CESSNOCK is well-known as the gateway to the vineyards region. It's not all about wine though.
The town is also home to a burger joint that picked up the readers' choice award for best burger in Newcastle and the Hunter at this year's Australian Good Food Guide Awards.
Burgerfiend took out the win for a second consecutive year when the AGFG announced the award recipients in January.
"When you're in the same area as people like Rascal and Newy Burger Co, it's amazing," says Marlene Fulham, who runs the family-owned business with husband Matt while also raising their two young daughters.
"It's good to see that people support us because opening up a small business, it's always nerve-wracking. So it's great that people are responding so positively."
The couple moved to Cessnock from Sydney in 2016 and fell in love with the laidback lifestyle the area offered, but noted that one thing in particular was missing: burgers.
That led the couple to open Burgerfiend in 2017.
"We love food in general, but burgers are what we really love," Fulham says.
"Originally we were going to open a cafe in Newcastle, but you know how sometimes the universe tells you something is not right? Matt then suggested a burger place in Cessnock because that's something that was missing in the town.
"We love burgers, so we thought 'Let's do it'."
The cafe is open for breakfast, serving toasties and coffee, but burgers are the focus, with eight on offer including the Fiend burger with beef patty, cheddar, bacon, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickled and Burgerfiend sauce ($12); the Cassandra Wong burger with honey sriracha-glazed fried chicken breast, Asian slaw and soy ginger mayo ($15); and the Fancy One with beef patty, provolone, wagyu pastrami, picked red onion, aioli and sautéed mushrooms ($16).
Marlene says their approach to creating burgers is inspired by one of their personal favourites, Sydney restaurant Superior Burger.
"That's like the OG of fresh burgers and I love their concept of paddock-to-plate," she says.
"He has a real relationship with the butchers. He makes it all from scratch. Superior Burger really inspired us, so we try to make everything as fresh as possible.
"The patties are all made from scratch with whole cuts of meat that are sliced, diced and minced. Nothing is ever frozen."
Marlene shares grill duties with Matt and chef Kye Paul ("We are the only people allowed on the grill because we want to make sure that every single burger that comes out is to a certain standard and exactly how we want it", she says), and credits her staff for their support in keeping the business afloat when Matt had to take time out following a cancer diagnosis in 2018.
He is now in remission.
"There would be times where I would be out the back crying and they would say 'You can do this, you can do this'. We went to the hospital in Sydney every Sunday, then came back Monday night and started the week all over again," she says.
"The support we got from the staff here was incredible. We wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for that."
Matt is back on deck full-time and developing ideas for burgers - right down to the Bloody Mary barbecue sauce used on the new vegan burger, which combines a house-made black bean and quinoa patty with cashew cheese.
The menu's Shroom burger is available as a vegan option and they offer menu specials.
"Matt is really great with that stuff. I don't know where he comes up with his ideas sometimes but he might take inspiration from another burger place and then tweak it between him, myself and Kye," she says.
"We do a little brainstorming and consider all the elements like the crunch, the spice, the sweet, and by the time the special comes out, it's perfect according to us."
Every burger can also be "hacked", with a choice of extra patties (including a Mac and cheese patty) and other fillings for those that are into creating their own behemoth.
Behemoth burgers are among the attractions planned for Cessnock's Stomp Festival on April 5 when Burgerfiend hosts an eating challenge centre stage on Vincent Street.
We do a little brainstorming and consider all the elements like the crunch, the spice, the sweet, and by the time the special comes out, it's perfect according to us.Marlene Fulham
There are two categories in the competition, the first being a 1.6kg meal and the second weighing in at 2kg comprising a seven-patty burger stacked with cheese, bacon, hash brown, sauce and pickles, with a side of fried chicken and potato gems.
"It's not easy. The 2kg one is mainly for people that are experienced or reckon they can give it a crack. It's a speed and volume challenge. They have 20 minutes to finish it all," Fulham says.
"We get a lot of backlash for out about promoting obesity and that type of thing, but it's such a misconception because, for them to finish it off, they have to be physically fit and have the metabolism to digest all of that."