This fall, Wahlburgers – the Boston burger joint created by the Wahlberg brothers Mark (the Hollywood hotshot), Donnie (the pop star) and Paul (the chef) – opened its first expansion restaurant in the Soho Metropolitan Hotel in Toronto. The restaurant has already spawned an Emmy-nominated reality show that is currently filming its third season, and the brothers recently announced plans for 27 more locations in the near future. We spoke to Paul Wahlberg about New Kids versus the Funky Bunch, $100 burgers and why Canada is awesome (even when it's freezing).
Burgermania kicked off a few years back and shows no signs of slowing. How do you explain it?
I think burgers have always been there. They're a comfort food that I've eaten my whole life. It's just that now with chefs really putting their touches on it – everybody has their own twist and it's great. Burgers are like pizza – you can put anything on them.
I gather you're more of a classics man in terms of toppings.
I am. Still, it's fun to see what people are putting on there: foie gras, truffle, marmalades, preserves. And the size of some of these burgers! It's truly amazing.
At one point Toronto had a $100 hamburger.
I have a little trouble with that because I don't have $100 to [spend] on a burger, but the sky's the limit I guess.
The first Wahlburgers expansion restaurant opened in Toronto last month. What made you decide to bring the chain to Canada first?
Our partners are from Canada – Henry Wu, Mike Wekerle and Larry Houghton. Henry is one of the owners of the Soho Metropolitan and he has years of hospitality experience. Also my brother Mark has all kinds of experience up in Toronto. I worked up there with him on Four Brothers and Max Payne and I absolutely fell in love with the city and the people. And I was there during the dead of winter!
Did you make any location specific tweaks to the menu – poutine perhaps?
Eventually we're going to get to poutine, but to start off we really wanted to focus on what we do best. The big thing for us was partnering with a local bakery, a local dairy for our ice cream and a local meat provider. We want to wait until we settle in a bit before we come up with the Toronto burger.
Any initial observations on the Canadian market?
The people are just so nice.
Are Bostonians not nice?
We are very nice people to outsiders but we also let each other know exactly how we feel – especially my brothers and sisters.
Were burgers a major food group in the Wahlberg house when you were growing up?
Absolutely. The best times in the summer were my dad cooking burgers and homemade French fries on the grill. Cooking was a major undertaking in our house, you know – nine kids plus my parents and there would always be someone else, an uncle or a cousin or someone staying at the house. My parents were amazing at making things with leftovers.
Did you have a specialty of your own?
French toast. I could whip that up after school in about 30 seconds.
Which brother were you? You know, like the grumpy one, the funny one …
I was the clumsy one. I once walked out my front door and 20 seconds later I ran in the back door with a broken wrist. I've been hit by cars, carried home by friends. Early on I got my share of stitches, that's for sure.
Who was the wildest Wahlberg?
Everybody was wild in their own way. Probably Mark – obviously he had some wild days.
What are the challenges of being in business with Donnie and Mark?
My brothers will tell stories about growing up to my staff. My staff doesn't know that Paul did this or Paul did that when he was eight years old! And then when we have discussions that get heated, they'll bring up things that happened 40 years ago. I learn a lot from my brothers, though – their worlds are very different from mine.
I'm assuming at least a fraction of your business comes from diehard NKOTB fans.
Definitely. The New Kids were on tour a couple of years ago and I went to their show in Boston. I told the guys about this woman who had come to Wahlburgers from Australia and they knew exactly who she was. This woman made it her whole summer to follow them. She was on their cruise, she was at their show in Miami, New York, Boston. She wanted the full experience.
Were you a New Kids fan or were you more of a Funky Bunch guy?
I was proud of both of my brothers, but their music was different than what I was listening to at the time. I was into U2, the Clash, David Bowie. At the same time, watching them put it all out there on stage was amazing.
In the season two finale of Wahlburgers titled Trading Places, Donnie did your job for a day, but we didn't get to see you do his.
If you heard me singing – I sound like a bag of cats and my dancing skills are even worse.
The show was nominated for an Emmy earlier this year. Did you attend?
No, I was back in the restaurant. I couldn't have been prouder, but I'd rather be in a kitchen than on a red carpet.
This interview has been condensed and edited.