No one who met George Motz on the afternoon of April 19, 2003, as he bit into his first double cheeseburger in the subterranean Billy Goat Tavern on Hubbard Street — “It is incredible, everything I had heard it was. The taste is distinctive … a great burger,” he said — might have imagined that he would now be considered the nation's leading expert on cheeseburgers and the star/host of a new series on the Travel Channel titled, appropriately enough, “Burger Land.”
“He was a nice young man then,” says Sam Sianis, the proprietor of the Billy Goat empire. “And he still is, I think. He still likes to eat.”
Sianis was happy to see Motz when he returned to Chicago last month with a crew of four people to interview on camera Sam and his eldest son, Bill; some customers and longtime patrons (myself included); and capture the energy of those working the grill and shouting that mantra that has echoed here for nearly half a century: “Cheezborger, cheezborger.”
“This show just wouldn't be right without the Goat,” says Motz.
The first season of “Burger Land” (8 p.m. Mondays on the Travel Channel) has been and will be traveling to cities in such other states as Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Mississippi, before concluding in Illinois.
As he is in person, Motz is charming and enthusiastic on camera. He really has never met a burger he didn't like and gobbles down a gut-busting assortment.
He estimates he consumed something in the artery-clogging neighborhood of 70 during three months of filming.
Though many of the burgers are but slight variations on the classic theme, others are, well, rather odd, such as the deep-fried concoction at Dyer's in Memphis, Tenn.; a burger on a plantain bun at Pincho Factory in Miami; the “Combo” (burger with a hot dog on top) at Marty's Hamburger Stand in Los Angeles; and in Seabrook, Texas, something called the “Squealer,” which comes with bacon mixed into the beef.
“It has really been fun but exhausting,” Motz said, sitting on a stool at the Billy Goat and ordering a beer. “It was nice to revisit some of my favorite burgers, some people who have become good friends, and great places like this that never change.”
Yes, little has changed here in decades. But Motz has had quite a ride since April 2003.
Then, he was a successful 35-year-old New York-based cinematographer, working on commercials for such institutions as the New York Yankees, WNET (the PBS station in New York) and cable networks such as the History Channel and A&E.
Born and raised on Long Island, he fell in love with and married a Chicago girl, Casey Benjamin, and one night they were “watching TV and saw a show about hot dogs, and I thought, ‘Gee, I've never seen a really good documentary about hamburgers,'” he says.
He came up with the criteria that each place featured would have to meet: The meat had to be fresh, nothing frozen; the place had to be family-owned and be more than 40 years old; it had to have had the same burger on the menu for all those years; the burgers had to be distinctive; and the places had to have a good story to tell.
And so the Billy Goat became one of the eight burger joint stars of Motz's 2005 documentary, “Hamburger America,” which gave birth to his 2008 book, “Hamburger America: A State by State Guide to Some of the Best Burgers in America.” The book featured 100 places — the Goat, of course, but also the estimable Top-Notch Beefburgers, at 2116 W. 95th St. in the Beverly neighborhood.
Motz also found time to continue his commercial career; create and produce the Food Film Festival (an annual event here and in New York and Charleston, S.C.); and host the Travel Channel's 2011 series “Made in America,” focusing on the factories that make such iconic American products as Jack Daniels booze, Krispy Kreme doughnuts and New Balance shoes.
He and his wife now live in Brooklyn and have been busy raising two children, Ruby and Mac.
“That's the worst thing about traveling so much, not being with the family,” he said. “And I have given up burgers for a while, even though there is not a day I don't want one.”
The grill was sizzling, shouts of “Cheezborger, cheezborger. ... Double's the best,” filled the air, and daytime bartender Jeff Magill asked Motz if he'd have another beer.
I don't know if Magill will be featured when “Hamburger Land” shows the TV-viewing nation the Billy Goat. After observing the lunch crowds here for more than 30 years, he has formed some serious opinions about burgers. Magill says, “They are round and they fit in your hands. They are ergonomically correct.” Then he gets down to deeper meanings: “It's just a theory, but I think that the first meal that most kids have outside the home is a burger, and that makes them a modern archetype.”
Sam Sianis has a burger theory too: “The people like them because they're good.”