The burger that could fix fast food

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Chad Robertson, Daniel Patterson, Roy Choi and Rene Redzepi of LocoL. (Tiffany Yam for LocoL)

The cooks at Coi, Daniel Patterson’s tiny, two-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, are used to producing dishes of supreme delicacy and surpassing refinement. Morels stuffed with ricotta and fava greens. Wild king salmon wrapped in yuba with charred cabbage and dried-scallop ginger sauce. The kind of food, in short, that has earned Coi a reputation as the best restaurant in one of America’s finest food cities and a perennial spot on San Pellegrino’s list of the top 100 restaurants in the world.

Yet the dish that Patterson has just put in front of me seems like the opposite of all that.

“This is our veggie burger,” Patterson says. He watches, tentatively, as I take my first bite.

“So what do you think?” he asks.

Over the past six hours, Patterson and his partner, Roy Choi, the Los Angeles street-food savant who, with his stoner vibe and hip-hop threads, is the yin to Patterson’s professorial yang, have transformed the Coi kitchen into a secret laboratory for LocoL, their forthcoming restaurant project.

LocoL (the name is a cross between “local” and “loco,” the Spanish word for “crazy”) has been in the works for a while now. In August 2013, Choi delivered a speech at MAD, the cutting-edge annual food conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, about Californians living in hunger. Patterson was impressed. A few weeks later, he flew to Los Angeles with a proposition: What if he and Choi used everything they knew as chefs, from the latest food science to the most ancient cooking methods, to create a new fast-food chain that was good for you, good for the planet, and just as guilty-pleasure delicious as, say, Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme? What if they opened in America’s notorious “food deserts” — the large, mostly urban swaths of the country where it’s hard to find anything to eat or drink besides a Big Mac and a Big Gulp? And what if they went toe-to-toe with McDonald’s and company by pricing everything from $.99 to $6?

Exactly one year later, at the same conference in Copenhagen, Patterson and Choi launched LocoL — their not-so-humble attempt, as Choi put it in his talk, to “challenge the status quo of fast food.” The response was spirited: breathless write-ups in every food blog on the planet, tons of buzz on Twitter, an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign that eventually raked in $128,103 — and a considerable amount of skepticism.

“Crowdsourcing will only get them so far,” Joe Satran opined in the Huffington Post. “To expand LocoL … will ultimately require it to be a self-sustaining business that throws off serious cash. And Patterson and Choi could find it tough to make LocoL profitable while maintaining high quality and healthfulness.”

But despite all the chatter, the chefs behind LocoL have only just begun to figure out the most important part of the whole enterprise: what the food will actually taste like.

“Our business model revolves around volume,” Patterson explains. “If we don’t do a good job making delicious food, we’re going to have a problem.”

Today’s research-and-development session is the fourth that Patterson and Choi have conducted since the start of the year, but it’s the first, they say, at which they’re starting to settle into a groove.

It’s also the first time they’ve allowed a total outsider to taste their prototype menu items. Hence the veggie burger that Patterson has set before me.

I behold it before taking a bite. The thing is hefty. Not huge like those behemoths they serve at upscale Manhattan bistros. But much denser and weightier than your typical Whopper. The patty is mostly made of grains — raw, sprouted and cooked. There’s some jack cheese on there, some grilled-scallion-and-lime relish and a spunky concoction that Patterson and Choi have taken to calling Awesome Sauce: tomato, onion, garlic, vinegar, oil and gochujang, or Korean chili paste. Layer all the above onto a long-fermented bun custom-made, partly with rice flour, by renowned San Francisco baker Chad Robertson of Tartine, who also serves on the LocoL board, and press it on the griddle like a panino until the crust gets crispy and the cheese starts to ooze — a recent Choi brainstorm meant to improve the burger’s “mobility” and “make it easier to eat while skateboarding or riding a bike” — and there you have it: LocoL’s mission statement in sandwich form.

Patterson chimes in as I chew. “We wanted it to be addictive,” he says. “You have to want to take another bite, and then another. We wanted it to be so good that someone who eats meat would willingly choose this instead. You wouldn’t even think of it. You’d just think of it as food.”

“So,” he repeats. “What do you think?”

Sadly, I’m too busy taking another bite to tell him what I think. This isn’t just the best veggie burger I’ve ever tasted. It’s one of the best burgers, period.

A LocoL burger. (Tiffany Yam for LocoL)

                                                                   
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Could LocoL be the future of fast food?

It’s clear the industry is at a crossroads. Thanks to a steady stream of exposés (“Fast Food Nation,” “Super Size Me,” “Food, Inc.”), many human beings now accept that a Big Mac is basically inhumane: to the animals that become it, to the workers who serve it, to the customers who eat it and to the planet that absorbs it. Meanwhile, various food movements — organic, anti-GMO (genetically modified organism), slow-food, vegan and so on — have popularized healthier, more sustainable ways of producing and consuming calories. That’s why fast-casual chains such as Chipotle and Shake Shack, with their locally sourced veggies and antibiotic-free beef, are all the rage these days; it’s also why last August marked the worst sales month for McDonald’s in more than a decade, and why the company sacked its president and CEO in January. Customers are gravitating toward more “natural” meals.

Still, a fundamental problem remains: Fast food is incredibly cheap, and fiendishly tasty, and a lot of Americans can’t afford, and don’t have access to, much else.

Not many people are bothering to come up with alternatives. On one end of the spectrum, there’s the industry itself, which in recent months has sought to improve its image by getting rid of artificial colors and flavors (the Yellow No. 6 dye in Taco Bell’s nacho cheese, for instance) and promoting items that more closely resemble actual food (McDonald’s “premium” sirloin burgers). A Penn State food-science professor accurately described these maneuvers as a way for the fast-food Goliaths to give their products “a healthy glow without making meaningful changes to their nutritional profiles.”

On the other end of the spectrum are Silicon Valley biochemists like Pat Brown of Impossible Foods, who is trying to invent a “plant-based burger that bleeds like beef, chars like it, and tastes like it.” It’s an inspiring idea, but it’s also unlikely to filter down to the streets of South Central Los Angeles anytime soon.

Patterson and Choi think they’ve hit upon a more sensible approach — one that goes much further than the industry’s inconsequential, image-conscious tinkering but still has the potential to be a blockbuster business before, say, the end of the century. They want to reengineer fast food in the kitchen, not the lab. We’ve seen how corporations make quick, cheap, addictive food for the masses, they say. But how would chefs do it?

In January, Choi invited me to one of his newest restaurants, POT, to elaborate on LocoL’s vision. I wandered through the sci-fi lobby of The Line hotel in Koreatown — Choi is a partner — and past a glowing neon “Pot” sign in medical-marijuana green. “Gangsta’s Paradise” by Coolio was blasting on the stereo. It was still early — 5 p.m. No one else had arrived yet. Choi and I snagged a table, ordered some marinated rib-eye bulgogi, crab hot pot, uni dynamite rice and pickled sea beans and began to talk.

Choi is a good talker. Occasionally he’ll cop the streetwise swagger of the SoCal gangbanger he briefly was, but most of the time he sounds like a thoughtful, heartfelt dreamer riffing on big ideas in the mellow haze of a late-night bull session.

“The easy job would be for us to do this at $6 to $8,” Choi said, his chopsticks searching the big bowl between us for a scrap of beef. “If we were to create a Shake Shack, that would be easy.”

“Shake Shack is easy?” I replied. I imagined Danny Meyer would disagree.

“Easy,” Choi shot back. “No disrespect to Shake Shack, but it wouldn’t be a story if we were able to source our best ingredients, charge $6 for a burger, and average $14 or $15 per check. But what about doing all that and your check averages $6? That’s a huge difference. You can feed your entire family with Crunchwraps for the price of a Shack burger.”

“Yet LocoL is still going to taste as good as Shake Shack?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah,” Choi insisted. “Oh, yeah. I want it to sit right next to McDonald’s and be so f---ing good you can’t even eat McDonald’s.”

Surely if this were possible — if the flavors, the sourcing, the nutrition and the economics could all be made to add up — someone would’ve done it already. But Choi shook his head.

“Not necessarily,” he said. “The reason why fast food is where it’s at right now is because it’s not being run by chefs. There isn’t this core thought of breaking everything down and asking, ‘How can I cook it better?’ Instead they’re thinking, ‘How can I add more preservatives so it doesn’t spoil? So I can buy less so I can make more money?’”

Chefs who want to make good, cheap food, Choi continued, have some tricks of the trade at their disposal. The first is waste. According to a 2012 report, the amount of wasted food in the U.S. has increased by 50 percent since the 1970s, to the point where more than 40 percent of all food grown or raised in the United States now goes to waste somewhere along the supply chain. Fast-food joints are the worst offenders, with “large portion sizes, standardized menu items that use only parts of animals and quality-control codes that mandate, for example, that McDonald’s fries must be thrown away if they’re not sold within seven minutes of being cooked.”

LocoL will be different. “We’re following a zero-waste model,” Choi told me. “Everything we buy, we use, and the things we use are going to be things  we can shred, chop, braise, cook down, pickle, peel and turn into something else. We’ll transform bruised, misshapen vegetables into purées and sauces. We’ll buy off-cuts of meat and make them work.”

The chefs’ second secret weapon is culinary science — the techniques and tactics that the world’s finest kitchens use to wrest extraordinary flavors from ordinary ingredients.

“The beef burger is our biggest example,” Choi explained. (LocoL will offer both vegetarian and nonvegetarian patties.) “Cutting the burger with cooked grains so that it’s not all meat. Processing the grains to the same size and mouthfeel as ground beef, then finding a way to bind it and emulsify it so it eats just like a regular patty. That obviously reduces cost and creates a healthier burger — but it also tastes just like a burger.”

And then there’s tradition. Most of this planet’s inhabitants are poor, but the cuisine that has arisen from poverty — tacos, stews, noodles, shawarma and so on — is delicious. Seasoning doesn’t cost much. Neither does brining, braising or curing. They’re all methods for making the most with the least. Why can’t a fast-food restaurant operate the same way?

Choi sucked the last bit of crabmeat from a little red claw. “What we’re trying to do is, like, ask a question,” he said. “Are these our only choices as humans? Is this the only way to be a profitable business? To do this to animals? To do this to each other? To fill foods with so many chemicals and preservatives that it basically changes the whole ecosystem of someone’s body?

“LocoL is me and Daniel saying, ‘We don’t believe you,’” Choi added. “‘You’re telling us these are the only options on the table? We don’t agree with that — and we’re going to show you why.’”

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There are a lot of things that Choi and Patterson (and their third partner, San Francisco restaurant financier Hanson Li) still have to figure out. The first LocoL is scheduled to open in the historically black Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts by the end of 2015; a second is set to open in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district soon after. Choi and Patterson want to expand to other California cities as well — East Oakland, Pacoima and Anaheim — as well as Detroit. They have ideas about franchising (they’d like to handpick “chefs within communities, or civic leaders, or artisans” to run their restaurants); ideas about staffing (they’d like to hire mostly local newcomers and pay them 20 percent more than the minimum wage); ideas about community service (they’d like each location to host basic cooking classes); and ideas about the future of institutional food (they’d eventually like to reimagine hospital and prison cuisine as well).

They still have to finalize the restaurant’s design with their architect, Scott Kester. They still have to figure out how to expand; the fast-food industry is built on vast economies of scale, and when you can’t buy calves three generations before they’re born, like McDonald’s, it’s hard to grow and stay cheap at the same time. They still have to raise money; Choi estimates that they’ll need about $125 million to transform LocoL into a viable national chain. In fact, they haven’t even gotten around to calculating how much everything will cost to make.

But for now, all of that can wait. The food comes first.

The preliminary LocoL menu is divided into seven sections: Burgs (or sandwiches) for $4; Foldies (quesadilla-taco hybrids) for $2; Bowls (and salads) for $6; Yotchays (customizable, combinable, predominantly vegetarian snacks) for 99¢ per item; Dulces (desserts) for $4; Agua Frescas y Bebidas (drinks) for $.99; and Breakfast for $2-$4. Over the course of two R&D sessions, one in April and one in June, I get to eat my way through a good portion of it.

Choi may be the face of LocoL, but Patterson runs the kitchen. Choi’s arms are covered with tattoos; Patterson doesn’t have a single one. Choi wears Stussy hoodies and Beat Junkies baseball caps; Patterson tends toward gray T-shirts and faded jeans. Rangy and soft-spoken, with a messy flop of hair, Patterson has the intense, intelligent air of comp-lit grad student. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that he hand-papered the walls of one of his dining rooms with 12,000 pages of American poetry or that he just spent a week at Noma in Copenhagen experimenting in the restaurant’s on-site fermentation lab with René Redzepi. (Redzepi, the fourth LocoL board member, is also widely regarded as the best chef in the world.)

“My goal,” Patterson tells me as he places a sprig of cilantro atop a tofu-vegetable rice bowl, “is to figure out how are we going to make our own flavor signatures. These fermentations, from misos to shoyus to whatever you want to call them, will then be the fingerprints, particular to us, that we can add to otherwise bland stews and mixtures to give them real flavor. They’ll be all-natural — and cheaper than anything we can buy commercially.”

At the Noma lab, an entire temperature-controlled room is devoted to meat garums. Fish sauce is the most famous garum, but Redzepi prefers to ferment creatures with cloven feet. The space is slightly cooler than a sauna. It’s here that Patterson discovered Noma’s umami-rich beef-and-seaweed garum, which is now part of the recipe for LocoL’s beef Burg. Without it, the patty, which is two-thirds meat and one-third grain, wouldn’t taste nearly as complex or beefy.

Patterson plans to use Noma-esque fermentations in other LocoL items as well — like the tofu-and-veggie rice bowl that he’s just slid across the kitchen’s stainless-steel counter. It’s surprisingly bright and hearty for such a virtuous-sounding dish — tofu, seasonal vegetables, gochujang, red miso, lime, cucumber and cilantro in an economical, water-based broth thickened with xanthan gum — but Patterson is already thinking about how he can amplify the flavor. “Rather than store-bought miso and store-bought chili paste, what if we make our own?” he says. “Sure, it’s tasting right, but it’s not tasting specific to us. What’s the next step in creating a taste that is specific to LocoL?”

Chad Robertson, Roy Choi, and Daniel Patterson of LocoL. (Tiffany Yam for LocoL)

In that respect, Patterson has been getting considerable help, behind the scenes, from a burly, bald, baby-faced chef named Ron Boyd. Brilliant and shy, Boyd is a partner in all of Patterson’s restaurants; he’s also the maddest scientist on Team LocoL. Boyd invented LocoL’s take on McNuggets, for example, by fermenting bulgur (a kind of cracked, dried wheat), then mixing it 50-50 with chicken.

“Grain might be more expensive than meat dry, but once it’s plumped, soaked in water or cooked, it doubles in size,” Boyd explains. “So adding grain makes sense for scalability and also how we digest the food. Our nuggets are still deep-fried. They still have the flavor of chicken. They still give you that sense memory of nuggets when you were a kid. But when you eat them, two hours later you’re not feeling weighted down. They’re energizing.”

Boyd passes another one of his innovations to Patterson: two pieces of oblong flatbread, about 7 inches from end to end. Patterson smears one with a charred tomato spread; the other gets a similar swipe, in yellow, of puréed seasonal vegetables. After a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of togarashi, they’re ready to go.

“Imagine you walk inside, you get this,” Choi says. “One dollar, two dollars, boom. It’s like a new form of pizza.”

I fold the flatbread in half like a New York slice. The flavor is familiar and alien at the same time; imagine sweeping a chewy, salty, stretchy hybrid of English muffin, naan and pita across the bottom of an immaculate bowl of tomato or butternut-squash soup. I finish both pieces in less than a minute.

Next up is LocoL’s breakfast sandwich: an egg-in-the-hole inspired, according to Choi, by the rappers Alchemist and Evidence from Dilated Peoples. At first, nothing about this particular dish seems groundbreaking, as well-designed and delectable as it is: a Tartine bun sliced in half with a layer of jack cheese in the middle and an egg poured into a crater scooped from the top. But then Patterson grabs the leftover bits of bread he just removed from the bun, whisks them together with more egg, cream and sugar, pan-fries them, and voilà: LocoL’s first dessert.

“They’re like fried French toast bites,” Patterson says.

“Or really good beignets,” I suggest.

“This is a good example of our zero-waste philosophy,” Patterson adds. “I was just screwing around because we had this stuff sitting here. Now these things are going on the menu.”

Meanwhile, a bowl of collard greens, rice and eggplant-and-beef gravy — each element is a Yotchay, each will cost $1, and customers will be free to combine various Yotchays any way they like — hints at the overlooked fast-food potential of traditional cooking techniques.

“One of our purveyors just came to us and said, ‘Hey, I really want to work with you,’” Patterson explains. “He’s got these old sows. They’ve given birth. They’ve done their job. The meat is tougher, so he usually just kills them and throws them away. But we can slow-cook that meat — like this beef — and make carnitas. And we can do it at a much, much lower price point. That’s what carnitas is: old, tough pigs. So the cutting-edge thing is going backward. This is how people used to feed themselves.”

As Patterson and Choi begin to clean up the kitchen, I ask them why LocoL seems so impossible — why we assume that the only way to get cheap, quick, tasty food to the masses is the McDonald’s way.

“Everyone keeps saying, ‘How are you going to do this?’” Patterson tells me. “And they’re right: It’s impossible within the structure we’re currently working in. But it’s not impossible to do, period. Once you’ve taken cooking out of the equation — which is what the fast-food industry does — you’ve just eliminated most of the possibilities.”

“And cooking,” he adds, “is what we’re good at.”

Choi grins. “It's not impossible,” he says. “You just have to give a damn.”