Shake Shack Culinary Director Mark Rosati is the genius responsible for the restaurant’s incredible menu and one-of-a-kind frozen custard flavors like “Waffles & Bacon” and “Coffee and Donuts.”
His latest creation is the beautiful “Staple Concrete,” which was part of Shake Shack’s recent collaboration with Staple Design. The limited edition flavor is a mix of vanilla custard, raspberry preserves, and black sesame glazed-cake donut chunks from Doughnut Plant!
Besides being the king of custard, menu maestro Mark Rosati is maybe the nicest person we’ve ever met. The Fort Greene resident is an avid barbecuer during the summer months, but he doesn’t do much grilling during the winter months, so he’ll be storing his gas grill with us.
When we heard that Mark was going to be using MakeSpace, we knew we had to interview him. He was kind enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to chat with us about everything Shack. Read on for the inside scoop!
You’re storing your gas grill with us. Can you tell me a little bit about where you grill? Do you have a balcony or a backyard?
I’m in the ground floor apartment, and I have a stoop. I can actually put the grill out on my sidewalk and cook. My neighbors are all mad cool; they love it. The neighborhood as a whole loves it, because people are coming home from work and they walk by me and they’ve had a long day; they’re wearing their ties, they’re all dressed up, and they walk by this guy sitting out there grilling up a steak. They always stop and say something like, “Man, that smells good!” or “Dang, I wish I was eating with you tonight!”
Do you generally prefer gas to charcoal, or is it more of a convenience thing?
I don’t champion one over the other. If I eat, say, a wood grilled pizza, I love how the smokiness from the wood imparts a little flavor on it, but when it comes to cooking meats and fish, which I grill more often, I like the fact that with gas it’s more of a clean, pure flavor being enhanced by the hot heat as opposed to wood or charcoal, where it would impart some of that flavor. Sometimes I don’t want that smokiness, like on my fish or steak. Especially if it’s a really good steak, I wanna taste the meat as opposed to extra flavorings on there. I’m kind of a purist. Also, it’s so much easier to clean.
The best part is that in New York City, I can buy propane for that, which costs about three dollars a canister, and I only have to refill it two or three times a season. That’s what I love about it; it’s easy, it’s fun. You know we’re all tight on space, and I love that I can just throw it on my stoop, or if I want to go to the beach with friends, I don’t have to carry a big bag of stuff. Everything is all contained within that unit, and it just works perfectly.
I’ve heard that you’re something of a minimalist?
I’ve been this way for all my life. Twice a year I walk into my apartment open up all my cupboards, look in my drawers, look in my closets and go, “Okay, seriously, is there anything in here I’m not going to use in the next three months?” If something pops out, it goes. That said, there’s a lot of stuff that I do love and I do use often, so even though I have this philosophy, I do find that I have a good amount of stuff. Decluttering helps me keep from getting overwhelmed.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in Fort Greene or in Brooklyn?
One of my favorite places to go is Roman’s which is on Dekalb Avenue. It has the same owners as Diner, and Marlow and Sons, and the food is just so perfect. It’s Roman-style Italian food, and the chef there is cooking with a lot of love and a lot of passion.
I think the coolest thing that they do is their whole menu is designed around what kinds of meats and fish the restaurant group can get. What they’ll do is get a whole pig, each restaurant will get a different part of the pig, and based on what they get, that’s what the chef draws inspiration from and that’s what the menu is created around. So if one chef gets a pork shoulder, maybe he’ll make meatballs.
It seems like you’re always on the move. How much traveling do you do?
I do a good deal of travel. Last year we were incredibly busy. We opened five new international locations, and in the process, I would travel to all five of those every month. I would come back to New York for two weeks and then fly out for two weeks abroad.
On those trips, I was flying to Moscow for a few days, then to Dubai for a few, then I’d turn around and go back the way I came, going to Istanbul and then maybe to Scotland for a few days, come back home, rest, take care of all the domestic work, then fly out and do the whole thing over again. Right now we’re in eight countries internationally, all of them with many Shake Shacks.
A big part of what we do that makes us who we are is making sure each location we open has a little local influence so it doesn’t feel like a traditional chain where it’s very sterile. We try to really join communities. We make sure the architecture of each Shake Shack is a little different. We try to reflect the neighboring community, so it’s never an eyesore.
Same thing with the menu; I spent a lot of time working on special items for London, because it’s such a sophisticated, cool culinary scene these days. We wanted to have a lot of fun. And then, in Istanbul, they have such great heritage with their cuisine. I mean, my god, I don’t think I’ve ever had that many shwarma and falafels in my life. But it’s tasty and delicious. Kind of like their version of classic comfort food for their culture, so we want to kind of take some of what they’re known for and incorporate that into our menu.
Again, it’s gotta feel a little unique, like in its small specific neighborhood, it was made specifically for that neighborhood. Almost like we don’t have any other restaurants at all. Just like, two guys wound up in Istanbul and decided to open a burger stand, so it feels right for locals. It takes a little time to do that.
If you could open a Shake Shack in any country at this point, where would it be?
I would love to open one in Japan. I think that would be really fun. That’s another one where I don’t know what I would do to change our menu and make it something unique for that market, but I would imagine there are so many different options.
Always in my mind, the first thing I think is like, “Okay, we could use green tea or yuzu and add those ingredients,” but then I always wait to see. Those are the ingredients that I understand are popular from an outsider’s perspective, but most of the time when I actually get to these countries, I find out that’s not actually what a local would use or go out and eat or drink in their everyday lives. It usually turns out to be something completely different.
In Moscow, I had no idea that cranberries were incredibly, incredibly popular. They come in all these different forms like drinks with cranberries, dried cranberries, or these almost crystallized sugar cranberries that were like a rock candy. I’d never seen them like that before, but they’re delicious. I’d never have known that googling “Moscow and Food.” You have to go there and really understand it.
So, I have to ask about the french fries. You switched over to fresh-cut recently, but I’ve heard that you’re going back to the crinkle fry?
That is correct. We launched the fresh ones over a year ago. We wanted to do something different, because the rest of our menu is incredibly fresh. I mean, the burgers are ground fresh daily, the tomatoes are freshly cut, our frozen custard is spun in house everyday, and we looked at the fries, and said, “We can do better here. This is an opportunity to improve our menu.” And I do think that we created an amazing french fry, and we got a lot of credit for it, but at the end of the day, our guests came and said, “We like what you’re doing here, but we kind of miss the crinkles. Those were really fun. You couldn’t get them anywhere else, and you guys did them really well.”
We just never really understood the connection and how deep it ran with all of our guests. There’s a real nostalgia factor, and it’s just so synonymous with Shake Shack. We always listen to our guests, so we said, “Okay, lets figure out how we can make this even better.” We decided to go back to the crinkles, but we tweaked the recipe a little bit. We’ve reengineered them with better ingredients and made them taste even better. We’ll be launching those around November. We’re really excited.
An essential part of a visit to Shake Shack is the frozen custard. Why do you serve custard instead of ice cream?
That comes from Shake Shack’s original inspiration, which is the owner of our company, Danny Meyer. When we started Shake Shack ten years ago, it was born out of a hotdog cart that ran for three years before the first brick-and-mortar Shake Shack opened in Madison Square Park.
It all started because we owned two fine dining restaurants across from the park, and at the time, it was not a safe place. It was dirty and rundown. It was a park you’d always walk around and never through. So the owner of the company, Danny, joined a conservancy fund to help revitalize the park, and part of that was an art installation called I ♥ TAXI.
The artist, Navin Rawanchaikul, had this vision of putting old 1960’s taxi cabs up on stilts, so you’d have to walk around in the park to find them. He thought it would give people who don’t usually go through it a reason to see different parts of the park. He also wanted to add a hotdog cart, because he thought that the most iconic parts of New York City were taxi cabs and hotdog carts. I believe the artist was from Thailand, so that was his impression of the city. He came to Danny, and he said, “I know you have these restaurants, would you care to do the hotdog cart?”
Danny loved the idea. He said, “We’re gonna do the hotdogs, we’re gonna do griddled burgers too, and to keep harnessing that Midwest inspiration, why not do frozen custard instead of ice cream? Why not go all in with the inspiration?”
Shake Shack really is an homage to our owner’s childhood and all the food he loved to eat when he was growing up. It has a lot of continuity in that. It’s all Midwestern. It’s all born out of our owner’s passion. This is stuff that he really cherished as a kid.
I read an interview from a few years ago where you said your favorite flavor of custard is the salted caramel. Is that still the case?
I used to like salted caramel a lot, but I started to see, you know, it’s becoming such a popular flavor for all the right reasons. It’s like the new classic flavor alongside chocolate and vanilla. If a restaurant is going to have ice cream or gelato or anything, they’d better have salted caramel. It’s for a good reason. I call that one the Bugs Bunny flavor of ice creams because children love it and it’s fun, but adults love it too because it has that saltiness to it. I always say if you can create a flavor that appeals to children and adults, which is a hard thing to do, you have magic. So we always try to create something that does have that appeal.
We have a new flavor that we came up with about two years ago called “Buttery Caramel Cocoa Nib,” and it’s kind of my take on salted caramel, but furthering the dialogue on what that flavor can look and taste like. It’s a salted caramel, but it also has some brown butter in the flavor for extra richness, and to echo the kind of smokiness of the caramel, I put in roasted cocoa nib beans which have a natural smokiness and bitter flavor while still offering a crunch. I asked myself, “How can we make this flavor a little more interesting while still being true to its roots and what it’s all about?” In my mind this flavor is the next evolution, so that’s my favorite.
What’s your go-to Shake Shack order?
It’s always changing and evolving; there was a long time where I was a dedicated SmokeShack addict, because I love the bacon and the chopped cherry peppers that we use. I love the spicy vinegary quality of that, but recently I’ve been really into just cheeseburgers with nothing on them. And I find if it’s done well and it comes out super fast; if the cheese is just melted in and the burger is super juicy, it doesn’t need any sauce, because the cheese and the juice become like a kind of sauce. So it’s kind of hard to do, but it’s like the most simplistic burger, and when done well, it rivals any of the other burgers I think. It’s just the most pure experience you can have, just the cheese and meat. But once again, when they’re cooked really well, it’s just a completely different animal. It’s just really heightened.
So no lettuce or tomato?
No lettuce or tomato. I also love to get cheese fries because I love dipping the fries in the cheese sauce and the coolest thing about the crinkles actually is crinkle cuts pick up cheese sauce better than any fry shape on the market, so it’s so much fun to dip em in, get a lot of cheese on em and then I always like to end my meal with our classic ShackMeister Ale.
That’s made by Brooklyn Brewery, right?
It is, yeah. What’s cool about that beer is it was actually designed by Brooklyn Brewery’s Brewmaster, Garret Oliver, to pair exactly with our ShackBurger. In the past he had done house beers for other restaurants but it was never paired to a direct menu item. It would be like, “Okay, you sell Indian food, so I’m going to create a beer that broadly compliments Indian food and make it interesting.”
But we said to Garret, “We want you to create a beer to pair specifically with the ShackBurger, and he completely knocked it out of the park. He looked at our burger as something of a sweet burger even though I didn’t read it that way. He said, “Well you have tomato, you have caramelized meat, you have kind of a sweet bun here.” He said, “I see this as sweet, so I’m going to make a bitter beer to cut through that sweetness and really compliment it.” He also added a German hop to the mix that has a bread-like quality and really compliments the bread of the bun.