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Manawatū’s Best Burger: ‘Simple, good quality ingredients’ is all it needs, says home chef

Bun, meat, lettuce and cheese.

The summer staple of a homemade burger is as simple as it gets for dinners under a New Zealand sun.

But, the simplicity is misleading. It’s popularity with home cooks leads to arguments about ingredient choice, placement and method.

Earlier this month, the Manawatū Standard invited four local non-professional cooks – Rebecca Paewai​, Dave Neal​ and combo team Fi Carr​ and Brendon Corner​ – to the Ucol training kitchen in Palmerston North to battle it out for the debut title of Manawatū’s Best Burger.

Paewai began by blasting charcoal with a blowtorch in her portable barbecue. Once ready, she placed down a hotplate and began prepping her carefully chosen ingredients.

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Rebecca Paewai swears by her charcoal barbecue method.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Rebecca Paewai swears by her charcoal barbecue method.

“People get intimidated by this kind of thing,” she said. “I think it’s because we are so used to everything being electric… people think it’s going to be harder than it is.”

The Carr-Corner duo brought a mortar and pestle to grind up nuts and herbs. That and alcohol – leftover red wine and a Parrot Dog beer – would give their choice of tofu the required meaty flavour.

Neal kept it simple; all he needed was a large frying pan.

“When you’ve got good quality ingredients cooked simply, you can’t go wrong,” he said.

Dave Neal finishes toasting his buns alongside the protein so it absorbs the flavour.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Dave Neal finishes toasting his buns alongside the protein so it absorbs the flavour.

Neal is a former military man. He said: “When you’ve been on rations, it makes you appreciate food.”

Travelling had fuelled his love for different cuisine. That and his Columbian wife, who nominated him for the competition, influenced his pitch for the best burger.

“In Columbia they put chips in their burgers. It gives it a great crunch… the cheese [in my burger] is from New Zealand, the meat is South African style… Everything else you can get from the supermarket.”

He didn’t use any greens, but included pineapple, and had a strong opinion on beetroot.

Brendon Corner (left) and Fi Carr grind up a nutty, alcohol-infused mixture to give their tofu a meaty flavour.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Brendon Corner (left) and Fi Carr grind up a nutty, alcohol-infused mixture to give their tofu a meaty flavour.

“Beetroot should be banned from burgers. You’d end up in a rubbish bin if you did that in Columbia.

“Burgers are a treat, not for your health, so it doesn’t need to be polluted.”

Beside him, Carr and Corner were constructing a burger made mostly of vegetables.

They believed in the power of spontaneity – every ingredient was something they rummaged from their flat.

“We don’t really have a method, it’s usually a chaotic collaboration with us,” Carr said.

Carr and Corner present their vegan burgers, a labour of chaos.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Carr and Corner present their vegan burgers, a labour of chaos.

“We cook for our friends a lot, and burgers are an easy one to do. We never make the same food, we like to get silly.”

Pineapple in burgers was a sin, they said.

“That’s how we know we’ll beat the man [Neal] beside us,” Corner said.

Paewai used beetroot, grilled to protect the consumer from spillage.

The only hard rules she had was that lettuce should go on top of the burger to protect its crunch, and that cooking wasn’t a race.

“I grew up with hāngi… it was about getting everyone together while the food cooked. Telling stories… you can taste the difference.”

Paewai was firm on lettuce being ladded last, to protect the crunch.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Paewai was firm on lettuce being ladded last, to protect the crunch.

Contestants were judged on technique, presentation and taste.

Judge Mark Smith​, who has been a cooking lecturer for 20 years, said it was a tight race, but Neal’s burger was anointed the overall winner.

It came down to using the right amount of salt – an ingredient he said too many people avoided.

“It only takes a little to bring out the flavours.”

Cooking lecturer Roslyn Towey​ hoped the competition would inspire home cooks to make a career out of what is usually just a hobby.

“Manawatū is screaming for chefs, and we’re here to train them.”

UCOL lecturer and burger judge Mark Smith said the competition was tight, but the use of salt was the deal-breaker.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

UCOL lecturer and burger judge Mark Smith said the competition was tight, but the use of salt was the deal-breaker.

Their tips for the perfect homemade burger:

– Choose your bun wisely. Brioche is a favourite, and it shouldn’t be smaller than the ingredients inside. Buns are best toasted, then briefly grilled alongside a protein source for added flavour.

– Cook the protein source properly, a dry or overcooked patty ruins the whole thing.

– Cheese should go on top of the patty, or directly on the protein source in the final minutes of cooking.

– An element of crunch – whether chips or lettuce – should be added last and on top of everything else to avoid getting soggy.

– There is such a thing as too much sauce. The winning burger just used tomato sauce and mayonnaise.

Dave Neal with his winning burger, “The Narco Burger”.

WARWICK SMITH/Stuff

Dave Neal with his winning burger, “The Narco Burger”.

The winning Narco Burger

The construction order, from bottom to top: bun, tomato sauce, patty, cheese, chicken, pineapple, bun, mayonnaise, patty, cheese, bacon, chips, then another bun on top, all held together with a skewer.



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