Peeling back the top of a bun in the Greenwich Village branch of Five Guys Burger and Fries, Yianni Papoutsis looks content. Alongside his partner-in-MEAT, Scott Collins, 37-year-old Papoutsis is near the end of a food bender across New York and Montreal. This may be Papoutsis's favourite meal so far. This, he says, is "good product".
It's fitting. Five Guys has gone from a tiny Virginia operation to one of the most respected names in a crowded quality-burger market (Obama is a fan and a UK branch opens soon). It's not hard to see Collins and Papoutsis's MEAT restaurants doing the same. This meal, Papoutsis tells me later, felt like "coming home to roost".
Four years ago, Papoutsis was working for the English National Ballet. On breaks from touring he bought his first venture, f The Meatwagon, and ran it as a hobby. Since 2009, the street-food truck has begat a cult pop-up, The MEATeasy, and three permanent venues. For the first 18 months, Papoutsis "put every single penny I earnt into the Meatwagon".
The gamble paid off. With no training as a chef, and with recipes developed overnight in his Soho flat as his girlfriend sleeps, Papoutsis has gone from cooking burgers as a volunteer at the Burning Man festival to running a business which turned over around £10m last year, with flagship branch MEATliquor doing thousands of covers each week.
Meanwhile, his partner, Collins, has slowly "gambled upwards" to find himself a player in London restaurants. A man with more email accounts than most people have numbers in their phone, it's as hard to keep up with his career – "Even I'm getting confused by it," he says when asked to go through it. Now 42, he left grammar school at 16 and spent 10 years working in banking and IT sales. He then lived in LA and France working in cocktail bars and restaurants before deciding to buy his first pub, The Castle in Camberwell. Next he spent several years owning, buying, selling, managing and revamping pubs like The Clarence in Balham – which won the Evening Standard's final-ever Pub of the Year award in 2006.
Collins – who also recently opened the fried chicken joint Wishbone, in Brixton – has a dynamic with Papoutsis which suggests, Mick'n'Keef-like, that they've been tearing around the London food scene together for years. They actually met for the first time in May 2010 in a Peckham car park. Later, having seen The Meatwagon asking on Twitter for places to cook, Collins invited Papoutsis to bring his truck to the car park of The Florence in Herne Hill, south London.
The two hit it off and – as the original wagon had been nicked – they came up with the idea for MEATeasy, a pop-up diner and cocktail bar, on New Year's Day 2011. Within 10 days it was a reality, and its success led to the launch of MEATliquor. The popularity of that venue, in the murky ground floor of a car park off Oxford Street, led to the opening of two more MEAT venues, MEATmarket in Covert Garden and MEATmission in Hoxton. Another venue outside London is close, too.
Some of The Meatwagon's signature items – like the Dead Hippie burger and chilli cheese fries – have prevailed through the group's expansion. But Collins and Papoutsis are experts in recapitalising their ideas bank. Their forthcoming book, The MEATliquor Chronicles, will feature contributors such as DBC Pierre and recipes from their various adventures including 'The Moneyshot', a cocktail from Jack McGarry of The Dead Rabbit (ex of Belfast's lauded Merchant Hotel) named for when McGarry – one of the finest barmen on the planet – managed to accidentally throw the same drink all over Papoutsis's face.
Papoutsis has a seriousness about the trade that intrigues; when we speak in late April he's on his way to Downing Street to talk to a committee about the obstacles facing food start-ups. Collins, meanwhile, seems to bounce excitedly from one situation to the next. Being in his company suggests that almost anything could happen. Good or bad. For instance, on their final night in New York – over dinner at Miss Lily's, a high-end jerk chicken joint – Collins spotted lauded tattoo artist Scott Campbell at the next table; after some sweet talking from Papoutsis, who explained that everyone who launched MEATeasy has a tattoo guaranteeing free burgers for life, they arranged to meet Campbell for a rarer-than-rhodium appointment before flying straight back to England.
Rivals in burgers watch out, they make quite the team.
SNACKASS - A DIARY OF CALAMITOUS OVER-EATING
Day one: London to New York City
Calorie counter: Elevated risk
Scott and Yianni's biggest skill might not be selling Dead Hippies after all, but making friends in the right places. Which is one way of explaining how we ended up having one of London's finest barmen serving cocktails – like margaritas made with Aqua Riva tequila with chilli salt– at 30,000 feet.
Giles Looker, co-founder of the drinks consultancy Soulshakers, is the man who designs the drinks menus for the MEAT empire. He also designed the cocktails list for Virgin Atlantic's Upper Class cabin and airport lounges. Virgin were keen for us to experience the drinks at altitude to see if they stood up, so Giles has turned up with what customs officers call a "suitcase full of booze" to make some of his and the airline's signature cocktails.
Seven hours, several cocktails, and a conversation with the pilot later ('WHO'S FLYING THE PLANE?' scribbles Yianni in his notebook), we arrive in New York somewhat worse for wear. Still, we stumble into the dining room of The Standard Grill at the hip Standard Hotel where the Virgin and MEAT teams tuck into cocktails. And East and West Coast oysters. And a lobster thermidor. There was some tough-as-Tyson charred Spanish octopus in there too. A good start, all told.
Day two: New York City
Calorie counter: Weapons-grade
Having tested Virgin Atlantic's bar capabilities to their fullest, it's time for Scott and Yianni to lead the charge with a hand-picked selection of restaurants. There will be blood.
At David Chang's Momofuku Noodle Bar we've pre-ordered the group dining special, two giant bowls of fried chicken. One batch is fried in healthy buttermilk, the other triple-fried with a spicy Korean glaze. Mmm. For Scott – who owns London fried chicken joint Wishbone – it's not up to par, a blood clot in one of the chicken legs doesn't help, either.
Though the reason for the slow take-up of the shiso leaves, mu shu pancakes and chicken might be the fact that we preceded this lunch with a first one at Momofuku Ssäm, another venture by Chang. Ssäm's focus is wrapped meat (ssäm is 'wrapped' in Korean) and, as there's a gang of us, we'd pre-ordered a slow-cooked pork shoulder the size of a beagle. The joint is then shredded and stuffed into bibb lettuce wraps alongside oysters, rice, BBQ sauce and kimchi before it's shoved in the gob.
After a brief stop at the Brooklyn Brewery, we head to Williamsburg BBQ gaff Fette Sau. There, Scott gets a round of craft beers, served in jars and Yianni picks up a sharing tray full of pay-by-weigh brisket and pulled pork, plus sauerkraut, proper cowboy-style baked beans and potato salad to sate appetites that have no right to exist. Enough? No!
After a short break to wipe away the brisket sweats, we head through a grotty door into Roberta's, the hippermost Bushwick pizza joint. Girls has filmed there, obviously. To get a reservation we have to have a set menu which comprises of a metric-tonne of salami, cheese, Romaine salad, pizza (like the Baby Sinclair with maitake mushrooms, garlic and sharp Calabrian chillies) and – of course – meat. In this case a slow-cooked rosemary-brined rack of pork. We skip dessert.
Day three: New York City to Montreal
Calorie counter: Eaten a horse
By day three we're beginning to look like a crew of fatted sea calves. Sadly, Scott's gastro ambitions don't stop at the foodiest city on the planet. So we jettison the Virgin crew and crawl belly-first to La Guardia airport and Montreal.
There, we head straight to Joe Beef, a restaurant with a taste for meat so rambunctious that the floorboards have their own cardiovascular consultant. David McMillan and Frédéric Morin's two-room restaurant is a destination for food tourists; Scott and Yianni have already devoured its glorious cookbook, The Art of Living. We're here for the whole hog. And horse. And rabbit. It's basically a farmyard's worth of food.
At one point our table is covered in two portions of, er, horse tartare, donkey mortadella, a plate of roasted horse with frankfurters and more. Oink. We're all flagging – Yianni, who's had about an hour's sleep since leaving London, has to go to bed. By the time dessert comes, including a gurning giant pineapple face filled with cream and booze, our Giant Haystacksian appetites aren't as bulbous as they were. Nurse, the Gaviscon.
Day four: Montreal
Calorie counter: Citywide evacuation
Imagine if Heston Blumenthal had a restaurant which only opened for 10 weeks a year and booked up in one day. Now imagine five Canadians landing at Heathrow and swinging a table the next day.
Somehow, Scott, having befriended Joe Beef's maître d', pulls off that feat by wangling a table at Sugar Shack Au Pied de Cochon – Martin Picard's take on the rural Québécois family restaurant/syrup press.
Here, everything apart from the Bushmills being guzzled by the Obelixian Picard, appears to be made from maple syrup or foie gras. It is preposterous. And even Picard is surprised we're here – "How the fuck did you get a table?" he yells after service, before gamely pouring us some brimful shots of whiskey.
Earlier, we stopped at the wonderful Schwartz's – a Montreal institution on Saint-Laurent Boulevard which specialises in smoked meat, a kosher-style cured beef brisket which practically melts on to its mustard and white jacket. In the spirit of The Meatwagon we declined to eat inside and gathered around a snowy park bench as Yianni eulogised the flavour of the fat.
Then it's more Jewish comfort food, with sandwiches at Wilensky's, an 81-year-old relic, famous for its Special – salami, beef bologna and mustard on a grilled roll. We ordered a few to share, plus some snacks from another local institution, St-Viateur Bagel, before we waddled for the hills.
Day five: Montreal to New York City
Calorie counter: Stop the world, I want to get off
With maple syrup, whisky and goose liver pouring from our pores, the MEAT exploratory mission drags itself back to the Big Apple, looking a bit like a bunch of grosses pommes ourselves. We're in the territory of Yianni – a man not above walking 30 blocks to visit White Castle.
We leave our hotel and stroll down to Greenwich Village for the ultimate in New York street food, Bleecker Street Pizza, the lauded slice joint frequented by the likes of Hugh Jackman and Susan Sarandon. Their cross-hatch of thin-crust Tuscan-style dough with New York pizza joint grease is fromage manna.
Then it's across the road to Five Guys Burgers and Fries. Then drinks. Then a slice from the Neapolitan Joe Pozzuoli's legendary Joe's Pizza in the Village. Then more drinks. Bloody hell. Then it's more pizza at Joe's and an encore in New York's best new cocktail bar, The Dead Rabbit. Followed by, er, fondue, at 7am in the bar of our hotel. If ever there was a time to stop eating, it's with molten cheese running down your face as the sun comes up.
Will Dean and the MEATliquor team flew with Virgin Atlantic to New York from Heathrow. Prices start from £164 plus £358 tax, or £1,974 plus £531.15 tax for an Upper Class ticket; virgin-atlantic.com