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February 27, 2017

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How French chef and DJ Hubert Keller scored with American burgers


David Becker for Bon Appetit

Hubert Keller spins at Mix in the Hotel at Mandalay Bay on Saturday, May 12, 2012.

2012 Vegas Uncork'd: Clambake, Alain Ducasse, Hubert Keller

Mary Sue Milliken, Mike Minor, Susan Feniger, Charlie Palmer and Rick Moonen at the Clambake at Mandalay Bay Beach on Saturday, May 12, 2012. Launch slideshow »

DJ Hubert Keller Spins at Vegas Uncork'd

Chef Hubert Keller spins in the Fiji Water DJ Booth at the Vegas Uncork'd Grand Tasting at Garden of the Gods in Caesars Palace on May 7, 2010. Launch slideshow »

While Robin Leach takes his traditional summer vacation under the Tuscan sun in Italy, many of our Strip and Las Vegas personalities have stepped forward in his absence to pen their own words of wisdom. Our thanks to them all. We continue today with “Top Chef Masters” star and owner Hubert Keller of Fleur by Hubert Keller and Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay who also gets our four stars for his DJ skills.

Some say gourmet burgers are only a hot culinary trend, but I disagree. The burger is here to stay. Along with steakhouses, gourmet burger restaurants are a staple at nearly every resort in Las Vegas. It’s funny to think that when I decided to open Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay, the first gourmet burger concept in town, I never really doubted that I was making the right decision -- except the moment before we opened. It’s an interesting story, actually.

I was working on opening Fleur de Lys at Mandalay Bay at the same time the shops and restaurants in Mandalay Place were under construction. Bill Richardson, the owner and president of Mandalay Bay Resort Group at the time, lost a tenant in the current home of Burger Bar and asked for my assistance in establishing a restaurant in the space. I had a great relationship with Mr. Richardson, so I quickly agreed.

I knew about burgers and occasionally enjoyed one, but burgers were something that I didn’t grow up with, and I was excited to learn what Americans look for in a good burger. To get ideas for our menu, my wife Chantal, my executive chef Laurent Pillard and I went out with friends and co-workers on a burger crusade in the San Francisco Bay Area, Las Vegas and other places across the country.

After our burger crash course, we believed that we were equipped and confident, implementing our own creative spin on something that has been at the pulse of American dining for many years. It’s funny, Chantal and I became U.S. citizens in the early 1990s, but it wasn’t until this process that we felt like real Americans.

We wanted to create a concept that took the burger experience to the next level, with a fine dining feel. We knew we needed the best ingredients and a butcher shop in the back where we could grind our own meat. We tried to think of other ways to make the restaurant special, so we added one of the largest selections of draft beers available on the Strip.

Another idea was to create the most expensive burger in the world, and we did! We created the Rossini Burger, which is served with sliced foie gras and black truffles. We then added music and TVs for a fun vibe. With everything in place, I still wasn’t sure how the restaurant would be received. As I turned the key to the electric gate to open for business for the first time on the morning of our grand opening, I vividly remember thinking to myself, “This may be the stupidest thing I’ve done in my whole life.” Instead, it ended up being a home run.

Of course, we didn’t open without a few minor setbacks. Since I had only eaten about five burgers in my life and things were a bit rushed during the opening, our thought was to get the best cut of Kobe beef possible. When we got the first orders for the Kobe burgers, I saw these burgers going on the grill and they started melting like a piece of butter. We had to apologize and couldn’t serve them. The next day, we received another grade, and the rest is history.

I started seeing more and more burger places open, and it shows that Burger Bar is the trendsetter. On the one side, it’s competition, but on the other side, I’m glad to be the first one who did it. I take it as a compliment. Some try to create fancy mixes, but I believe the key to a great burger patty is simple. We start with a good piece of chuck, grind it fresh, mix and shape every patty by hand.

The success of Burger Bar also is special due to the fact that it is a culinary concept that was truly born in Las Vegas. The city is great because every concept eventually makes its way to the Strip, but finally we have something that was created here.

Our congratulations to Hubert for raising the humble burger to elevated status. Be sure to check out our other guest columns today from 98 Degrees star Jeff Timmons on his amazing move to Las Vegas and two amazing ladies from “Ka” who keep the trickiest of Cirque du Soleil’s shows in shape. Join us again Wednesday for Angela Stabile and her sexy, topless “X Burlesque” dancers, along with Tom Zaller, the man who brought the Venetian’s Leonardo Da Vinci exhibit to town.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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