served in almost every French brasserie)”, said Boutboul.
But why do the French in particular love the burger so much?
“It’s a magical formula,” said Boutboul.
“It contains the four products the French love the most: bread, beef, cheese and fries,” he said.
At the American themed diner Coffee Club in Paris' swanky 16th arrondissement, the burger is a bestseller.
An upgraded version of the American sandwich
It may sound ironic for some that a meal popularized in the US has become so famous in a country known for its haute cuisine.
Far from colonizing France, the French's passion for burgers has on the contrary been the opportunity for chefs to take a stand against junk food and what we could call 'Americanisation'.
“In restaurants, burgers are served on a plate, with French meat, fries made from French potatoes, it has been adapted to French standards, we’ve taken distance from the American aspect of the burger,” said Boutboul.
“The French are gourmets, in the country of haute cuisine, we converted to “the good burger,” he said.
Arthur, 34, who was having lunch at the Coffee Club, told the Local he recognised the French twist chefs had given the burger.
“I live in the US, and I have to say that a burger in France will always taste better, it will always be better presented and its overall quality will be higher than in a fast-food, even in the US,” he said.
Today, he picked the vegetarian option over the real deal.
“I'm an absolute fan of burgers, but choosing the vegan or the veggie options allows me to still eat a meal that I love while making it more healthy,” said Arthur.
“it’s a good alternative and plus it tastes really good even if it's not meat,” he said.
The Coffee Club in Paris. Photo: The Local
More veggie versions
Founders of the Coffee Club, Margaux and Michel, chose to offer a range of different burgers – the traditional bacon cheese, but also with vegan steaks or with crispy fried chicken – because they know these are popular among their younger clientele.
“It’s a way to please all kinds of people, vegetarians and others who like to vary from the 'ordinary' burger,” Michel told The Local.
“Crispy fried chicken is a recipe which is really trendy at the moment, that’s why we made a salad, a wrap and a burger with it,” he said.
Dites Cheeeeeese ! ? Voici le nouveau fromage dans nos Hankburgers ? ! De fabuleuses tranches de cheddar fondant ! Likez c’est bien, mangez c'est bien meilleur ? pic.twitter.com/bfODrXNXGS
— Hank restaurant (@Hankrestaurant) August 29, 2020
Veggie, chicken, fish, beef, whatever the recipe, the burger is a top seller but some French do have mixed feelings about that dish.
'Cheap, unhealthy and American'
Older generations in particular seem more skeptical about the tasty sandwich. Maryse and Bernard, respectively 88 and 89, who were also having lunch at the Coffee Club, told The Local they were aware of that passion for burgers but were far from sharing it.
On that Tuesday afternoon, Bernard told The Local he “exceptionally decided to eat a burger, because it’s a specialty there,” but he usually never has it.
“It’s an unhealthy meal with bread and plenty of fats, and it comes with fries,” he said.
“There’s only one burger that I ever loved, it was a potato burger that I had in an ordinary brasserie in the Perche (a province in Normandy),” he said.
“The bread had been replaced by potato pancakes, and it was the best thing ever,“ he said.
Both told the Local they believed burgers were so popular because “it’s cheap, nourishing and it comes from the US.”
“It’s faster to make a burger than traditional French meals where you have to peel all the vegetables, make the sauces, it takes way more time and it’s way more expensive will all the workforce it requires,” Maryse said.
Hard to beat, hard to make
This was a statement that many people in the restaurant industry seem to disagree with.
“A burger is really complicated to make,” said Boutboul. “You have to grill the meat, melt the cheese, toast the bread, and assemble all the ingredients so that it is served warm.”
Margaux, co-founder of the Coffee Club, said a simple, good, homemade burger was hard to beat, but also hard to make.
“A burger is a basic, but like all basics, it’s difficult to make a really tasty one,” she said.
But the challenge of getting simple dishes right is one familiar to French chefs, who for generations have perfected the art of using few ingredients and enhance the taste of each separate one.
One restaurant, ISTR, in the capital's tourist hub Marais, decided to make its post-lockdown comeback by launching a bold new invention, an oyster burger.
Whether that becomes a success or not remains to be seen, but Boutboul was certain of one thing:
“The French have become true burgers fans, we’re talking about a real passion,” he said.
By Olivia Sorrel Dejerine