Photos by Rachel Valley

Top notch chefs prepare for Sacramento’s first-ever burger battle

The first time Rodney Blackwell bit into a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder, he fell in love. But that was child’s play.

Blackwell, a Sacramento resident, entered the burger big leagues as an adult, ordering variations of the classic stack at fine diners, five-star restaurants and food trucks across the country.

In search of the perfect relationship between bun, patty and condiments, Blackwell started the blog and informational site http://burgerjunkies.com/. His tastes quickly sharpened as he approached burgers no holds barred. A patty topped with fried eggs? Do it. Fiery habañero sauce? Sure.

However, he still couldn’t decide on Sacramento’s champion burger. After attending the Denver Burger Battle, Blackwell realized a side-by-side comparison might answer the question and would also allow locals to vote for their favorites.

“I got inspired at the Denver Burger Battle,” Blackwell says. “It had sold out. There were 12 restaurants, people having a good time with great energy. I wanted to bring that to Sacramento.”

The goal of Blackwell’s burger battle on Sept. 18, 2012 at Raley Field in West Sacramento is twofold: to showcase the dining scene available in the Sacramento area and to raise awareness and much needed funding for a great cause.

Blackwell’s 9-year-old daughter Karina has battled with Crohn’s disease for the past four years. According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, the disease is a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract that affects more than 700,000 people, causing loss of appetite and energy, and sometimes slowing growth and development in children.

“My daughter was diagnosed years ago and since I can’t cure the disease myself, I figured I’d do what I can to help those that are trying,” Blackwell says.

All the proceeds from the Sacramento Burger Battle will be donated to the local CCFA chapter. Blackwell had already raised $12,000 since announcing the battle, and tickets for the event are still available.

“For charity it’s a great feat in and of itself, but I’d still like to sell out tickets,” Blackwell says about the current donations and sales.

The $55 entry ticket covers the generous burger samples from 15 high-caliber restaurants; craft beer from Sierra Nevada, Ruhstaller and Lagunitas; wine tastings from Crystal Basin and Perry Creek; Woodchuck cider; non-alcoholic beverages; live music and parking.

Attendees will have to pace themselves with the burgers–despite being sample-size, several chefs plan to pack big flavors into those few bites.

Chef Jose Silva, known for his exotic meat patties at the Flaming Grill, says judges and attendees might get their chance at trying wild boar, antelope, goat, camel or even kangaroo.

“We try to keep it simple–with a good bun and sauce and high quality meat,” Silva says.

For Chef Pedro Depina of Ettore’s European Bakery and Restaurant, the burger bun is extremely important in making a top notch burger, “because it’s the first thing you taste.”

“We’re going to let our bun speak for itself,” Depina says, noting the buns are made at Ettore’s. “Then comes the meat, and we use all natural Niman Ranch.”

As for the other ingredients, Depina says freshness, quality and the marriage of the flavors are the best ways to know a burger is made well.

“We’re going to keep it classic,” he adds of the Ettore’s entry. “No bells and whistles, just in your face.”

Asked which Sacramento burger is his favorite, Depina has no shame.

“The one we make here, I eat one once a week, but don’t tell my wife,” he laughs.

Other major players in the battle include burger award-winner Thir13een, de Vere’s Irish Pub, Kupros Bistro, Shady Lady Saloon, The Porch, Squeeze Inn and several others.

“All the chefs, we’re all good friends,” says Depina. “We eat at each other’s restaurants so this will be a friendly throw-down.”

One local chef is not competing, but judging. Bret Bohlmann, chef and owner of Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove, will be one of five judges. Blackwell says he reached out to Bohlmann because he makes a great burger, but his restaurant no longer has it on the menu so he figured judging would be his next best option.

Other judges include Congressman John Garamendi, food writer and blogger Erin Jackson, Corti Brothers Food Director Rick Mindermann and Executive Chef Mike Ward of Feeding Crane Farms.

Though Bohlmann has never judged a burger competition, he does have an idea for his approach that day. 

“First, it has to be visually appealing,” he says.

Then, he adds, the burger must have quality ingredients and be cooked properly.

From there, judges will look at the kinds of extra ingredients used and whether those ingredients “marry well–belong together so that when you take a bite, everything works,” says Bohlmann.

One concern Bohlmann does have is burning out on burger too early, meaning after a few, he doesn’t want all the different entries melding together to cause faulty judging.

“A burger is quite fatty. A meat patty can have 15 to 20 percent fat, which coats your mouth, so we need a palate cleanser,” he says. “It’s something to think about because you want to taste everyone’s unique creation.”

A light, refreshing pilsner might do the trick.

Bohlmann is also hoping the burger challenge will spark continued creativity to the already impressive menus and styles now available in Sacramento.

“I think this will make people rise up and create something new for their menus,” he says. “In the last 10 years we’ve really grown. Zagat came through and rated everybody, and we’re really putting our mark on California.”

Depina adds that the culinary landscape of Sacramento has changed for the better during the 20 years he’s been in the business, and a competition like this is comparable to other California cities that boast the best in dining.

“Sacramento is one of the heavy hitters in the food industry now, like Napa and San Francisco,” he says. “You don’t have to travel all the way over there to get good food. We’re the breadbasket of the state, with all this good local produce. We’re all pushing to eat in our own neighborhood, our own backyard.”

Blackwell has been doing just that for many years, but says he is looking forward to what the chefs come up with for the burger battle.

“I’ve tried them all, so I’m looking forward to trying them side by side,” Blackwell adds. “It’s hard to say when you spread out eating them one week at a time which is best. All of these are some of my favorites I’ve tried and reviewed.”

Blackwell also recently received a call from an organizer of the World Food Championships, which will be held in Las Vegas in November, asking if the burger battle could be used as a qualifier for the championship.

The stakes have been raised a bit because of this announcement, Blackwell says, but he feels the burger chefs of Sacramento would be able to represent their country well if any of them makes it to the world competition.

Sept. 18 is National Cheeseburger Day, and also the date of the Sacramento Burger Battle. This will be a slobber knocker of meaty proportions, so don’t miss out. For more information or to buy tickets, visit Sacburgerbattle.com. You must be 21 years or older to attend. Eat hearty knowing the proceeds will go toward a worthy cause. To learn more about the Northern California chapter of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, go to http://ccfa.org/chapters/northerncalifornia/.

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