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Empire of the Bun

Today, burgers. Tomorrow, the world. The Casual-dining revolution of Adam Fleischman and his Umami Group

Photograph by Misha Gravenor

Here’s the story Adam Fleischman likes to tell about the genesis of his Umami restaurant empire: Hunched over a ketchup-red plastic cafe-teria tray at the Culver City In-N-Out Burger, Fleischman, a 35-year-old wine entrepreneur, peers into a cardboard box flecked with french fry grease. He ponders the questions that bedevil future restaurant moguls: Why do Americans hunger for pizza and hamburgers more than any other dishes? And why, exactly, is the In-N-Out Double-Double he’s devouring his most beloved indulgence, not to mention one of Southern California’s premier sources of bragging rights?

Somewhere between bites of the dripping cheeseburger, a word comes to mind that afternoon in 2005. It’s one Fleischman has been encountering often, on select food blogs and in books by the pioneering British chef Heston Blumenthal. That word is umami. The Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda came up with it in 1908 to describe a flavor that’s at the root of Japanese cooking, present in staples like fermented soy, seaweed, and the funky dried-fish broth dashi. Americans experience umami in different ways. It’s one reason they crave bacon. It’s why Italian grandmothers sneak anchovies into everything, and why something that smells like an old gym sock can taste like heaven. The professional food world has embraced the umami flavor as a unique fifth taste distinct from the sensations of sweet, sour, salt, and bitter.

Fleischman concludes that what he loves about an In-N-Out Double-Double isn’t the fresh ingredients or the to-order preparation. A hamburger, he realizes, is America’s preferred umami intake device. It is also consumed by the billions each year. “That was the aha moment for me,” says Fleischman. “I saw Umami’s financial potential right away.”

At the time of his epiphany Fleischman was on break managing a wine shop and bar he co-owned called BottleRock. Although the store had only recently opened, his business partnership was already disintegrating. His partner, Fred Hakim, who had put up most of the money, wanted more of a say. Fleischman characteristically didn’t want to yield an inch. “There were some natural conflicts,” he says. “I have no regard for authority; I never have.” In short, it wasn’t working out.

Fleischman’s career trajectory had been erratic up to that point. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, in a Reform Jewish household—Reform enough to appreciate the subtleties of pork fat. He moved to L.A. in 2000 and worked in finance after a temporary position became permanent, but he quickly came to hate it. “Moving numbers around to make money for someone or something you’re not invested in is ridiculous to me,” he says. So he quit and began working at Wally’s Wine in Westwood, where he nurtured an interest in enology that had been sparked during a three-month postcollegiate trip to Europe. Within two years Fleischman had talked Hakim into investing in BottleRock.

After his umami revelation, Fleisch-man didn’t go on a fact-finding mission to Japan. (He still hasn’t, although he considers his dining experiences at Beverly Hills’ $325-a-head sushi restaurant Urasawa close enough.) Instead he dissolved his BottleRock partnership the following year and worked his way around town, consulting on a variety of other businesses. When similar dustups arose with partners at a second wine bar, Vinoteque, he’d had it. “I said, ‘OK, the next time there won’t be any partners. I’m going to do this all by myself.’  ”

In 2009, with $40,000 in his pocket from selling his stake in BottleRock, Fleischman decided to open a restaurant centered on the umami flavor. He knew that an umami-focused menu would attract a burgeoning breed of foodies who had been weaned on the Food Network and had developed a sort of teenybopper crush on the heady flavors of pork, organ meats, West Coast IPAs, and superripe cheeses. What his place would serve remained up in the air. As it happened, he settled on burgers.

Fleischman didn’t have a business degree or much experience in the food industry aside from helping his mother with her catering business as a kid. He certainly didn’t have any professional chef’s training, and his familiarity with hamburgers was limited to flipping a few in his backyard. But he did have a devout faith in his palate and a mean perfectionist streak that borders on the tyrannical.

On a late summer day he stepped into his kitchen armed with a bundle of Japanese ingredients he’d scooped up at Mitsuwa Marketplace in West L.A. He began to experiment with recipes, incorporating dashi, miso, fish sauce, and soy. He ground up fish heads and sprinkled them on top of ground beef and pork. He tried making Parmesan fondue and melting it over the patty. “It was a mess,” says Fleischman. Regardless, as a passionate, intellectually minded greenhorn, Fleisch-man—so he claims—created his masterpiece in a single day.

ith that first burger-shaped umami bomb, Fleischman launched a brand that has not only changed the culinary landscape of L.A. but has turned its founder into a food industry powerhouse arguably as influential as Nancy Silverton or Wolfgang Puck. Since its debut in a former Korean taco stand on La Brea Avenue, Umami Burger has expanded into a multimillion-dollar restaurant group with financial backing from hospitality giant SBE. At present there are seven Umamis across L.A., one in San Francisco, and at least a dozen more in development nationwide. The Umami Group’s Neapolitan pizza place, 800 Degrees, recently opened in Westwood Village and continues to draw lines out the door. The newest addition is downtown’s 8,000-square-foot UmamIcatessen, which houses five food and beverage concepts. In the works are a scaled-down fast-food burger chain called Umami Ko and a line of Umami-brand condiments. The company also retains a controlling share of chef Jordan Kahn’s upscale Beverly Hills Vietnamese restaurant, Red Medicine. Umami Burger, however, remains the foundation of Fleischman’s realm.

The signature Umami burger isn’t some towering, sloppy menace that’s as impossible to grasp as it is to bite. It’s compact, almost cute, with a reasonable six-ounce patty served on an eggy, Portuguese-style bun that Fleischman sources from a top-secret local bakery. “The burger-to-bun ratio is key,” he says, “but it’s amazing that nobody ever gets that right.” Once cooked to the lowest, pinkest edge of medium rare, the meat is seasoned with the now-patented Umami Sauce and Umami Dust. “We don’t use MSG,” says Fleisch-man, despite many accusations to the contrary. The full recipe is classified, but he will allow that the sauce contains some soy sauce and the dust, some ground-up dried porcini mushrooms and dried fish heads, among other umami enhancers. Toppings include known umami heavy hitters such as oven-roasted tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onions, and a crisp Parmesan wafer. “Parmesan,” says Fleischman, “has the second-highest umami levels of any ingredient, and it has the most of any cheese.”

Before any sous-vide bath, sizzle, or garnish, the patty is prepared with artisanal precision. Ice-cold steaks are coarsely ground to order (unheard of elsewhere), which lends the patty a texture that can seem closer to meat loaf than burger. The meat isn’t so much forced into a patty shape as it is caressed into pattylike being. “We’re like Michael Voltaggio handling it,” says Fleischman. “The grind is sprinkled into a ring mold and gently tapped on the top.” Vol-taggio, the toque behind Melrose Avenue’s Ink., has given the Umami burger plenty of top-chef credibility. “Umami changed the burger game,” he says. “The first time I tried one, I ate four.”

“The blend and the coarse grind of the meat are excellent,” says food writer Damon Gambuto, who was one of the first to rave about the burger on the influential blog A Hamburger Today. When Umami opened, he described it as being “something entirely ‘burger,’ and yet something else,” which lured droves of curious readers, Yelpers, and bloggers to the place.

While the creation has its Web detractors, it’s hard to tell whether they are reacting to the food or the deafening hype. “This is a BULLSHIT burger,” wrote Tony Chen on his popular Asian food blog, SinoSoul, in 2009. He was one of the first to publicly denounce the Umami burger. He hasn’t changed his mind. “Fish sauce, soy—these Asian ingredients are Adam’s truffle oil,” says Chen. “That’s great, but eventually there will be a time when people will revolt and, like with truffle oil, not want it on everything anymore. When I bite into a burger, I want that corn-fed, all-American flavor. With Umami, there’s too much of that artificial, fermented taste. I think that’s really contrived.”

The burger’s most important element may not be its meat or its seasoning but its branding. Indeed, it’s conceivable that Fleischman’s burgers are as much a trademark delivery system as they are an umami delivery system. The name alone evokes some exotic taste meant only for culinary adventurers. From a cooking standpoint the burger is also particularly difficult to make, which adds to its appeal. “I once fired a chef who had worked for Gordon Ramsay because he insisted you had to pregrind your meat,” says Fleischman. “The way I see it, if we’re only selling burgers, then we don’t need to take any shortcuts. Let’s make the process longer and harder.”

The Umami burger is just one of the restaurant chain’s claims to fame. Together with his gaggle of corporate executive chefs, Fleischman has extrapolated the umami experience to burgers made from vegetables, scallops, turkey, lamb, and tuna. They come topped with Hatch chiles from New Mexico, Stilton cheese, or fish taco-style shredded cabbage. Specials change weekly and vary by branch, but all are Fleischman approved and created with one goal in mind: to inflict the most umami flavor per bite.

Ernesto Uchimura, Umami Burger’s former corporate executive chef, can attest to Fleischman’s genius for branding but questions his assertions of culinary prowess. “Adam is a great concept guy,” he says. “But he’s not a chef.” Uchimura was hired by Fleisch-man one week before Umami opened in February 2009 and led the back-of-the-house operations until he was let go, along with several other employees, after the SBE deal went through last year. “When I came on board, there were no real recipes written, no method,” Uchimura says. “Adam had been messing around in his kitchen, but I developed all of the burgers under his direction.” Uchimura, who heads the new West L.A. restaurant Plan Check and hasn’t spoken with his former boss since the split, believes he should have been given more credit for his contributions. “I would come up with stuff and present it to Adam,” he says. “Or he’d say, ‘I want to do a seafood burger,’ so I’d come up with the Sea-Mami—stuff like that. Other times it would just be me playing around, putting something on special, and seeing what sticks. At one point I was managing five restaurants and a commissary kitchen, making the specials, working on development for the next restaurant, scouting locations—basically the whole ball of wax fell on my shoulders when it came to operations.”

“I made three burgers that day in my kitchen, and they are exactly the same today,” Fleisch-man rebuts. “The only thing that’s different is they don’t have the dust and the sauce on them. Those were later enhancements.” It’s unclear who ultimately is responsible for the hamburger being served at Umami. In general Fleischman is slow to give anyone but himself credit for the company’s success. But with Umami’s expansion he’s been forced to relinquish some degree of the hands-on, day-to-day control, although he still throws out ideas to his two corporate chefs to execute. When it comes to guiding the company’s overall direction, he says, “it’s a dictatorial system, and I’m the dictator.”

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The hamburger has become nearly as emblematic of Los Angeles as the palm tree. While the American burger originated in the German immigrant communities of the Midwest, the cheeseburger was born at a Pasadena café, the Rite Spot, in the 1920s. In 1950, an actor named Harry Lewis and his wife, Marilyn, decided to evoke the upscale Hollywood environment of, say, Chasen’s but serve the no-frills, everyday food that Grandma and Grandpa used to love. They opened Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Boulevard, and there, among high-backed leather booths and stars dressed for an evening out, emerged the first notions of the gourmet burger. By the ’50s, McDonald’s had expanded from a San Bernardino carhop joint to nationwide hamburger mass production. In 1948, Harry and Esther Snyder opened In-N-Out Burger in Baldwin Park, merging the two ideas: freshly made burgers delivered with speed. The restaurant’s two-way speaker system ushered in the era of the drive-thru, which forever cemented the hamburger as the official food of L.A. car culture.

In 2000, chef Sang Yoon bought a minuscule bar in Santa Monica called Father’s Office and began to serve a haute cuisine burger. The guarded Office Burger recipe included dry-aged beef, bacon, caramelized onions, and blue cheese to form a sandwich Yoon says he spent years perfecting. Along with other American chefs of his generation, Yoon was inspired by England’s popular gastropub movement, which elevated the country’s humble comfort foods. A mini revolution in the past few years has given birth to burger-focused L.A. restaurants like 25 Degrees, Stout, the Counter, and national newcomers like restaurateur Danny Meyer’s New York phenomenon Shake Shack and the Obama favorite, Five Guys Burgers and Fries, based in Washington, D.C.

“Everyone else’s burger is a nostalgia bur-ger,” Fleischman says. “Five Guys and Shake Shack are all doing the homespun Americana burger at the same price point. They are all looking backward to the drive-in or the ’50s at In-N-Out, where people wear those cool little smocks.” To Fleischman, that’s limiting. “You can’t change when you’re in nostalgia-land—you’re in the past! We’re really the only ones who are looking forward.”

Fleischman’s speaking style is a mix of false modesty and Trump-esque hyperbole—everything from his pizza crust to his beef blend to his Web site is the best, the biggest, the newest, or the most delicious. Everyone else, apparently, is doing it wrong. Fleischman has the physical bearing of Jon Favreau in the post-Swingers years. His stocky frame—like that of an ex-jock with the soft edges of a lifelong foodie—is eternally draped in a T-shirt printed with the Umami logo, an abstract graphic that resembles a burger bun—or are those pouty lips? “It gets things done quicker,” he says of his uniform. “People recognize me; things happen.” He recounts with a smirk the time he was in an airport in Europe and a group of fans ran up to him yelling, “Umami!”

Sitting in his Mid City house, stroking one of his family’s two white Ragdoll cats, he can’t help projecting a hint of Dr. Evil. When Fleisch-man speaks of plans for Umami world domination, one gets the sense he’s only half joking. Within two years Umami boomed from a single location to seven, and his concepts have profoundly resonated. He calibrates each branch to have its own look, which is manufactured by different architects and designers: reclaimed wood here, a samurai warrior theme there. Some branches serve no alcohol; some, beer and wine; others have full bars.

One thing that’s consistent is the attitude, which is Fleischman’s attitude: There’s a certain cachet that comes from eating a burger so much better than anyone else’s. He describes the stereotypical Umami diner as a “male Asian Angeleno.” His clientele is a devoted group of youngish, educated, Web-savvy individuals who have enough money to afford a $10 or $15 burger and enough time on their hands to care about the proper fat-to-lean ratio of their meat (Umami’s is around 20/80). “The feeling I was going for was something very anticorporate,” says Fleischman, “but not in a hipster kind of way, not Brooklyn style. It’s for people who have really studied and thought about food. People who are in the know.” Your hostess is not in a hurry. Neither is your waiter. Substitutions? Frowned upon. Dietary restrictions? Tough luck. If you don’t like that, then this isn’t your kind of place.

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Umami is just an offset of Adam,” says Sam Nazarian, CEO of SBE, which closed a deal in July to acquire 50 percent of the Umami Group. “That’s who we really invested in.” SBE got its start with luxe Hollywood nightclubs like Hyde and the Abbey. It turned Katsuya from a sushi hole-in-the-wall into a chain of flashy, ultramodern, raw fish-themed lounges. SBE moved into the hotel arena with the SLS in Beverly Hills and opened the hotel’s flagship restaurant, the Bazaar. Burgers might seem an unlikely next step for the company—a little low end—but Naza-rian says that’s the point. “The dynamic in our business is changing,” he says. “The old ways of the white-tablecloth, Michelin-star spot have given way to a new style of dining that’s exactly on par with what Adam is trying to do. Adam’s first concept is Umami, but we’re betting on the future, whether the next big one is 800 Degrees or Red Medicine or a brand he hasn’t thought of yet. I think that’s why I felt such a sense of urgency to work with this guy.”

Nazarian has a knack for nurturing talent and massaging egos, from larger-than-life Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés (who runs the Bazaar) to renowned sushi master Katsuya Uechi (who still leads the Katsuya enterprise) to French designer Philippe Starck (who oversees the company’s aesthetics). That Nazarian has managed to maintain positive relationships with these creative tours de force bodes well for his future dealings with Fleischman. Unlike Nazarian’s other collaborators, though, Fleischman has already built a sizable and successful corporation using his own business model. How well the man who once swore he’d never again have a partner will work with a company that has far more wealth and experience behind it remains to be seen.

“I don’t see them as an authority figure,” says Fleischman. “I’m authority to them. Half of their business depends on my success.” For the most part Nazarian agrees that “this is Adam’s show.” Since they teamed up, Fleisch-man has relocated his offices to the SBE building in West Hollywood. In a controversial move, Fleischman let go of almost his entire pre-SBE staff, including Uchimura and his director of operations, Christopher Mcintosh. “I just didn’t feel they were the right people to continue the brand,” he says, “so I got rid of them all.”

Now everything from HR to PR is handled by SBE. “What I like about SBE is, they’re not a venture capital firm,” Fleischman says. “They’re in the hospitality business. They’re not just bean counters investing money. They have a platform and an infrastructure there. I get to use all their resources and their 4,000 employees to help me.”

Like Umami Burger, 800 Degrees was founded with growth in mind, and there is early interest in bringing the concept to Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia. Umami Ko will likely debut in Los Angeles and feature a less expensive, smashed-style burger and a direct, fast-food format. “It’s our Chipotle Grill of burger concepts,” says Fleischman.

UMAMIcatessen is different. It’s a one-off and the project Fleischman describes as his most personal. It’s also his least focused. Inside the historic space on Broadway next door to the Orpheum Theatre, the deli puts out pastrami sandwiches, smoked fish, and other Jewish classics in a nod to Fleischman’s upbringing. A dessert bar—à la David Chang’s New York sweets concept, Momofuku Milk Bar—serves the imaginative doughnuts of Red Medicine’s Kahn, and a coffee station is close by. PIGG is the buzziest enterprise, with Bay Area offal aficionado Chris Cosentino offering the cured pork products of his San Francisco company, Boccalone, along with a menu of original pig-based dishes. A full bar serves wines on tap, cocktails, and a gimmicky slew of alcoholic Slurpees.

It’s possible that the brisk expansion is beginning to hurt Umami’s upstart appeal. What began as an amateur’s enterprise earning a grassroots following with a home-cooked burger is today an entirely different beast. Adding to all this activity, Fleischman is now pitching and producing a celebrity-chef cooking show with the working title Food Court, and he’s in talks to create a show around the U.S. growth of the Umami brand. This, combined with the SBE merger, might just be the Umami fan base’s exact definition of “selling out.” Even now, with Umami’s rapidly spreading popularity, some gourmands who were smitten a few years back have begun to jump ship, much like fans might reject a small-time band once it signs with Warner Bros.

Fleischman seems confident he can maintain the present level of quality, no matter how large the company becomes. “I’m not going to be in this forever,” he says. “We’ll never franchise, but we may sell to a private equity firm or go public. Who knows? Honestly, the company will be worth over a billion dollars if all five concepts are successful.” As for what he’ll do then: “I want to write a book on physics—theory of relativity stuff. It’s a hobby of mine.” Fleischman has about as firm a foundation in quantum mechanics as he does in fine cooking, but why should that stop him?                           

Burger Barons

Are you Befuddled by L.A.’s burger boom? Here’s the beef on the city’s most prolific patty purveyors

theessentials_masa_t Stout Burgers & Beers
Petite gourmet burgers and craft brews satisfy a chic crowd, with three locations from Hollywood to the Valley. The Beefiest: The Stout burger, with rosemary bacon, blue cheese, roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, and horseradish cream. 

 

theessentials_masa_t 25 Degrees
This “burger bordello” is known for its tricked-out diner grub. Look for the premium sammies in Hollywood and Huntington Beach; more outposts are on the way. The Beefiest: The Number One, with caramelized onions, Gorgonzola, crescenza, bacon, arugula, and Thousand Island dressing. 

 

theessentials_masa_t Father’s Office
Sang Yoon’s Santa Monica gastropub, which opened a Culver City location in 2008, is ground zero for L.A.’s gourmet burger obsession. Remember, ketchup is verboten. The Beefiest: The F.O. burger, with Gruyère, blue cheese, caramelized onions, and arugula on a soft baguette. 

 

theessentials_masa_t Go Burger
Home to boozy milk shakes and mad-scientist burgerlike creations at the corner of Sunset and Vine, this L.A. native recently made its New York debut and is planning to expand. The Beefiest: The Smashed, with caramelized onions and American cheese atop a hand-smashed meat patty. 

 

theessentials_masa_t Five Guys Burgers and Fries
Armed with fresh, fast food-style burgers (not an oxymoron), the Virginia-based In-N-Out doppelgänger operates 12 branches in L.A. That the Obamas are fans can’t hurt. The Beefiest: The bacon cheeseburger, with two quarter-pound patties. 

 

theessentials_masa_t The Counter
At this “burger bar” chain, picky eaters and wanna-be chefs construct custom combinations of proteins, toppings, and sauces. The Beefiest: The Counter burger, with provolone, fried onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, and sun-dried tomato vinaigrette. 

-Garret Snyder 

 

 

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