The Umami Burger Empire of Adam Fleischman

Akiko Fujita

Adam Fleischman doesn’t fit the mold of a burger king.

The 36-year-old former wine bar owner has no professional training as a chef, and he worked in finance before moving to California 13 years ago.

Yet, Fleischman has changed the culinary landscape of Los Angeles in four short years with his wildly popular restaurant, Umami Burger, by bringing a unique global flair to an American staple.

“We wanted to take the burger and create a path in the future for them,” Fleischman says. “We wanted to say there’s a new path we can take the burger, open it up to a lot of global influences and a lot of new flavor profiles, using the umami flavor that hadn’t really been explored yet.”

Fleischman describes that “umami” flavor as the desirable taste found in food. Often referred to as the fifth taste -- after sweet, salty, sour, and bitter -- the Japanese word literally translates to “delicious taste.”

Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda came up with it more than a century ago to describe the flavor found at the heart of Japanese cooking -- in staples like the traditional Japanese seasoning miso, and the fish broth, “dashi.” But umami was largely unknown in the U.S., until Fleischman started his first restaurant venture in 2009.

It all began with a trip to a local Japanese grocery store for some soy sauce, fish broth, and other Japanese staples.

“I bought a bunch of stuff and just played around with it in my head,” Fleischman said. “I tried to figure out things that would go with tomato, konbu, parmesan, mushroom which are the classic umami flavors. I figure if you can combine those, something good would come out of it, and it did.”

Fleischman says it took one day to come up with the recipe for his original Umami burger -- a house ground, “hand-formed” 6 oz. burger patty infused with the secret umami sauce, a parmesan chip, shiitake mushroom, caramelized onions, and roasted tomato, topped with a fluffy bun.

He used the $40,000 pocketed from the sale of his wine bars to open his first restaurant at a former taco stand in West Los Angeles.

Today, Fleischman has more than a dozen Umami Burger stores across California, and a cult-like following that includes big name celebrities. He is poised to open a dozen new stores in New York City, Miami, and Washington D.C. later this year.

“We just want to be in the gourmet capitals of the U.S., which are very interesting,” he says.

Fleischman has achieved burger success, by avoiding the traditional mold of a large restaurant chain. Each store is designed differently, to fit the aesthetic of its location, and features a signature, exclusive burger, though the core menu remains the same. The San Francisco restaurant features a bacon-wrapped scallop burger, the L.A. flagship features the Grove Truffle Burger. At the Pasadena store, the Le Cordon Bleu Burger is the house specialty.

Fleischman envisions a Peking Duck burger for one of his New York restaurants to “draw on the Asia, Chinese love there,” while he is experimenting with a Cuban American, South American influenced burger for his Miami store.

Each sandwich is prepared with obsessive attention paid to every element of the umami experience. The steaks are ground to order, each bun is branded with the “U” logo. Burgers featured on the core menu range from the healthy -- the Ahi Tuna Burger and Earth Burger -- to the hearty -- the “manly” burger, featuring beer-cheddar cheese, smoked salt onion strings, and bacon lard.

The key to burger perfection, Fleischman says, is the burger-to-bun ratio.

“It’s the balance between the beef and the bun, and it’s not overwhelmingly meaty or overwhelmingly bun like,” Fleischman says, “We really have to work on getting the right balance.”

Last year, Fleischman expanded his food empire to include Neapolitan pizza by opening his first non-burger restaurant, 800 Degrees. He has also retained a share of an upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Beverly Hills, Red Medicine, and acquired a stake in ice cream company L.A. Creamery.

Fleischman is poised to open a barbecue concept restaurant later this year, and says he hopes to explore “five to 10 more” different types of restaurants in the next few years, in addition to opening more than 100 additional Umami Burger locations nationwide.

He’s also eyeing global expansion, to Asia and Europe.

“Just getting started, just getting started,” Fleischman says with a smile. “Always improving.”