You’ve been traveling a lot—is it for business or fun?
Business, but it’s been fun too! We just opened our first location in Tokyo a few weeks ago. We’ve been doing a lot expanding, but still very much have our hands in every single location, so I’ve been spending a lot of time on planes.
Does Shake Shack change its menu abroad or between cities?
We do. One part of our menu that changes in every single location worldwide and domestically is our frozen custard. We always create concretes that are locally inspired by the neighborhood. We like to hold up a mirror to that neighborhood and reflect back some of their history and culinary heritage through the voice and style of Shake Shack.
Every now and then we’ll be so inspired by a city that we’ll create a burger for it. Right now we only have two: one in Texas, and one in Los Angeles. So you have to go to those cities to get those burgers—they have a really strong culinary connection to those cities.
How did you get started in the culinary business?
It actually kind of found me. When I moved to New York City over 20 years ago, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the restaurant scene in the city.
I fell in love with Gramercy Tavern. But I met the chef at Gramercy Tavern and started asking him about all of these dishes at the restaurant. He said to me, “If you ever want to come watch us cook one night, here’s my card.” And I came in that Sunday. I always cooked at home, read books, watched cooking shows, but actually getting into that kitchen to see all of that cooking theory come to life got me hooked. I worked for free there for a two months because I had no culinary background. I eventually did three years in that kitchen, learned every culinary station, and then a few years at other restaurants, but after that I wanted to keep growing, maybe get into management, but the only restaurant in our company at that time that had a management position open was Shake Shack, and I did not want it. I was like “What about the other restaurants—what about Blue Smoke!? Those guys barbeque and drink bourbon all day, that’s me!” But I begrudgingly said yes to the Shake Shack Interview, and after going through it and saw that there was still that same high-quality meat and produce from Gramercy, and that there was still that same great Danny Meyer comradery and culture as there are at all of his restaurants. So I went into it thinking I’d try it out for a year, and I’m coming up on my ten year anniversary—so that’s how quickly time moves at the Shack.
What’s one of your signature items at Shake Shack?
One of my personal favorites is the first new burger we added to the menu since the inception of Shake Shack. It was about 5 years ago, at first we were hesitant to add anything—things were going really well, and it was like, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. But we also wanted to have some fun and wanted to work with bacon. But we didn’t want to just add bacon to the menu and have people throwing it on their Shack Burgers; we wanted to really make a statement with it, like we do with everything on the menu. So we created a burger based around all of the textures, flavors, and smokiness of bacon: The Smoke Shack burger.
But we needed something that would cut the heaviness of the burger, make it feel light and really clean the palate, so I thought back to my childhood. I grew up Italian-American, and one of the dishes my family would make on Sundays was a pork chop with cherry peppers. The cherry peppers had a great acidity, tanginess, and heat that would cut through the richness.
So I chopped them up and put them on the burger. And while it is all about the smokiness and the bacon, I think those cherry peppers really end up stealing the show.
Check out what Mark and the Shake Shack team are bringing to the table at the Art of Food: www.artoffoodny.com