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Not every better-burger chef can lay claim to his own popular reality television series, but Paul Wahlberg isn’t your ordinary chef. The brother of celebrities Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, Paul Wahlberg cut his chops cooking in restaurants around Boston before opening Alma Nove, a fine-dining eatery in nearby Hingham, Massachusetts, and later Wahlburgers, a better-burger joint co-owned by his two celebrity brothers.
While Wahlberg spends some of his time in front of the camera filming for “Wahlburgers,” an Emmy-nominated show on A&E, he’s more often busy with research and development, including coming up with new seasonal and permanent burger items at Wahlburgers, which has seven locations and plans for dozens more around the country.
Here, Wahlberg talks about his burger development process and how customer input ultimately determines his menu decisions.
What does your process for developing new products look like?
Seasonality plays into it. It’s the way chefs attack most things—the seasonality of it and how interesting flavors will blend together. But with burgers, you still have to have that easily identifiable thing; you can’t really scare people off.
What would scare away customers when it comes to burgers?
Maybe scare is not the best word. At the end of the day, we’re a burger joint. Putting anchovies on a burger, I’m sure in the right hands you can make it taste amazing. But it’s not something that regular customers would understand. There are certain ingredients that aren’t for everyone.
What makes a perfect burger?
To me, it’s the quality of the meat and the quality of the bun. When I have that urge for a very basic burger, which is going to be mustard, ketchup, and pickles, that’s when I really want to eat the meat but want just a little bit of an accent to it. Then there are other times I want everything I can put on it.
To me, burgers are like pizza: The great thing about them is you can put whatever you want on them.
How does the more adventurous American palate affect your life as a chef?
It’s great. It opens new doors as far as ingredients and things like that. I have two requirements in what I do: One is to come up with something new and different, but also to be consistent, because consistency is what everybody wants. The worst thing you could ever hear is, “I had my favorite thing, but it was different.”
How do you work with trends on the Wahlburgers menu?
People have been following trends for a long time. I’m not cooking for me; I’m cooking for them. So some days people are going to say, “You know what, I’d really like peanut butter on my burger.” And all of a sudden I’m making a Thai peanut sauce to go on a burger. That’s not something I would have thought of in the past, but that’s the direction people are going. If I can make something that makes them happy, then I’m happy.
What is the best quality meat for a burger?
Something fresh. A good blend. We use chuck, brisket, and short rib in our blend. It can’t be that 85/15 or even 80/20 balance; you need a little bit more fat in there to get that juiciness and to get that good sear on it.
How much should condiments affect the flavor of the burger?
You want the burger flavor to come through, but people also like stuff. Condiments add the fun to it; that’s the fun part of the burger itself. It changes the flavor profile in so many different ways.
We did a burger in the fall that had just a smear of roasted butternut squash on it and smoked Cheddar. You can have a lot of fun with the seasonality. In the summer, we do a Surf ‘n’ Turf burger with corn and lobster salad.
What kind of outside-the-box flavors have you used?
Nothing’s off limits. When someone wanted peanut butter on a burger, we came up with a Thai peanut sauce. Why wouldn’t it be good? People do beef satay all the time.
People have a love for heat; they put sriracha directly on the burger, like a whole ton of it, not just a taste of it. I love a taste of it—that bite and that flavor and that deep back heat. But you see some people just pile it on, and you’re like, holy moly.
You’re in the process of rolling out a new menu. What does it look like?
We’ve had a lot of requests for mac ’n’ cheese, and that falls in our wheelhouse from when we were kids. My parents would make it; it was milk and cheese and pasta, then there would be some bits of ham, and at one point my mother was putting stewed tomatoes in it. We’re making our version of it, and we’re also introducing a Sloppy Joe, which again, when we were kids, we absolutely loved it.