Perhaps Mark Rosati should work for the UN. As culinary director of the rapidly-expanding burger chain Shake Shack, his job requires him to travel the world and find common ground among different cultures. But instead of mediating conflicts, he’s creating menu items for local franchises that put a Shake Shack spin on regional comfort foods. His culinary diplomacy has yielded such hits as the Istanbul Shake Shack’s Bosphorous Breeze custard (vanilla, Divan salted honey macaroon, bananas, and peanut butter sauce), and London’s Union Shack (chocolate custard with locally-made brownie bites and chocolate chunks). Now, he’s back home in NYC to attend the upcoming New York City Wine & Food Festival. There, at Mastercard’s Priceless Preview of the Blue Moon Burger Bash, Rosati will share the MeisterShack burger — a juicy, delicious, off-the-menu tribute to the city he’s called home for nearly two decades. He took a break from the preparations to chat about his favorite childhood seafood shack, his international inspirations, and how to stand out in the nation’s most competitive culinary scene.
You grew up in Connecticut among pretty stellar roadside comfort food. What are some of your earliest food memories there?
I grew up just a short walk from one of the best whole-belly clam shacks in the land, Sea Swirl in Mystic. My family would take me there for dinner during the summer, and we’d dine on killer clam chowder, griddled-crisp hot dogs, and French fries doused in ketchup and malt vinegar — all while overlooking the ocean. We’d always finish the meal with cones of vanilla soft serve ice cream dipped in chocolate Magic Shell.
After your three-year tenure at Gramercy Tavern, what drew you to Shake Shack in 2007?
I was drawn to Gramercy by then-chef Tom Colicchio, but I became deeply inspired by the [Union Square Hospitality Group’s] notion of enlightened hospitality after meeting owner Danny Meyer. I wanted to learn front-of-house management, and the only restaurant that had an opening at that time in [the Union Square group] was Shake Shack. I thought back to my upbringing in Connecticut and felt the connection between seafood shacks and the great burger shacks of America.
What has most inspired your NYC menu innovations?
My travels. The more I visit cities and spend time with the locals, be it domestic or international, I draw tremendous inspiration from people creating food deeply rooted in their local community and traditions.
So, what goes into the perfect New York burger?
The quality of the beef and bun are paramount. While toppings are always fun and add depth, personality, and excitement to the dialogue of what a burger can be, if the basic elements aren’t delicious on their own, the burger falls flat. In New York, there are way too many awesome burgers for anything less than perfect.
You were recently visiting Shake Shacks in the Middle East. What is it like translating American comfort food abroad?
It’s actually not as difficult as it seems. In my travels, I’ve discovered most cultures have some version of their own comfort food, with elements not too dissimilar from ours that the locals can connect with. Be it donar kebab in Turkey, khachapuri in Russia, or chips oman in Dubai—they are delicious, a little decadent, and 100-percent soul-satisfying.
What do you have you planned for the NYC Wine and Food Festival Blue Moon Burger Bash?
We are going to serve our special edition off-the-menu burger, the MeisterShack, which is a Shack cheeseburger topped with our ShackSauce and crisp-fried shallots marinated overnight in our own beer, ShackMeister Ale — brewed just for us by the Brooklyn Brewery. Also, to balance out all the burgers, we’re serving Buttery Caramel Cocoa Nib Frozen Custard Whoopie Pies. Our friends at Baked in Brooklyn are making the chocolate whoopie pie cakes.
Where in the city do you live now?
I’ve been a resident of New York City for over 18 years. After being a die-hard Manhattanite for most of that time, I moved to Fort Greene, Brooklyn, five years ago and have been loving the vibe and pace of life ever since.
Aside from Shake Shack, what are your favorite NYC burger spots?
My hands-down favorite burger when I’m not at the Shack is April Bloomfield’s Spotted Pig Burger. I love the atmosphere there too. My other longtime NYC favorites are Barbuto, Roberta’s and — of course — Gramercy Tavern. Mike Anthony’s cooking is always so comforting and delicious.
When you do happen to score some free time, where do you like to spend it?
I love to do whatever is seasonal. As we come into fall, I’m excited to go apple picking in Upstate New York, eat some fresh, fried cider doughnuts, and there might also be a haunted house in my near future. I’m kind of a geek like that.
What advice would you offer someone looking to leave their mark on the NYC culinary scene?
Be true to your vision and passion. New York is a city that’s open to a lot of different styles and approaches to cooking. Don’t be afraid to bring your own unique self out in your cooking.