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Chefs bring their best at Pittsburgher 2014 Gourmet Burger Competition

| Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Donato's owner Donato Coluccio, left, and sous chef Ethan Davis show off Donato's Certified Piedmontese beef burger with Bentons bacon and onion jam on homemade brioche bun.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
At Latitude 360 in Robinson, executive sous chef, Charles Palermo,left, and executive chef Matthew Stover present their gourmet burger, the Pierogi Burger, featuring sour cream, jalapeño puree, white cheddar, monterey jack, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
At Latitude 360 in Robinson, their gourmet Pierogi Burger features sour cream, jalapeño puree, white cheddar, monterey jack, sauerkraut, and sautéed onions.

Imagine a BBQ Whiskey Burger made with pulled pork, whiskey barbecue sauce, cheddar cheese and jalapeno slaw.

Or a coffee-crusted burger with mixed greens, braised shallots, smoked Gouda and grilled lemon and garlic aioli.

The Pittsburgher 2014 Gourmet Burger Competition is proof that not all burgers are created equal.

The third year of the competition fires up the creative juices of local chefs to dream up unusual burgers that look and taste great. Participants at the event can stroll the grounds of Rivers Casino and sample burgers while they listen to music by four local bands and two DJs. Artists and vendors, including beer trucks, will be on hand, as well.

Amateur gourmands are invited to vote on iPads at the event to determine who will receive the People's Choice Award, while guest food critics select the top prizes.

This year's event is a fundraiser for three charities, according to Diana Rua, who is producing and managing the show: Community Liver Alliance, Girls Hope of Pittsburgh and Biggi's Bullies, a pit-bull rescue.

“This is such a unique event,” Rua says. “The restaurants that compete are not traditional burger restaurants. Last year, 2,000 tickets were sold.”

The heat is on for 360 Grill at Latitude 360, Robinson, and executive chef Matt Stover and executive sous chef Charlie Palermo. The 360 Grill won the People's Choice Award last year for its Buffalo Chicken Burger, a ground beef patty mixed with Frank's Red Hot Sauce and topped with a buffalo chicken dip and blue cheese.

Stover says it was such a hit with dinner guests, they added the burger to its appetizer menu.

The culinary duo hopes to have the same result with this year's entry, Pierogie Sliders, featuring a ground beef patty topped with sauerkraut, jalapeno or cheddar, onion or cheese pierogie and served on a white slider bun. Their burger was inspired by the popular Pittsburgh Pirates pierogie races at PNC Park.

“We chose smaller slider buns over regular burger buns because they offer a less-messy presentation,” he says.

Rumfish Grille in Bridgeville is going off the deep end with its Seafood Burger, which isn't really a burger at all, in the traditional sense. Instead, chef Ethan Stark shapes small shrimp and bay scallops into a patty, similar to a crab cake.

“With a made-from-scratch honey habanera barbecue sauce on top, it's awesome,” Stark says. He plans to torch bonito flakes on top of the bun as an added touch.

“We're a seafood restaurant, so we wanted to put a different spin on our burger,” he says.

Another contender, Dive Bar & Grille in Wexford, is offering up its coffee-crusted Dive Burger, featuring a coffee crust topping made with finely ground espresso beans, wasabi powder and chipotle.

“I'm still tweaking the crust,” head chef Caleb Benyi says.

From Donato's in O'Hara, the entry is a back-to-basics burger that focuses more on the meat than the toppings.

“We are going with our take on the classic American Burger, but we are using the best products we can find — nice fresh local tomatoes, fresh herbs in the bacon onion jam, as well as the best bacon (Allan Benton's) you can find in America,” says Ethan Michael Davis, sous chef at Donato's, who worked with executive chef Donato Coluccio to develop their competition entry.

“And don't get me started on the Piedmontese Burger, premium-quality beef,” Davis says. “We keep it simple at Donato's.”

Donato will prepare about 600 burgers for the contest. The burgers are cut in quarters and served to samplers.

He says home cooks can follow a few rules to make sure their burgers are moist and delicious:

• Never smash the burger with a spatula when it's on the grill. The juices will come out.

• Don't salt the burger until the last minute when it's cooking. The salt also will draw out the juices.

• Let the refrigerated hamburger meat sit at room temperature for a half-hour before grilling.

• An 80 percent-lean hamburger blend makes the moistest burgers. Anything leaner will taste dry.

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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