Paul Wahlberg on Family, Food, and Reality TV

The Wahlburgers star discusses his slew of new restaurants, peasant food, and eating mayonnaise sandwiches.

Paul Wahlberg

Photo courtesy of A&E Television Network

If you’ve ever seen an episode of Wahlburgers—the A&E program that follows the inner workings of Dorchester’s most famous family—you probably know Paul Wahlberg as the harried one; the frantic perfectionist incessantly teased by his younger, more famous siblings, Mark and Donnie. In the show’s debut season, Paul was often shown pacing between his two Hingham restaurants, Alma Nove and Wahlburgers, picking up trash, whipping up burger specials for celebrity acquaintances, and dodging characters with names like Nacho. But off-camera, away from Mark’s real-life entourage and the contrived drama of reality television, Paul is relatively calm, often turning introspective when it comes to his favorite topic: food, of course.

“They follow me around and they get what they get out of it,” Paul said at a recent taping, shrugging off cameramen, audio guys, and a clique of random assistants, all flitting about. “For the life of me I can’t figure out what people are interested in with me. I just do my thing.” In between filming, we sat down with the chef whose moniker is featured on the marquee, that green logo that is about to become a lot more familiar as Wahlburgers swells into a national chain. With at least eight new locations on the horizon, that famous last name is about to become irreversibly entwined with America’s favorite sandwich–but you might be surprised by the comfort food that really inspires him, his off-the-clock go-to burger, and the culinary influences that have paved the way to his current success.

How did you fall in love with food?
Since high school I’ve been working in kitchens. As a kid I would sit there and watch Graham Kerr on The Galloping Gourmet. And food was always a huge part of our lives as kids. For me, it was that thing that I always really enjoyed. After I got my first job in a restaurant, it just clicked. I was like, ‘this is it, this is what I want to do.’

After graduating high school, did you go directly to working in professional kitchens?
In high school I was working at a restaurant on Canal Street called Trolleys. Then I started culinary school at Newbury College and went there for about five minutes, until I ran out of money. From there I started working at hotels: The Sheraton Commander, the Charles Hotel, and the Four Seasons. The first restaurant I became a chef of was the Crane Brook Tea Room in Carver. That’s where I really learned what it was like to own your own restaurant. It’s not an easy gig. You fix whatever is broken, shovel snow, everything that needs to get done.

Who have been your biggest culinary influences?
I have my idols like Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and those chefs that really forged the way in America’s understanding of food. Then working with chefs like Craig Anderson at The Charles Hotel and Mark Baker at the Four Seasons. I lived in D.C. for a while and I got to work with Michel Richard. These people really taught me, not only what food could be, but also what it meant to be a chef. The idea is to teach those that come after you. You’re part of this great cycle.

What was your favorite dish that your mother made?
English muffin pizzas. I can still pack them away. I worked at a restaurant a few years back, The Windsor House, and the signature burger that they had was served on an English muffin. When I saw that I was like, ‘perfect!’ We made our own pizza dough at the restaurant, so the other cooks would watch me make English muffin pizzas and just say, ‘are you kidding me?’

Do you think your mother’s resourcefulness in the kitchen is a trait that you’ve picked up and been able to utilize as a chef?
Oh, absolutely! I’ve eaten a lot of mayonnaise sandwiches in my lifetime. A lot of the time, that’s the only thing that’s left. And when you have limited resources, you just figure it out. That’s what cooking is: you’ve got this certain ingredient and you figure out what to do it. You never waste anything in a professional kitchen. It’s all revenue. When we were kids, if we got something we ate it. Like the best thing was when there was roast turkey, not just on Thanksgiving but for Sunday dinner. We were psyched because we knew we were getting hot turkey sandwiches on toast with gravy and stuffing. We were also getting turkey soup all week. You just knew that the leftovers were going to be amazing. To this day I love cold sausage, meatballs, and pizza. Who doesn’t love cold pizza?

When you were preparing to open Wahlburgers, did you look to someone like Danny Meyer and what he was able to accomplish with Shake Shack?
No, you hear about these people obviously, but all of these situations just develop on their own. I’m in awe of anyone in this business because it takes a lot of commitment and a lot of work.  I have the greatest respect for someone like Danny Meyer, but I could never hope to be like him. He’s a true legend in this business.

So, can you confirm that you’re opening another Wahlburgers location in Fenway?
Yes, we’ve signed a lease in Fenway. It’s going to be next to Yard House. We’re very excited about that.

When is that going to happen?
Now it’s looking like April [2015]. There’s been some delays in getting the location turned over and permitting and things like that; the usual. It takes time to get things done. I no longer fret over that. It’s going to open when it opens

Are you still expanding into Toronto?
Yes, but Toronto is a licensing agreement with one of our partners at Alma Nove, a gentleman by the name of Henry Wu. He runs the SoHo Metropolitan Hotel in Toronto, and we’re going to put one in his building. It’s perfect. It’s not something I have to be there everyday for, which is really good for me. That’s probably going to open up sometime in October.

I understand you’ll also be opening Wahlburgers in Lynnfield as well as five franchises in Philadelphia. You seem like a very hands-on type of chef, how comfortable are you with the type of mass expansion you’re planning?
It’ll be difficult, but we are going to make it work. I know it seems obscure that we’re going to Philly and Toronto, but again, Toronto is one of our partners. It’s a person we know and he’s a part of the family in that sense. In regards to Philadelphia, Mark has filmed six or seven movies there. I’ve spent a lot of time with him while he was there. Donnie has a huge following in Philadelphia. We have friends all over Philadelphia. We have these connections to all the places we’re going to. I won’t be able to get there everyday. People think I’m here 24 hours a day, but I don’t need to be because my staff is fantastic.  I have amazing people working for me.

When you talk with your restaurant partners about opening other locations, do you ever have a target number in mind?
No, a lot of that is handled by my brother Mark and Rick Vanzura the CEO. I just do what I’m told, which is fine by me, because otherwise I just get too jumbled. We have these two restaurants and that’s my number one focus. Obviously, we have opportunities for other Wahlburgers in Boston, Philadelphia, and Toronto, so as we start getting closer and start hiring staff, then I’ll make them part of my focus. But that’s not something that I do. When the opportunity arises, I would like to get back into Dorchester. That is something that is very important to me. I have to go home.

What kind of food do you gravitate to? Has it always been Italian cuisine?
Well, that’s what I’ve been doing for a while, but I love all food. I like experimenting. One of the great things about this business is that you work with people from all over the world.  When I was in D.C. is was a lot of guys from El Salvador. Then when I was in Cambridge it was a lot of Creoles and Haitians, so I got to experience that. Here in Boston I’ve had the opportunity to work with people from Japan, China, and the Philippines. To me peasant food is the best food. Any competent chef should be able to cook a tenderloin with a sauce because that’s the way that we’ve been trained. But to makes something great out of a sow’s ear, that’s magical. We have a guy who raises chickens and so he brought in some feet and we cooked those up. They were so delicious! Some of those types of things never make the menu, because I don’t know if I can sell chicken feet, but for family meals they’re really fun.

When you go out, do you find yourself ordering burgers to see what other chefs are doing?
I do eat a lot of burgers. Mostly I eat them in the car. They’re the perfect car food. Like I’ll go to Wendy’s. I really like Wendy’s. They do a nice job with their burgers, but I have to get the junior burgers because the single is too big and messy and you can’t eat it in the car. I like the simplicity of burgers. It’s what I grew up eating, and it makes me think of my dad outside cooking on the grill. It was a typical ‘70s setup with a charcoal grill, the whole top wrapped in aluminum foil, because he didn’t know what he was doing. So it was flaring up and you could barely taste the charcoal, but it was a burger that my dad made.

So how do you think you burgers stack up against some of the better ones that you’ve tried?
We hold our own. We do well and people enjoy them. I don’t compare them to other places because every burger place has an individuality. Our place tells the story of who we are and where we came from. That’s why we have tater tots on the menu, because we used to eat a lot of tater tots in school. We have things on there that remind me of growing up in my family with eight brothers and sisters.

How often are you able to get into Boston and eat at other restaurants?
I try, but I’m always here. But this town is filled with amazing restaurants and amazing chefs.

Any favorites?
To this day I still love the Lydia [Shires] and Todd Englishes of the world. I love Ken Oringer’s cooking. What he does is ridiculous. It’s an amazing experience to go into a restaurant like Clio or Toro or Coppa. And Boston is full of joints, good joints. Going into the Vietnamese restaurants in Dorchester, it’s unbelievable. These are restaurants I remember going into as a kid with my grandmother that were serving grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna melts. Now it’s this Vietnamese place serving all these amazing things. That never could have existed when I was a kid.

With the changing demographic in Dorchester, how do you think your old neighborhood will respond to a Wahlburgers?
They’ll get it. You can tell when somebody is going through the motions in a restaurant. You really can. And I really believe we’ve hired the right people who are passionate about what they do.