The day Mathew Ramsey went viral was nearly his last. It was March 8, 2014, and traffic to his over-the-top blog, PornBurger, had just gone through the roof after a mention on the technology website Gizmodo.com. And as he was sitting at his kitchen table, watching it all happen, he took a bite of a ham sandwich and began to choke.
“I was like, ‘I am dead, and everything is about to happen right now,’ ” he says. He was about to self-Heimlich on the back of a chair when he finally coughed the ham out of his windpipe. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, my life just flashed [before my eyes] over a stupid ham sandwich.’ ”
If Ramsey had bitten the dust, he wouldn’t have gone on to invent a burger-infused whiskey, or a marijuana-infused burger, or a Cheetos-infused tequila. And he certainly wouldn’t have gone on to write his pun-infused cookbook, “PornBurger: Hot Buns and Juicy Beefcakes,” released this week.
The 36-year-old Bloomingdale resident calls himself a burger pervert. He has a full mustache and a home decorated like a Southwestern ranch. His burgers, photographed in lascivious detail, have cheeky names: the Full Mounty, topped with bone marrow poutine sauce; A Fish Called Hitachi Wanda, a trout burger named after a vibrator; Calicornication, which he describes as “some serious hard-core soft-core porn”; and unprintable others. He is the Larry Flynt of burgers. His motto: “Let’s get weird.”
The catalyst for all this is a word Ramsey made up: “slurst.”
“It’s a combination of slutty and thirst,” he said. “It’s so carnal, and your thirst will never be satisfied. That’s how it is with burgers sometimes. Like, I don’t care how messy my hands get. I just need this in my face.”
Ramsey’s first job was at National Geographic, where he worked as an assistant for reporter-host Lisa Ling and later as a producer for TV shows including “Hogzilla,” about an enormous wild hog. That’s when he learned the true meaning of slurst: He participated in the Slog, a 10-day, 200-mile charity walk with his colleagues to raise money for Sudan, during which participants were not allowed to eat.
“I was able to perceive food in a way I’ve never ever encountered it, because I couldn’t eat it. My brain was just hyperactive; that’s all I was thinking about,” he said. “I could smell granola bars from distances, I could taste these things that I was thinking of. It was really wild.”
He had already been tooling around in the kitchen for hours each weekend. But the 10 days of culinary hallucinations provided the final push: He quit his job and moved to San Francisco, enrolling in a 15-month program at Le Cordon Bleu.
During culinary school, he apprenticed at a few restaurants and interned for the food section of the San Francisco Chronicle, where he tested recipes, took photos, styled food — he had studied photography in college — and even did a little bit of writing. A 2009 review he wrote of Hubert Keller’s “Burger Bar” cookbook now reads like a premonition: Keller “takes the classic hamburger, explodes it and meticulously reconstructs it,” Ramsey wrote.
A video production job at LivingSocial brought Ramsey back to Washington. All the while, he was itching to use his culinary degree. In January 2014, he had friends over for dinner and served them a venison burger topped with Spam, Taleggio cheese and quick-pickled beets. “They were like, ‘What are you going to call this burger?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, the Bambi?’ ”
A blog was born. Ramsey decided to make one burger a week as a creative challenge — initially, just for friends. He called it PornBurger as a nod to the love-it-or-hate-it term in the food world for an especially desirable (and well-photographed) dish.
“I think food is very sensual,” he said. “It’s one of my biggest driving factors in the kitchen: creating sexy, gorgeous food. Food porn, for me personally, it’s drippy, it’s saucy, it’s also obtainable and real.”
Initially, he said, the name posed a problem for his parents, who live in Caledonia, Tex.
“They’d tell people at church that their son has this [web] site called PornBurger,” he said. But they’d forget that his URL is PornBurger.me and send people by mistake to the .com version, “which is just a straight-up porn site.”
Ramsey creates each burger in his basement man-cave of an apartment in Bloomingdale, filled with kitchen gadgetry and watched over by Fred, a mounted antelope head, and Daniel Day-Lewis, a taxidermied squirrel paddling a tiny canoe. (“It’s just us boys down here,” he said.) He likes to name things: His chef’s knife is John Wayne.
Many of the burgers are also brazenly heteromasculine: Some women might be disinclined to make, for example, a peanut-butter-and-jelly-themed burger called the Lolita. “There’s a lot of machismo in the cooking world,” he acknowledges.
Often, he’d draw the burgers in a sketchbook. Then, late at night and over a glass of fernet, he’d cook his burgers, style them and photograph them in a particular lighting that gives them a sexy glisten.
“Late-night stoner food,” he calls it. “Well, some of it’s early-morning stoner food.” It could be as highbrow as a foie gras gougère burger or as lowbrow as a bacon-wrapped burger in a doughnut (the Wake’n Bacon).
“He’s able to make masterworks on his . . . electric stove, and on a hot plate and a toaster oven,” said artist Martin Swift, a collaborator on Ramsey’s book. “And that’s what makes him great, is that these beautiful, picturesque dishes come out of a very small basement apartment.”
It wasn’t long before other blogs took notice. Ramsey’s photos were picked up by Gizmodo, BuzzFeed and Grub Street, and the opportunities began pouring in. He was contacted by reporters from Norway, Japan and Australia. He got an offer to collaborate on a women’s underwear line. He began workshopping a television concept that he says may or may not happen, in which he would travel around the world to discover new ingredients, then make burgers out of them. It was his first chance to make money from the blog; he had resisted advertising because he thought it would “muddy the creative waters.”
And he got the book deal. Because he had been making burgers for fun and photographs, he’d never written down many of his recipes, so he had to retrace his steps. There were a few burgers he was never able to replicate.
It can be hard to replicate a viral success, too. Jon Chonko, the blogger behind Scanwiches, another viral food-photo site, made a book of his work and said it has been more of a passion project than a windfall: His annual book profit “covers roughly what I would pay for sandwiches to put them on the site.” (He eats a lot of sandwiches.) “I hope he does better.”
The phrase “food porn” comes and goes out of style, too, which is the kind of thing that can date a book. But that doesn’t faze Ramsey.
“In a few years, this book will be dated, and all of my puns with it,” he said. “But that’s the fun of it. You get to keep creating.”
Which brings us to wabi-sabi, a word that sounds as if it could be an exotic burger condiment. Instead, it’s a Japanese philosophy of life that values austerity and modesty, traits that seem incompatible with PornBurger’s excess. But wabi-sabi is the medium-rare middle of Ramsey’s cowboy exterior: a practice, along with his intermittent study of Buddhism, that drives his creativity and worldview. One of its tenets is that of impermanence: All things, from art to scientific theorems to the planets and stars, “eventually fade into oblivion and nonexistence,” according to one of Ramsey’s books on the subject. The key to life is to enjoy things in the moment. Including food.
“As soon as you’re done cooking it, it starts degrading. In 10 minutes, it’s gone,” said Ramsey. “I find there’s a beauty in that.”
You could say the same thing about going viral. “It’s exhilarating,” he said. But “I try not to put any stock in that at all. Because it is fleeting, it’s so temporary.”
The trick, then, is to harness the virality, to make it into something that lasts, and to shape your own image. Because as much as Ramsey loves burgers, he doesn’t necessarily want to be Mr. PornBurger for the rest of his life. That’s why he and his friend and former Washingtonian food editor Kate Nerenberg started Bar R, an occasional supper club that showcases his fine-dining cooking as well as his burgers. It has a playful bent: He frequently reserves a place at the table for his favorite actor, Bill Murray, and sometimes offers his handful of guests a joint as an amuse-bouche of sorts.
For the past few months, he worked at Sally’s Middle Name on H Street NE, just to get used to being in a kitchen again. He says he hopes eventually to open up a space of his own — and it won’t be a burger joint. When he’s not making PornBurgers, Ramsey pushes the boundaries of creativity with dishes such as salmon ice cream, blue cheese marshmallows and boozy won tons.
One hurdle standing in the way of Ramsey’s future restaurant is his handle on finances. “I lose money on these things every time,” he said. For his most recent Bar R dinner, he charged $250 per couple but spent $400 at West Elm on tableware alone for his eight guests.
Ramsey spent days preparing for that dinner and was up cooking until 4 a.m. the night before. Most of the prep took place in his apartment kitchen, where, at noon, he was slicing braised beef tongue, a recipe from his book. “Tongue-on-tongue action,” he said.
The dinner that night was the first Bar R to take place outside his home. He had leveraged some National Geographic contacts to use the Earth Conservation Corps headquarters, a small brick building on the bank of the Anacostia. The building had no kitchen, so he brought his deep-fryer and a hot plate.
Guests were ushered onto a boat, where an ECC volunteer gave them a closer look at osprey nests on a pylon of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. When they returned to shore, Ramsey opened with what he called a ham and cheese sandwich: toasted brioche filled with prosciutto and Parmesan gelato, a haute upgrade to his meal on the day he went viral. Other courses: frites topped with mole made from local Harper Macaw chocolate, beef tongue with apples and radishes, a scallop seviche studded with pickled ramps.
Between courses, there were more surprises: Ramsey had enlisted Rodney Stott, a falconer, to give guests the chance to hold Mr. Hoots, his owl. A bluegrass band strolled into the room and performed a half-dozen songs. And Ramsey produced his traditional joint (though most of the guests politely declined).
The entertainment threatened to upstage the main event: Ramsey’s burger, two smash-cooked patties with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, black-vinegar-pickled onions, potato chips and a name whose Urban Dictionary entry might make you blush. It’s like the famous saying about obscenity: You know it when you see it. Beauty is fleeting, as wabi-sabi teaches, so it wasn’t long before the guests made those lusty burgers disappear.
Ramsey will be signing copies of “PornBurger” and cooking at Upshur Street Books on Wednesday, May 18, at 7 p.m. Tickets, $38, include food and a copy of the book.