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Nice buns: PornBurger strips away tradition, finds pleasure in the unique

Mathew Ramsey has a solution for burger fatigue: It's his website PornBurger.

WASHINGTON — Burgers are to summer as gin is to martinis.

That statement might not be an SAT-approved analogy, but it’s a fact when it comes to summer eats.

Burgers are the symbol of the American cookout, the portrait of pool parties and the staple of sports stadiums.  But after months of barbecues, picnics and warm-weather holidays, even the biggest burger fan can grow weary of the standard patty and bun.

Mathew Ramsey has a solution for burger fatigue. Sometimes it’s as simple as whipping up kimchi ketchup or replacing bacon with crispy duck skin. Other times, Ramsey takes on more complicated challenges to beat burger boredom. He adds bone marrow to onion jam, tops grass-fed beef with foie gras mousse or uses Yorkshire pudding as a breaded vehicle for his stacked creations.

With such deliciously sinful variations on the American classic, it’s no wonder Ramsey’s successful food blog bears the name PornBurger. After all, the burgers he builds are the very definition of food porn.

“It’s kind of this whole exploration of what a burger should be — where does a burger end and where does it begin. And there’s no rule that it needs to be a potato bun or needs to be a brioche bun, and it’s kind of fun when you break the rules a little bit,” Ramsey says.

Becoming a food pornographer

A few years ago, Ramsey, who has a background in video production and photography, was working for National Geographic when he embarked on a 10-day walk without food to raise money for hospitals in southern Sudan.

Eating may have been out of the picture, but food was all Ramsey could think about, and every culinary aspiration he’d ever had floated to the forefront.

“[I thought], I’ve always wanted to go to culinary school, maybe now’s the time to do it,” he says.

Ramsey quit his job, moved to California and enrolled at the California Culinary Academy Le Cordon Bleu. He skipped over working his way up in the restaurant industry and decided, instead, to challenge himself in a way that would utilize both his photography and culinary skills.

In 2014, Ramsey, a Northwest D.C. resident, launched his website PornBurger. Every week for a year, he developed a unique burger, photographed it and posted it for his digital audience. 

PornBurger became an instant success, thanks to Ramsey’s playful flavor combinations and detailed, drool-worthy photos that highlight every curve of melted cheese, every bead of caviar and every fatty ridge of bacon.

But as with every new venture, Ramsey ran into some challenges with his project. “Initially I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t open this website at work,’” he says with a nervous laugh.

“It’s pornburger.me, not pornburger.com, which is 100 percent a different website,” he adds, reassuringly. “My parents have been in church and have been like, ‘Oh, go check out my son’s website, pornburger.com.’ And it’s just like ‘Oh.’”

Lesson learned.

Ramsey, who refers to himself as a food pornographer, not a food photographer, also caught some flak from readers for not publishing his recipes. He’s currently addressing that concern with a PornBurger cookbook that’s due out next year.

Making burger porn 

For most, coming up with a new burger recipe each week may seem impossible, but Ramsey has a never-ending list of ideas.

“You know, I’m exploring. There wouldn’t be a website if it was just the same burger every week. I bike ride a lot so that kind of helps fuel my creative energy,” says Ramsey, who adds that he also isn’t afraid to approach purveyors at the farmers market to ask about an unfamiliar herb or mushroom.

“I’m very ingredient driven,” he says.

Ramsey’s most recent PornBurger entry, the Spamela Anderson, consists of pineapple upside-down cake, jalapeño rubbed bacon, sharp cheddar Riesling cheese and a beef patty with spam.

A favorite of his, called “The Umilfy,” is made with a brioche bun, kimchi ketchup, white miso and Parmesan bacon, black vinegar marinated and sautéed onions, a grass-fed beef patty ground with smoked bacon, dill pickle slices and black garlic aioli.

“It’s just a flavor bomb, really,” he says.

Not all of Ramsey’s attempts have been as pleasing to the taste buds, however. In his yearlong challenge, he made a liquid burger: a cocktail made with rye whiskey that had been infused with White Castle.

“And the first time I attempted making this whiskey, I smelled it, which was the exact wrong thing to do, because it smelled kind of like burps.”

And while he initially thought it was an idea worth abandoning, Ramsey says he eventually made the concoction work.

“I’ve definitely had some failures. These are all explorations, not all of them are going to be out of this world, but I try,” he says.

From burger patties to dinner parties

The demand for Ramsey’s PornBurgers grew to a point where he was able to offer fans more than an online glimpse of his masterpieces — they could get a taste too. Last year he launched the dinner-party concept Bar R in his home from July through December. Reservations for a seat at his four-person table became harder to score than the rooftop at Rose’s Luxury.

And Ramsey says he’s gearing up for another run — just with a few alterations.

“Bar R is going to be a little different this year.  We’re going to be doing it four nights in a row, rather than once a month, and then we’re going to have one night where we open it up to the public,” he says, adding that the public pop-up will be held at a secret location.

Ramsey says he plans to release the dates for this year’s Bar R soon.

Take your burgers to the next level

If the burger temptation is taking over and waiting for a reservation is near impossible, Ramsey has some tips on how you can turn your ordinary burgers into PornBurgers at home.

The most important thing, he says, is to use quality ingredients.

“The easiest way to level up in your burger game? Honestly, it starts with buying meat … The laws of logic basically say what you put in something is what you get out. And the same applies to food. If you put good ingredients into a burger and start out with good ingredients, you’re going to start off with a better advantage.”

He likes to use a blend of chuck, sirloin and short rib. “It just adds a nice balance of grassy and nutty and rich and fatty,” Ramsey says.

Ditch the ketchup, mustard and yellow American cheese slices. Instead, Ramsey suggests experimenting with different varieties of cheeses and replacing conventional condiments with homemade aioli, salad dressing or alternative-flavored ketchups, such as those sold by the local business ‘Chups.

“Get adventurous. Find an ingredient and figure out how to make it work with a burger. That is basically all I am doing.”

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