Lunch with... Mark Rosati, Shake Shack

07/01/2016 - 11:24
American burger concept Shake Shack is leading the way in terms of innovation. Maria Bracken catches up with culinary director Mark Rosati to find out what else we are to expect from the brand.

What’s your background?

I never wanted to work in the restaurant business. I went to school in New York City to study film and TV. I had a pretty good run of it, but then Sept 11 happened and most of the industry went back to California. At this point in time I wasn’t ready to go to California. I was born and raised in the East Coast and I really liked the feel of that part of America. So I decided to stay put in New York.

I have always loved food. I would buy cook books, cook for my friends and family and watch all of the TV programmes. It just never occurred to me that I would want to do it professionally. I had a lot of time on my hands back then. So I visited a lot of restaurants and met some amazing top chefs, bartenders and servers.

Eventually, I became hooked on the geeky foods and different cooking methods out there. I finally met a chef who I greatly admired called Tom Colicchio who was a chef at one of my favourite restaurants Gramercy Tavern in New York City. I told him about my passion for cooking and he invited me to come behind the scenes and watch them cook. I went in on that day and it was just phenomenal. The smells that came out of that kitchen were just unbelievable.

I started working for him for free as I really wanted to work in a kitchen. After working for free for two months, I was put on the pay roll. I learnt a lot from Danny Meyer, the owner of the restaurant. Danny owns a lot of New York’s finest restaurants. I always knew he was big in the hospitality industry but it was only when I started working alongside him that I understood what hospitality meant. This was one of the first companies to work for that people were at the heart of the business. Danny tried to hire people with a happy, positive, genuine attitude. For this reason, I fell in love with the company and philosophy. This was 13 years ago.

It wasn’t just the cooking. I was also curious about the restaurant business. I wanted to learn how to manage and how to serve, so after doing this, I was offered a sous chef position at Gramercy Tavern. I realised that to really hit that line of cooking you have to work 20 hour days!

The only restaurant within the company that had an opening for front house management which I really wasn’t qualified for was Shake Shack. So I went into the interview half heartedly and it was only when I went into the kitchen that all of those amazing locally sourced ingredients used at Gramercy Tavern was also used here. So I knew right away that this was a good decision for me. I realised that hospitality was very much alive at this tiny little shack. I also grew up around American roadside burger stands and seafood stands so I knew what Shake Shack meant. So that was it, I never looked back.

When I joined there was just the one Shake Shack. There are now 76 worldwide. That growth really started to happen within the past five, maybe six years.  

What does the role of culinary director involve?

It is my job to try and localise the menu. I try to go around to every city and country at least once a year and offer something fun. It’s important to keep everything refreshed and original.

What’s Shake Shack’s ethos?

It’s about bringing people together over food that tastes amazing whilst keeping the prices affordable for most. We really want Shake Shack to be an experience and very much a big part of that is the hospitality of our team.

Any expansion plans?

We are opening two new Shacks late 2015/early 2016: a third London Shack on New Oxford Street and the first ever Cardiff Shack in St David’s Shopping Centre. That’s pretty much it. Every time we open a new location it is important to make sure they feel right and that the teams and vendors are settling in.

Tell me about the recent Sat Bains collaboration

This is something I am incredibly excited about. Sat is unbelievable. I got a phone call October last year and it was from Michel Roux. He wanted to bring some chefs over to New York City to visit some restaurants over there, one of them being Shake Shack. He wanted the other chefs to hear more about what we do and try the food. They came to our business location in New York City which is just crazy busy 24 hours a day. We sectioned off some tables and sat them down. Sat was one of these top chefs to visit Shake Shack. So I visited his restaurant in Nottingham and tried different versions of this special burger he was creating…the Oak Burger was then invented.

What’s so special about the Oak burger?

The burger is one of those most universal and harmonious items. It just brings people together and I don’t know a single chef who doesn’t enjoy a humble hamburger.

The burger is such an enjoyable creation. But at the same time it is a blank canvas. All you need to make a hamburger is a beef patty in a bun. When I cook burgers I don’t actually create a burger. What I do is make sure I source the most amazing beef. I’ll grill the patty, toast the bun but that is all I do. What I will do is offer different toppings, so maybe pickles or sliced onions. The fun part about a burger is allowing the guest to put their own imaginative spin on what they consider a burger.

It’s such a personal expression for a chef to say I am going to create a burger. For many years there were many chefs that weren’t interested in the burger but are now doing it. It is very cool to put a burger on a fancy restaurant menu. A lot of fine dining chefs are now taking the burger and making it gourmet.

Talk me through the menu at Shake Shack

We have our burgers which are the star of the show, however our hotdogs are also a big player (Shake Shack began as a hot dog cart). We also have our crinkle cut Yukon fries as well as our frozen custard range. Our signature burger is the Shack burger, which is a cheese burger, lettuce, tomato and our special Shack sauce which has all of the condiments which everyone has put on a burger since the 1950’s – so we are talking ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, plus our own seasoning. We also have the Smoke Shack, which is our big eccentric burger. It is a cheese burger with one of the main ingredients being the pickles – spicy cherry peppers – which cut through the richness of the cheeseburger, leaving your palate refreshed. So we try to keep our burgers as simple as possible with no more than three toppings.

Do you offer any alternative healthier options on your menus?

Our food is all about indulgence. It’s not an every day food. We have so many people coming to us who love our burgers and milkshakes and they tell us not to change our menus or cut back on fat etc. They tell us ‘we know what we are eating and we eat healthy six days a week, this is our day of indulgence. Don’t mess with our indulgence’. However they also know that if they are going to indulge they should still be smart about the choices they make and that the food that they eat is fresh, pure and simple.

One of the biggest and hardest things we have tried to do is make our hot dogs natural, as we have noticed that a lot of our guests are eating out with kids and we want our mums to feel good about what kids are putting into their bodies. Yes, we are an indulgent food but we do try to be as healthy as possible without taking away the indulgence.

What trends do you see coming over from the US?

It’s not an American thing, but I think doughnuts are going to be huge. When I come to London I always have to go and get doughnuts, but what I like about them over here is that they are different.

I know pizza is a very big New York institution but there are so many pizzerias out there. There is a great place in Seven Dials called Home Slice as well as Franco Manca. Both of these pizza outlets are very affordable, but the quality is through the roof.

I feel London has its own unique flavour. I wish more chefs in New York would take note of what some of the London chefs are doing. There’s so much creation and thought going into the food over here. Take a burger for example. When I create a burger I always think of savoury. For example, I want to put a mustard sauce in it or something that’s going to be a bit more salt driven, whereas Londoners like to add something sweet like an onion relish or a barbecue sauce. These are flavours that I haven’t grown up eating but this is what I enjoy.

How do you balance your work and personal life?

It’s part of who I am. I have been able to infuse my work life with my personal life. Do I really have to separate them? No. I really believe life is so much more fun when you can be yourself 100% of the time. The Mark that you see at work is exactly the same Mark off the clock.

Where do you eat out in your spare time?

To understand the culinary scene, I always like to go to a couple of high end restaurants as well as low end places. I like to find those places that you can’t get anywhere else in the world.

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