George Motz

George Motz, B.A. 1990, is serving up delicacy knowledge his way.

Since graduating from CatholicU, Motz has cultivated a particular culinary calling card. His career has included documentaries, books, and television shows all about the hamburger.

The former photo editor of the Cardinal Yearbook and DJ on WCUA Radio will open his own restaurant in Manhattan called, (what else?) Hamburger America this summer. A month earlier, his fifth book is slated to arrive in bookstores. He also has two television shows in the works.

In preparation, Motz, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., answered questions about what makes a burger sizzle, his journey from Catholic University to the Big Apple, and where to find the nation’s best burger.

How did this journey of hamburger expertise begin?

For 28 years I was in the film business as a director of photography shooting mostly TV commercials and promos. I was looking for something different to do and began work in 2001 on a documentary project and the subject was to be burgers. I was on the road traveling a lot so filming the documentary was fairly easy. After the film (Hamburger America) premiered in 2004 people started asking me my opinion of burgers in America. Eventually the research for the film was rolled into a guide book to 100 burger joints, then 150, then Travel Channel produced a burger show with me as the host, then a cookbook, two more shows … and here we are over 20 years later and I’m opening my very own burger joint in NYC.

Was there a moment where you said, “I’m all in on burgers”?

Yes, in about 1992 I was sitting at the counter at The Apple Pan (a renowned hamburger shack) in Los Angeles and for the first time realized that the burger stood for so much more than just food. The culture was intoxicating and I haven’t lost that love for the burger since that moment.

What makes a good hamburger for you?

Fresh beef is paramount. Simplicity, a close second. Some of the best burgers out there are made with only a few ingredients. And for me, to be able to taste beef in a burger is everything. Too many toppings (or ketchup, yuck) will ruin the flavor of a burger.

When you were at CatholicU, could you have imagined being on this journey? What were you aiming to do when you arrived?

Ha! Good question. Actually, yes and no. No, because I was an art major imagining myself in the world of advertising when I graduated. But when I switched to the History department as a major my focus shifted to America. I did go into the advertising business after all, and had a very fulfilling career. However, my love of American food culture finally interceded.

How did you accumulate your list of good burgers?

It took many, many years. To be included in one of my books, a burger joint has to have had a burger on the menu (and a very good one) for over 20 years. Longevity is important. Once fans of mine understood the mission, suggestions came pouring in, and they still do. I have an excellent legion of fans that help me, whom I call my ‘EBTs’ (or Expert Burger Tasters). They are my first responders to great burger discoveries all over the globe.

What’s the key to making a good burger at home?

The best path to success in making a burger at home is to cook in a pan in your kitchen. It’s much easier to make magic in a controlled environment instead of outside on the grill. Grilling, contrary to popular understanding, is actually the most difficult way to make a burger. There are too many variables and the learning curve is steep. Cooking in a pan allows you to control the heat better and the burger cooks in its own fat, consider it a sort of ‘burger confit.’ If you must make your burgers outside, try putting a cast iron skillet on the grill grate. Other than that, my advice is always to keep it simple — one or two toppings, a classic toasted bun and some pickles.

How much do burgers take up in your life now and how do you separate everything?

Since I’ve basically left the film business and my restaurant is opening soon, burgers take up an even larger part of my life. On May 9, my fifth book (The Great American Burger Book: How to Make Authentic Regional Hamburgers at Home) will be released. My burger joint, Hamburger America, opens in Manhattan in June and two new burger shows that I’m hosting are in the works this summer. I try to separate burgers from my personal life, but it’s getting increasingly difficult. I do find time to eat salad and exercise however.

Is there a place you would call the “Burger Capital of the World” and
what makes it special?

The Midwest is where you find what I like to call ‘primary source’ burgers — those unaffected by time or trend. The original versions that we all need to study to make sure we are getting it right. The answer to how to preserve the American Hamburger is right there in the center of the country. Road trip!

— M.J.P.