The last thing any chef needs when opening a restaurant is a cease-and-desist letter from a Hollywood actor.
But in the last few frantic days running up to the opening of Ben Denner's Lucky Chip Burgers & Wine in East London any issues—like unfinished building work or ensuring the 100 vintages of wine on his menu were fully stocked—suddenly took a back seat when a letter arrived from Mark Wahlberg's lawyers. In it, they requested that Denner change the name of one of his burgers (the "Mark Wahlberger," obvs) named after the Boogie Nights man-mountain.
"It was out of control," says Denner. "The story ended up in the news all over the world."
The problem the underwear-flashing star had with the 35 day-aged Longhorn beef and braised short rib patty was that he believed it was in competition with his and his brothers' Boston Wahlburgers restaurant, and that it gave the false impression he had endorsed Lucky Chip's product.
"I wonder, if he came here, what would he actually think," says Denner. "He's very welcome to come down and try it next time he's in town. Maybe I'll write him a letter."
Wahlberg may have succeeded in changing the name of the meaty feast (now called a "Dirk Diggler," FYI) and Denner may have become a local news hero for a few days, but the chef can get back to doing what he does best: making burgers.
Starting out in 2011 as a man with a van at the nearby Netil House Market before moving to residencies across London, Denner's latest obsession—and what his first ever permanent venue is dedicated to—is the unusual pairing of burgers with fine wine.
Burgers and beer may traditionally go hand in hand, but the Aussie chef had his own reasons for breaking up this happy marriage and opening the burger-slash-wine bar on Ridley Road Market.
"I love wine, as I'm not really a beer drinker, so I guess it's a slightly obnoxious thing to do," he deadpans. "I thought it was something different to do as well. Everyone is going down the road of pairing burgers with craft beer and I thought it would be good to do something different from everyone else."
Denner partnered up with a wine buff friend, Shaun Rogg, to work on the science behind the wines that belong with the burgers.
"There's actually quite a few rules for what works with pairing the two," Denner says. "First of all, if it tastes good, then it works."
"High tannins don't work very well with certain foods, as the way they coat the inside of your mouth, you lose the taste of the food a little afterwards," he adds. "Wines with high acidity can be good with high-fat foods as it cuts through the fat."
Falling back on tried-and-tested classics like Merlot with red meat wasn't an option. In his research, Denner found that white wines actually came out on top.
"In some cases, it's easier to match a white with the dish," he explains. "For example, we've got a New Zealand Chardonnay that goes really well with the food—it's oaky-tasting and has the perfect flavour profiles to match with the burgers. Red wine can actually be trickier to match."
The testing sessions also threw up some "Huh, really?" moments, as well as those that drew on that whole salty-sweet-umami thing.
"There's also lots of things that you would never expect to work, that actually pair really nicely," says Denner. "We tried a dessert wine with a burger the other day, that was delicious!"
Sort of like the grown-up version of drinking McDonald's milkshakes with a hamburger and salty fries, I suggest.
Denner wants to show me the thinking behind his concept, so gets into the kitchen of the 1980s-inspired diner and out of the list of five burgers, which include the "Royale Wit Cheese" and the "Kevin Bacon," he whips up his signature choice: "El Chappo."
Wait, so that's a burger named after the tunnel-digging Mexican drug lord?
"It was just a name we made up back when we first opened up, but it wasn't until afterwards we realised it was named after a notorious drug dealer," Denner assures me.
While there are no letters of complaint from the modern-day Pablo Escobar (yet), the burger remains the most popular on the menu at Lucky Chip's residencies in nearby venues Birthdays and The Old Queen's Head. Made with an aged beef patty, smoked bacon, blue cheese, roasted jalapeño, and aioli, it's so crammed with flavour that it's difficult to imagine any wine Denner would be able to pair with this.
He goes to the top shelf of his wine cellar and pulls out a 2008 bottle of red Lebanese Heritage Family Reserve, which sells for £39 a bottle at the restaurant. He pours it into a glass and places it next to the burger, which looks mildly ridiculous—like turning up to Burger King for dinner in a tux. As I dig in to the burger, Denner tells me to take a mouthful of the wine after my first few bites.
"We chose this bottle to go with El Chapo as the wine is a little fruity and the tannins are really well integrated within it," says Denner. "It's also got a hint of a Stilton, a savoury note that goes with the blue cheese in the burger and enhances it."
He's right, you know. I'd never thought about a wine tasting sort of cheesy before, but this punchy vintage has a not-unpleasant tang to it that squares up with the burger.
"It's quite balanced, there's not too much acidity and it's got a slightly chalky, quality which again goes with the cheese," he explains.
It would take weeks to work through the 120-strong wine list at the restaurant, which come from as far afield as New Zealand and Argentina through to Hungary and South Africa. The baller choice on the menu, though, has to be the £500, 1979 Cabernet from California, which Denner says someone has already called to enquire about.
"It's our most expensive wine on the menu as it's almost impossible to find another bottle of it," he explains. "It was sourced through a friend of mine, who's got a contact at the winery and he managed to get hold of one for us. He tips me off when there's a bottle we might like and then we sell it at cost price in the restaurant."
Dropping half a grand on a drink to go with your burger does have its benefits —Denner kindly says he'll throw in your dinner for free if you splash out on this particular bottle.
Equally, if you just come in an ask for a glass of that week's house choice at £6, it's no skin off Lucky Chip's grapes.
"We don't want to tell people what to drink. We think they should choose but we're on hand to talk them through it," says Denner. "It works the other way as well, so if someone wants a nice glass of Chardonnay, we'll also be able to recommend the burger to go with it."
A-listers aside, no one's got any cause to complain about that.