THE BIG INTERVIEW: Wahlburgers exec chef Paul Wahlberg talks frankly about adapting to the UK market

Paul Wahlberg, executive chef

After an eventful opening six months in the UK market, celebrity burger chain Wahlburgers has relaunched its London restaurant with a new menu and format. FEJ sat down with executive chef and co-founder Paul Wahlberg to find out what such a dramatic change so early in its UK journey means for its kitchen.

Paul Wahlberg is a sought-after man. The executive chef and part-owner of Wahlburgers has been buzzing around the floor of its restaurant in Covent Garden for the last two hours, checking on customers, getting people drinks, giving tours of the kitchen and answering questions.

Television cameras occasionally follow him around for an undisclosed project starring his brother and co-owner, actor Mark Wahlberg, who is due to arrive any minute.

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When the chef finally allows himself the leisure of a seat, he anticipates FEJ’s first question. “Look — a relaunch is what they’re calling it. But I don’t see it as that. A menu evolves,” he remarks.

He is referring to the complete overhaul of Wahlburgers London’s menu, implemented as a reaction to “feedback” from customers in the site’s first six months of trading, as well as an internal operational review.

“I don’t cook for me, I cook for everybody else,” he continues. “So the customers are going to dictate what they buy. But we needed a few more options. We needed a few more ‘dealmakers’, as I like to call them. Everybody knows we’re Wahlburgers; we serve burgers. Right? So you can come in, order a burger, sit down and enjoy yourself.

“But there are going to be people in the group who may not want a burger. You’re going to have vegetarians, so we have the Moving Mountains burger, which can be vegan or vegetarian. But they may not want a burger. They may prefer a salad instead — so now we have salads. So we’re just trying to create more options. We’re also introducing salmon to the menu. Some people want a piece of fish, and so we want to give it to them.

“If I write a recipe over in the United States, I have to realise it may not translate over here. You know, I can’t find kosher salt here,” Wahlberg laments. “All my measurements are in kosher salt size, because that’s typically what I use. And so I know what it feels like, a pinch of salt. I know how much I’m putting in. It doesn’t work the same in England.”

New menu, new kitchen?

One might expect that such a broadened menu, which also now includes breakfast items, might necessitate a new kitchen entirely.

“No actually,” answers Wahlberg. “For us, it’s about trying to maximise whatever equipment we already have. And to really figure out new ways of doing things. There are certain pieces of equipment that we’ve been able to do different things with that maybe it wasn’t really designed for. And just a lot of equipment that we’re using is pretty universal, in the sense of it being able to manage many jobs.

“One of the only other exceptions, obviously, is the Winston CVaps [cook and hold technology to maintain precise temperature and also moisture levels]. Those we absolutely love.”

There are certain pieces of equipment that we’ve been able to do different things with that maybe it wasn’t really designed for”

He does show off a new mid-sized rice steamer, perhaps the only new addition he thinks.

“We try to use the same equipment in all of our kitchens, here or back in the US, but obviously some things travel better than others. Trying to get things like the CVaps as a consistent item throughout the whole franchise would be amazing but is difficult.

“Something we really want to start learning about is your really solid English brands of equipment, and European brands of equipment, because obviously they’re more readily available here. But like I said, if we can get our CVaps, the rest of it we can work out,” he comments.

The downstairs kitchen, as well as the upstairs bar, was originally fitted out by UK catering equipment distributor Lloyd Catering Equipment last year. The kitchen includes refrigerated cabinets and coldrooms from Foster, along with cooking equipment from brands such as MagiKitch’n, Pitco, Hatco and Hobart.

Foster products in the kitchen include five EcoPro G2 cabinets, two prep stations, Slimline, low-level and undercounter cabinets. The bar area, meanwhile, has a Maxiglass 500-litre upright bottle cooler, six E3 bottle coolers — two-door, three-door, and four-door — and a walk-in keg cooler. A large coldroom was also installed.

European expansion

Given the bumpy start Wahlburgers London experienced, Wahlberg seems optimistic if cautious about the future of the brand in Europe. In addition to a December 2019 opening at Reimstat, a US air base in Germany, the chef rattles off a couple of other possible upcoming locations. “But if we do expand in Europe and the UK,” he says, “we have to be prepared.

“The only thing that really concerns me is what’s happening here right now today, because what’s most important to me is the next product that we put out. But you still have to prepare for moving forward in the future. That’s always going to be a thing.

While we still want our international restaurants to be reminiscent of what the brand is, who we are, and what we do, we have to realise we are now, in this instance, feeding an English palette”

“We’re hoping to do another one over in Germany. And so that’s going to be something for us. Also, our franchisee would like to see another in London and something in Ireland. So we have lots of different opportunities, but it’s really kind of finding the right niche for us.”

Wahlberg seems reluctant to discuss too closely the obvious issues that Wahlburgers London saw in its first six months. He is, however, willing to admit that the experience was a valuable one, making him more cautious when it comes to the international market.

“While we still want our international restaurants to be reminiscent of what the brand is, who we are, and what we do, we have to realise we are now, in this instance, feeding an English palette. And that’s very different than what we grew up with. And shame on us if we think we’re just going to make what we know and people are going to come.”

Wahlburgers timeline

2011: Wahlburgers is founded by chef Paul Wahlberg and actor brothers Donnie and Mark. Its first restaurant opens in Paul’s hometown, Hingham, Massachusetts, near his other restaurant, Alma Nove. Alma Nove is named after the trio’s mother.

2013: Filming begins for Wahlburgers, a reality TV show following the three brothers and their restaurant chain. It debuts in January 2014, and runs for 10 seasons, ending in July 2019.

2014: The second Wahlburgers restaurant opens in Toronto, Ontario.

2016: A third restaurant opens in Orlando, Florida, with more planned in the state. As of January 2020, Wahlburgers currently has 33 locations across North America.

2018: Wahlburgers announces a partnership with grocery chain Hy-Vee, allowing the opening of in-store Wahlburgers restaurants. In the same year, Wahlburgers also partners with distributor ARKK Food, which now supplies Wahlburgers products to supermarkets in the US.

2019: Wahlbugers goes international. It first opens a restaurant in Covent Garden, London, and later on the American Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

December 2019: Wahlburgers finishes the decade in style with Paul and Mark visiting the German and London restaurants. The London location is also given a new menu in response to customer feedback.

Surplus food distribution partnership sees new item added to menu

Wahlburgers London has teamed up with charities Greenhouse Sports and the Felix Project. Greenhouse Sports was founded in 2002. It seeks to enrich the lives of children from disadvantaged backgrounds through sport and nutrition to which they might not otherwise have access.

Greenhouse is one of many smaller projects that have been helped in the past by the Felix Project. The organisation redistributes surplus food, for example from supermarkets, to those who need it most.

The London-based food waste charity was set up four years ago and estimates that it delivers almost 10 tonnes of food each day.

Wahlburgers will support the charities in a number of ways thanks to this new partnership. Primarily, £1 from every ‘Felix Burger’, a new item on the menu, will go to the charity after which it was named. The restaurant has also committed to sharing its surplus food with Felix.

The December relaunch event at Wahlburgers saw a number of celebrities in attendance, most notably part-owner Mark Wahlberg. Also present were Felix Project workers, as well as a number of young people who have been helped by Greenhouse.

Furthermore, the restaurant will be sponsoring two young apprentices from the Felix Project, aged 15-19, as new employees.

Mark Wahlberg commented: “I would like to encourage these young gentlemen that are going to start working with us, in whatever commencing position they come into in the company, to be inspired to grow with us, become partners, help us expand the brand and have ownership and a stake in the business. We’ll challenge them to stay with us and become future owners and partners as we grow in the UK and abroad.”

BEHIND THE PASS: First look inside Mark Wahlberg’s debut UK kitchen

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