Interview: Mark Rosati (Shake Shack Culinary Director)
Globe-trotting Shake Shack Culinary Director Mark Rosati was recently in L.A. to promote the release of the Shake Shack: Recipes & Stories, which he co-wrote with CEO Randy Garutti and Dorothy Kalins, and to preview breakfast service at the company’s LAX outpost. Learn more about how the Connecticut native came to be employee #2 at a tiny Madison Square Park burger stand, an opportunity that’s led to worldwide adventures and collaborations.
Josh Lurie: How did your opportunity with Shake Shack come about for you?
Mark Rosati: It was not my first choice, to be honest. I worked for Danny Meyer for three years prior to joining Shake Shack. I was a cook at Gramercy Tavern. I started out with the original chef, Tom Colicchio, and did a year and a half with him. I loved Gramercy Tavern. It was my favorite restaurant in all of New York. On special occasions, I would go to eat in the tavern in the front and do fine dining in the back. That restaurant was so exciting, so seasonal, that it inspired me to want to learn how to cook. I never went to school. I read a lot of books. I bought Tom’s book – Think Like a Chef – still one of my favorites. I met him at a food and wine event. I started hitting him with questions, like, “How do you guys make your steak in the tavern? I’m buying that same steak and it’s not tasting like yours. What’s wrong?” He said, “If you ever want to watch us cook one day, here’s my card. Come on in, man.”
That was the most exciting moment of my life because I’m finally in my favorite restaurant, in the kitchen, next to these line cooks. I’ll never forget one guy pulling a sirloin out of the oven, adding a little bit of butter – it started foaming and melting – and he added a little bit of garlic and thyme. That smell, that sight, and the cook having burns and cuts on his arms, and tattoos, I was like, “Wow, I want to do that!” I trailed off and on for a few years. I wasn’t serious about it. I was like, “I get to hang in a cool kitchen and learn how to cook wild mushrooms.” It started to become like a fever. I was doing stuff that I’d only read about, like cleaning bone marrow, cleaning sweetbreads, really boutique-y stuff that I couldn’t easily find. I was like, “This is great exposure.” The next thing I know, I’m offered a job. I absolutely took it.
Everything I learned was at Gramercy Tavern. Three years with Mike Anthony and Tom Colicchio, a year-and-a-half with each. I had a good grounding in the kitchen. Now I wanted to learn front of the house. The only restaurant available in our entire company, which was all fine dining, was Shake Shack. I was like, “Oh no. I can’t do this. This is a step back. All my fine dining buddies are going to think I’m the laughing stock of the town.” The only option was that, and it was for management, which I was grossly under-qualified for at the time. I figured, at least I’ll go for the interview. When I looked inside the shack, I saw it was the same meat we were using at Gramercy, the same thoughtful technique for cooking the ingredients. It wasn’t just throw it on the grill, smash it down and walk away. There was a lot of training and procedure, but the most important thing was the hospitality that Danny Meyer’s really known for, that he does better than anyone else. It was very much alive in the culture of the staff and how they talked and worked with the guests. It’s just like all our other restaurants, just more simplistic. I said, “I’ll do this for maybe a year. I’ll learn and they I’ll move on.” Funny thing, at the time, I was offered a job as a server at Per Se. Same thing. I said, “I don’t know how to serve. I want to learn.” They said, “We would never hire you, but you work for Danny Meyer so that stands for something. We’ll train you.” I called her and said, “I’m so sorry, but I’m taking a management job at Shake Shack.” I was ready for her to start laughing and she said, “You know, I’d do the same thing.” She said, “I think we do service incredibly well. If you ever want to learn the steps of service, then think about Per Se. Danny Meyer management, you’ll learn from the best in the business. Best of luck.” That’s when I started thinking, maybe this is the right choice. 10 years later, here we are.
JL: How many Shake Shack locations were there at that point?
MR: Just the one [in Madison Square Park]. When they hired me, they said, “Maybe one day we open another one, because we’re really busy, but we really don’t know. There are really no plans.” They were very honest with me, and at one point, I thought they were starting to move away from that idea because more fine-dining restaurants were opening at that time. We had a few more under construction, like Maialino. Again, I’ll learn for the summer and move onwards. Then our CEO Randy found another location on the Upper West Side. We didn’t think it would be busy. We actually thought that it was about the park. People come here in the summer to get a beer and burger in the park and enjoy life. It’s pretty magical. This one’s going to be indoors. How are we going to make a shack indoors? It’s not going to work. We worked really long and hard to try and take the shack aesthetic and plop it in the middle of a building. We used a lot of reclaimed wood. Bring in trees in a modern way. We still thought it would not be busy. When we opened up, the neighborhood came out and did not go away. The next thing we knew, that Shack was doing better business than the original. That was when we thought we had something.
JL: What were your expectations when you signed on with Shake Shack, and now what your expectations going forward?
I just wanted to learn management and people skills. The magic of this company and Danny Meyer, I walked into Gramercy Tavern with no skill set whatsoever, but they saw that I wanted it and that I would do whatever it took to improve myself. They said yes. Shake Shack was the same. I had no management skills and they said, “You have drive, and that goes a long way. We’ll teach you. Just keep bringing your passion to us.” I think that says a lot about this company. If you want to learn and are willing to put the work in, we don’t care if you don’t have the most beautiful resume in the world in this business. We’ll teach you. I really just walked in because I wanted to learn a new skill, but the culture and the people became very exciting to me. 10 years went by faster than any other thing I can remember in my life, any other job, it’s just flown by. It’s kind of shocking. I look at photos from when I started and think, “This job has aged me, but by god am I having fun.” Now we’d gone from one Shack and thinking, “Does it work in New York?” to opening in Miami, that was our fourth Shack, and saying, “Does it work out of state?” It does. As we’ve gone and opened more, we’ve gained more confidence in who we are as a company. Now that we’ve started to put the infrastructure in place, we have an amazing team. I was employee #2 for Shake Shack Enterprises. Now we have a team of 100. They’re all wonderful people that come from different backgrounds that are just inspired by what we do. They want to take a chance with us. It’s make us bigger and better. As we keep growing, in Los Angeles, we’re going to open another one in downtown next year. We’re opening at LAX in a few weeks. All fun things, and it gives us a chance to further grow our roots in this city, but at the same time, build our reputation and go to a brand new city or country and cook our style of burgers and bring our hospitality. For myself, I can’t see when my end with Shake Shack will come because there’s so many more challenges. Again, I feel we have developed who we are, but there are so many ways to continue to refine it and change it and morph it and just keep growing.
At this point, are you still with the company to cook or are you more in it to travel?