Burgers. They're the ultimate credit-crunch munch. Packed with protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, calcium, iron and dietary fibre, they're usually as cheap as the accompanying fat-saturated chips. But Laurent Pillard has other, rather more extravagant ideas about them. The French-born chef from Burger Bar in Las Vegas was at the Armed Forces Officers Club to present a masterclass on how to make a different kind of burger: a $5,000 (Dh18,365) fleur burger, to be precise.
It might seem a strange career move for an accomplished chef, with experience of working in the three-starred Michelin restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France, to go and flip burgers for a living. But Burger Bar, part of the French-born chef Hubert Keller's restaurant empire, is no ordinary fast-food joint. The high-end, build-your-own-burger concept uses all manner of exotic ingredients, and serves them up in sophisticated surroundings. The general idea is that guests can choose their own combination of patties, toppings and cheeses to go with a selection of luxury buns. Or they can decide to really splash out on a snack that makes Burger King pale into insignificance.
The $5,000 burger is an extravagance that few can justify in these belt-tightening times. Nevertheless, Pillard's masterclass was to showcase the American Kobe-style beef, Hudson Valley foie gras, black truffle, fingerling potato and black lava salt that combine to make this one of the world's most expensive burgers. He even brought along one of the cute little certificates that come with it. It was the only chance that most of the assembled audience members would get to sample such outrageously opulent fast food, but few would have denied it was delicious.
Pillard's next fanciful creation might easily have fitted in with most people's budgets, even if it didn't fit their preconceptions of what a burger should be. It was the chocolate sweet burger, featuring a ganache "pattie", passion fruit gelée "cheese", raspberry coulis "ketchup", pastry cream "mayonnaise" and a glazed doughnut "bun". What about the fries, I hear you cry. Well, it's amazing what Pillard can do with some strategically sliced pineapple pieces fried in butter. Once I'd got my head around the concept, I accepted it as a very quirky and clever dessert that certainly made me think about what could be achieved with chocolate. Not half as much, however, as the following day's masterclasses.
The chocolate burger had me suitably prepared for the next morning's Chocolate Feasting at the Officers Club. The day was to be a celebration of everything that could be created from the cocoa bean. First we were given a short presentation about the history of chocolate by Nay Tawile of the luxury chocolate maker Valrhona. Then it was Hugues Pouget's turn to show us the possibilities of pralines. The one-time pastry chef at Restaurant Guy Savoy and winner of the Championnat de France des Desserts competition 2003 prepared chocolate marshmallows and chocolate lychee pralines.
Yann Duytsche was next to grace the demonstration kitchen, with his fine and intricately crafted chocolate cakes. The master pâtissier of some 20 years, who used Valrhona chocolate to make his cakes, was careful to warn of the precision required with such a luxury brand. "When you work with 70 per cent cocoa, it's a high-technology product," he advised. "You have to be precise. It's like driving a high-performance sports car, or flying a plane. You must become a pilot of chocolate!" Indeed, his milk chocolate cake with strawberries, lime and passion fruit undoubtedly gave me a lift, even if the somewhat enthusiastic plug for his latest book, Sweet Diversions, didn't.
The day's treatment of chocolate had certainly been eventful, yet nothing had quite surprised me in a way that Laurent Pillard's chocolate hamburger had. Then along came Frédéric Bau of L'Ecole du Grand Chocolat Valrhona in France, and all that changed. Instead of turning a traditionally savoury dish into a dessert, Bau demonstrated how chocolate could be used in traditionally savoury recipes, without making them sweet. Of course, using chocolate in this way is nothing new, as Bau was at pains to point out - the Mexicans have used it in their cooking for centuries. But Bau had a few tricks up his sleeve.
"If you want to dream about cooking with chocolate," he announced, "just don't be shy." Then he proceeded to confidently cook his nougat of duck foie gras with chocolate and caraway. Since the chocolate Bau used was more bitter than sweet, the dish possessed a wonderful balance between the creamy, meaty flavour of the foie gras and the intensity of the chocolate, with neither flavour overpowering the other. It was rich, luxurious and decadent food. But with hardly a gimmick in sight, it was a triumph.