Early one morning, not long ago, Pat LaFrieda decided to conduct an experiment. A tall, square-jawed 38-year-old who could pass for an Army commander—he spent eight years in the reserves—Pat runs Pat LaFrieda Wholesale Meat Purveyors, a meat supplier in the West Village that was co-founded by his grandfather (a.k.a. “the original Pat LaFrieda”) in 1922. Pat’s workday is relentless, beginning at nine in the evening and ending at seven the following morning, most of it spent chugging anything caffeinated while cutting meat in what is essentially a gigantic freezer; afterward, he’ll often grab something to take home—a marbled cut of prime Black Angus hanger, say, or a juicy short-rib pinwheel—to cook for his wife and young son. On this occasion, however, he opted to do something different. Hooking himself a piece of dry-aged rib eye, one of the wholesaler’s most expensive cuts, he tossed it into the meat grinder. A believer that few flavors can compete with the funky intensity of a perfectly dry-aged steak, Pat was simply curious: What, exactly, would it taste like in a hamburger?
Around the same time, Pat’s cousin and partner in the business, Mark Pastore, was nursing a burger-related idea of his own. Whereas Pat is the born butcher of the two, with the scars cross-hatching his hands to prove it, Mark is the intrinsic marketer, a gregarious 35-year-old who dabbled in nightlife PR before entering the world of wholesale meats. A tireless networker who often visits three different restaurants in a night, Mark is happiest when sipping a Campari and grapefruit juice (“It’s true, I’m the gay meat guy”) while eating his own product prepared by a member of his “family”—i.e., one of the many famed chefs that feature Pat LaFrieda meats on their menus. What Mark wanted to know was whether Pat LaFrieda could create the world’s most expensive hamburger meat. Restaurants typically pay around $2.25 a pound for ground beef; Mark was keen to fashion something bordering on ridiculous, something that would go for as much as $11.99 a pound. And so on a Friday morning, when he and Pat caught up during the shift change, Mark broached the topic while the two were crammed inside the tiny wood-paneled office they share in the corner of the wholesaler’s facility.
Mark: “Think it’s even possible?”
Pat: “Funny you ask. I’ve been playing around with dried beef and— ”
Mark: “Ooooohhh! I love it!”
There was a time when the idea of turning a piece of dry-aged beef into a burger would be considered an act of blasphemy, not unlike shredding a Chanel gown to make a bandanna. But as any wanton carnivore can attest, and as Pat and Mark understand better than most, New York has become a town smitten with reinventing the hamburger. Ever since Danny Meyer (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern) opened Shake Shack in Madison Square Park and proved that the epicurious would stand in line for an hour to devour a highbrow spin on a lowbrow favorite, it seems hardly a month passes without a well-known restaurateur introducing his own version of the gourmet burger. Stephen Hanson did it with Bill’s Bar & Burger, and outposts like 5 Napkin Burger, BLT Burger, and Stand have spawned cult followings, while the creations introduced by chefs like April Bloomfield (the Spotted Pig) and Joey Campanaro (the Little Owl) are deconstructed and praised in a way once reserved for the delicate wizardry of masters like Jean-Georges. Culinary scholars may point to any number of factors for this trend, ranging from the obvious (burgers are delicious) to the socioeconomic (even expensive burgers are recession-friendly) to the cross-cultural obliteration of the high-low divide (burgers are pretentiously unpretentious). There may, however, be a simpler explanation: Every restaurant mentioned above, not to mention dozens of other contenders in the perennial best-burger debate, gets its meat from the men of Pat LaFrieda.
And so it was perhaps inevitable, given Pat and Mark’s reputation as burger gurus within New York’s restaurant community, that what began as what Mark calls a “mad-scientist moment” with dry-aged meat was bound to become a sensation. Indeed, once Pat perfected the blend, and once Mark, after driving past a Johnnie Walker billboard, had christened it with the seductive name “Black Label,” the phones began ringing with chefs and restaurateurs eager for a taste. Among those interested were Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, the co-chefs at Keith McNally’s Minetta Tavern in the West Village, which was in the process of being converted into the VIP clubhouse it has since become. A few days after Mark sent over a sample, Nasr and Hanson called back with a request that Pat and Mark had grown used to hearing when it came to their varieties of ground-beef meat: Not only did they want the meat, but they also wanted Minetta to be the only restaurant in New York that served it. The final result: the $26 Black Label burger, which presently stands as the reigning haute burger in town, lusted after by critics and fetishized on food blogs—further evidence that, as much as any chef or restaurateur, Pat and Mark are the team quietly responsible for stoking a burger boom that shows no signs of abating.