Cookbooks

The Burger Recipe That Changed Food Internet Forever

How Serious Eats became an award-winning recipe site, thanks to one talented writer and one very special burger.

by:
August 14, 2019

Founded in 2006 by former New York Times food contributor, Ed Levine, Serious Eats is one of our favorite food destinations on the internet. It's taught us a whole host of cooking techniques, from essential knife skills, to the in-depth science behind boiling an egg via The Food Lab column helmed by Chief Culinary Consultant, J. Kenji López-Alt. It's helped us find the best cooking equipment to buy, like these affordable skillets that work just as well as fancier ones. And it's got an impressive repository of recipes that we turn to on the daily, from baking wizard Stella Parks' Glossy Fudge Brownies to the iconic Steak au Poivre—with, of course, some smart tweaks on the classic recipe to make it even better.

But it wasn't always that way. For the first few years of its existence, Serious Eats didn't have a single recipe on it. Below, we get a peek at how the site decided to begin its recipe platform, in an excerpt from founder Ed Levine's new memoir, Serious Eater: A Food Lover's Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption.

Somewhat surprisingly, it all began with one talented writer and one very special burger recipe.


“I’ve heard about you. You’re too nice.” Gawker founder Nick Denton and I were having breakfast at Nick’s regular table at Balthazar, Silicon Alley’s power breakfast spot, on a late winter’s day in March of 2007.

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“Hi Brian! Sorry for the confusion—I see what you're saying. What the sentence reads to me is that the Serious Eats offices were located on W27, and the Trailer Park Lounge was 4 blocks south of that, on W23. Thanks for reading, and for the feedback!”
— Brinda A.
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Then, as now, you couldn’t go wrong with the breakfast bread basket, the brioche French toast, or the “Eggs En Cocotte”—eggs, cream, and thyme baked in a ramekin and served with “soldiers” (thin strips of toast perfect for dipping).

That morning I wasn’t there just to eat. I was there to soak up as much wisdom as I could from one of the blogosphere’s most successful entrepreneurs. Nick Denton had invented the group-blog business model with sites like Gawker, Gizmodo, and Lifehacker.

Nick said, “I’ve looked at your site. It looks good. But why is there no chef gossip on the site? What about recipes?”

I hastily responded, “I don’t think the world needs another recipe database, Nick. Do you? There’s Epicurious, Allrecipes, AOL, Yahoo!...” I added with false confidence, “Recipes have become a commodity on the web. Plus, recipes aren’t my jam.”

Nick, being all business, gave me a quizzical look (as if to say, Who cares what your jam is?), before posing an essential question: “How many recipe searches are there a month on the web right now?”

“I don’t know. I must admit that I’ve never thought about that question before.”

Nick shook his head in disbelief before pulling out his phone and Googling the recipe search question.

“Thirty million. Holy shit!”

He paused to laugh at me before delivering the coup de grâce of the breakfast. “If I were you, I’d figure out a way to do recipes, Serious Eats style.” And with that I paid the seventy-five-dollar check. It was the best and cheapest advice I ever got from anyone. I ignored the gossip advice. Not my jam.

The suggestion to do recipes, Serious Eats style, was obviously great advice. There was just one little problem. I had never developed a recipe in my life.

So what did I do? I convinced a couple of established recipe developers I knew who were getting some traction on the internet, like my friend Dorie Greenspan, to write for us. And I took a page out of old media’s book by aping what the newspapers and food glossies were doing on a regular basis. I got permission to publish a few recipes we would adapt from a newly published cookbook on Serious Eats in exchange for writing multiple posts about the book. And we would also do a book giveaway. The publishers were thrilled about this promotional exchange and the accompanying publicity. I named the column “Cook the Book.”

All of these posts did all right, traffic-wise, but I certainly hadn’t come up with a way, in Nick Denton’s words, to do recipes Serious Eats style. I really needed someone and something to break through the recipe internet clutter, a column that was Serious Eats native and couldn’t be read anywhere else. It ended up taking me two years to come up with that someone and something.

In 2008 Adam Kuban hired a Cook’s Illustrated editor and writer named Kenji López-Alt to do some burger reviews for our burger blog, A Hamburger Today. Cook’s Illustrated founding editor and publisher Chris Kimball allowed Kenji to freelance for us only because he was writing about things Cook’s Illustrated would never write about. Kenji’s burger posts showed an insatiably curious scientific mind, major cooking chops, and an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture. He was unabashedly geeky, a fine writer, and a great storyteller.

The very first post Kenji wrote for us, on May 12, 2008, put all his insanely prodigious talents on display. It was about what he dubbed the Blumenburger, the difficult and time-consuming burger recipe developed by the famous, scientifically oriented British chef Heston Blumenthal. It begins:

England’s Heston Blumenthal follows in the footsteps of Spain’s legendary Ferran Adrià, in that he attempts to create a cuisine that places a high value on innovation and stimulation of the senses beyond taste. So what happens when one of the most highfalutin’ chefs in the world tries to tackle the hamburger, one of the most well-loved yet humble foods in the world?...

In the name of science, research, and saturated-fat intake, I followed Blumenthal’s recipe for the ground beef sandwich nonpareil. All 12 pages of it. Here’s what I found:

Interesting Figures

  • Number of ingredients to make a cheeseburger: 3 (meat, cheese, bun)
  • Number of ingredients to make a Blumenburger: 32
  • Cost of average homemade half-pound cheeseburger: $3
  • Cost of Blumenburger: $9
  • Time required to make average cheeseburger: 7 minutes (3 minutes of prep, 4 minutes cooking time)
  • Time required to make Blumenburger: 30 hours, 4 minutes (30 hours of prep, 4 minutes cooking time)

You didn’t have to be a food science geek to recognize a major talent on display in this post. It was hilarious, revealing, and indisputably true.

Kenji was no stranger to the blogosphere. He and a friend had created GoodEater.org, which Kenji described to me in an email as “a website and blog that merges conversations on food quality, enjoyment, sourcing, and sustainability.” It was actually really good but hadn’t gotten much traction.

Kenji was also no stranger to recipe development. His years at Cook’s Illustrated had given him a deep understanding of how to develop a recipe. Those years had been preceded by many years spent cooking for some of Boston’s best, most thoughtful chefs.

Kenji, Robyn Lee, and I agreed to meet for lunch at Trailer Park Lounge, a kitschy spot four blocks from our offices on West Twenty-Seventh Street.

I said to Kenji right after my prodigious ordering, “I love your burger reviews, but I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a food science column for us. You would have complete freedom to write about whatever you want, in your voice, which I love. You could write about burgers, fried chicken, pizza, anything. I’m thinking it would have both recipes and technique content. I think that given your background [Kenji is an MIT grad whose father is a professor at Harvard Medical School], your passion for both science and cooking techniques, and your strong storytelling abilities, this column would be something you could get excited about.”

Kenji’s face lit up. “I can’t believe you’re asking me to write a food science column. I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“Great,” I replied. “We could call it ‘The Burger Lab’ when you’re writing about burgers and ‘The Food Lab’ when you’re writing about other stuff, because you would be digging deep into the science of cooking.”

We agreed that I would pay Kenji thirty dollars a column to start. Before you start laughing, that was five dollars more than we were paying everybody else—not because I was taking all the money we were (not) making and spending it on helicopter rides to the Hamptons, but because that was all we could afford. And sadly, it was double what a lot of other food blogs were paying for posts.

I loved everything about Kenji’s Food Lab posts: his “Harold McGee meets the Simpsons,” perfectly pitched, pop culture–drenched writing voice (Kenji claimed that two of his major influences were Mr. Wizard and the old TV show MacGyver); the way he framed his narratives by taking his readers on a journey; his obsessive rigor; and his methodology, which readily admitted his failed attempts along the way to perfection.

The Serious Eats community agreed with me about Kenji’s talent. Within three months his first Food Lab post, “How to Boil an Egg,” had gotten ten times what any recipe post had gotten on Serious Eats at the time.

A recipe strategy that would satisfy Nick Denton was forming before my very eyes, thanks to one extraordinary find. Kenji’s voice and storytelling style were the essence of Serious Eats. Successful blogs like Serious Eats created a world unto themselves that readers wanted to live in. Successful magazines do the same thing. I realized at that moment that something was either right for Serious Eats or it wasn’t. I recognized Kenji on an almost cellular level not only as somebody whose creative output fit perfectly within the Serious Eats ethos but also as someone who could push our mission of serious deliciousness forward.

I asked in a follow-up email if Kenji wanted to take charge of all of our recipe development content. “We could call you our recipe czar.” Kenji responded in an email: “Recipe czar sounds fun and interesting, and I’m a free agent as far as Chris [Kimball] is concerned. [I had asked if his recipe czar duties would conflict with his Cook’s Illustrated relationship.]

The Serious Eats community embraced Kenji immediately. And so did everyone else at Serious Eats headquarters, including Carey and Erin. Kenji was headstrong and opinionated but a good and funny colleague. The tribe was coming together rather nicely.

We sat down for lunch. Kenji knew the drill. I ordered for both of us: a modest four burgers, sweet potato and regular fries, Bill’s excellent onion rings, and a couple of malts. “See,” I told Kenji, “I can show some restraint when ordering if need be.” I quickly turned the conversation to the matter at hand. “Kenji, you need to write a book, dude, a Food Lab book. My wife [Vicky] is a terrific agent and a big fan of your posts. You should talk to her and see what she thinks.”

Vicky and Kenji got along famously. Kenji worked really hard on his book proposal for The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science—“the book that [geeky British celebrity chef] Heston Blumenthal would have written if instead of a multimillion dollar research lab and an infinite source of high-end ingredients, all he had was a home kitchen and a supermarket like the rest of us.”

By the spring of 2010 Vicky was getting a lot of interest from cookbook editors all over town. They were all reading Serious Eats religiously by that time. It certainly looked like a smart and forward-thinking publisher would be making an offer for the Food Lab book.

One lovely late March morning Kenji emailed me and asked me to meet for coffee. I sat down. Kenji looked concerned. “Listen, Ed, somehow Chris Kimball got wind of my book proposal. He offered to pay me what he said was a fair advance and publish my book under the Cook’s Illustrated umbrella. Not only that, he also said he would put my name on the cover as the author. Chris said it would be the first time a name other than his would appear on the front cover of a Cook’s Illustrated book. Finally, he said he would publish any other books I wanted to write. But—and I know this is a big ‘but’ for both of us—he said that I could never write for Serious Eats again.”

Damn. Kenji had quickly become our most popular writer on Serious Eats, far eclipsing the rest of us. We really couldn’t afford to lose him, but then again I didn’t have the money to offer Kenji the full-time job with benefits he really needed. So I was in no position to make any other counter-offer than the promise of a bright future at Serious Eats once I did have the money to put him on staff.

Kenji was clearly conflicted. “I understand what you’re saying, Ed. Let me think about this over the weekend and talk it over with Adri. I’ll let you know on Monday where I’m at.”

By the time I walked into my meeting at Ferrara with Kenji on Monday, I was prepared for the worst, convinced that Kenji was going to be leaving. Even before ordering, we got down to business. “Adri and I talked a lot about Chris’s offer, and though Adri, who’s in charge of money in our household, was certainly tempted by it, in the end we both decided that staying at Serious Eats is the best thing for me to do. I have a lot of faith in you and Vicky.”

With the guidance of Vicky and Maria [Guarnaschelli, of publisher W.W. Norton], Kenji’s The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science became a runaway New York Times best-seller when it was published in 2015. Unsurprising, even though in typical Kenji fashion it ended up as a fifty-dollar, 910-page book. The Food Lab won both a James Beard Book Award and the IACP Cookbook of the Year Award in 2016.

When I brought Kenji on full time, I still hadn’t solved the riddle of how to make Serious Eats a self-sustaining, profitable business. But hiring Kenji and focusing on recipes brought me and Serious Eats into a business realm that could more easily scale without raising a lot more money. Or so I thought at the time. The success of Kenji and the Food Lab also bought me an even more valuable commodity: time. Why? Because potential investors saw original, innovative recipes that generated exponentially more traffic as a valuable commodity. Serious Eats and I could take a moment to breathe.

Adapted from Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption by Ed Levine with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ed Levine, 2019.

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4 Comments

gasgirl August 16, 2019
i loved serious eats for years. Recommended it to everyone! But now, sadly it is over! Look at past daily posts, oh so many pieces and so varied! Now, it is one recipe., or a compilation of past recipes and nothing more, except for the addition of what to purchase! Sad!
 
HalfPint August 14, 2019
This was a fun read. Looking forward to reading Ed's book. Though I'm not on SE on a daily basis these days, it's still one of my go-to.
 
Brian August 14, 2019
"Kenji, Robyn Lee, and I agreed to meet for lunch at Trailer Park Lounge, a kitschy spot four blocks from our offices on West Twenty-Seventh Street."
small correction, It's actually on West 23rd Street.
 
Brinda A. August 14, 2019
Hi Brian! Sorry for the confusion—I see what you're saying. What the sentence reads to me is that the Serious Eats offices were located on W27, and the Trailer Park Lounge was 4 blocks south of that, on W23. Thanks for reading, and for the feedback!