The Fast and the Epicurious: Danny Meyer talks Shake Shack London and food culture

The Fast and the Epicurious: Danny Meyer talks Shake Shack and food cultureIt’s hard to convey the level of excitement which met Danny Meyer’s announcement that he was bringing his anti-chain burger restaurant Shake Shack to London. Twitter pretty much imploded with excited tweets from fans thrilled that they’d no longer have to fork out for a transatlantic flight to get their burger fix or one of the Shack’s famous concretes.

Of course, Meyer may be well known for Shake Shack, but his reputation as one of New York’s pre-eminent restaurateurs is undeniable. His opening of Union Square Cafe was one of the building blocks of New York’s current restaurant scene – every bit as important as say, the River Cafe or St John here. It was the first casual dining restaurant in the city to earn three stars from the New York Times and led the way to his restaurant empire which encompasses such Manahattan giants as Gramercy Tavern, The Modern and Eleven Madison Park which he sold in 2011.

Hot Dinners sat down with Meyer and Shake Shack CEO Randy Garutti when they were last in town to shoot the breeze about burgers, new openings and why they love London so much.. 

You’ve been pretty busy while you’ve been in town. We’ve been stalking you on Twitter and you manage to get around to a LOT of restaurants.  Just last night it was Scott’s and Patty & Bun. Anywhere else?

Danny Meyer:  Hawksmoor and then Bentleys late night, they kept the place open for us. They were so nice. And we threw in a coffee place or two in there.

Randy Garutti: We tried to go to Burger & Lobster but they had shut down and Princi too.

How do you choose where to go when you’re coming over?

DM: We’re over so often we have a backlog of places we’d like to go and it’s also down to geography -  if you can physically get there by foot or by taxi. We’re already scheming about lunchtime. We wanted to go somewhere this morning – Kaffeine, but it would have made us 11 minutes late.

RG: We’re always chasing a great cup of coffee

DM: You can learn a lot about a food culture based on how they care for their coffee. And their bread.

How do you think London’s food culture has changed over the past few years?  

DM:  I’ve been feeling it for the last 12 years. So for example when a place like Canteen opens, that marked the first time I had seen fine eating at what is basically a coffee shop. I think River Cafe is unheralded in that long before British food had turned the corner, Rose and Ruthie were caring dearly for provenance plus execution in a simplistic kind of way. They were veering away from French. What I remember 20 years ago is that the only places that anyone took seriously were French. That was it.

And that was something that was mirrored in New York wasn’t it when you opened Union Square?

DM:  The two big influences that helped to break that for us were California on one hand and Italy on the other – the Italian trattoria which said, ‘Let’s sit down, take a few really good ingredients, put them together simply’.

It takes four stakeholders, the producers, the journalists, the chefs and the patrons. And if they all four conspire, as has clearly happened here, then it explodes.

In London what I noticed were two things happening – both under the heading of ‘breaking away from France’. The St John movement which is saying ‘we’re very proud to be British and we’re going to show you a fresh way to do it. And then you have the River Cafe and Sally Clarke who say ‘We love British ingredients, but we also love Italian and also California.’

What they all have in common is a deep pride in taking the most amazing ingredients the earth and the sea have to offer – and I’m jealous of what you guys have here – and then creating it. It takes four stakeholders, the producers, the journalists, the chefs and the patrons. And if they all four conspire, as has clearly happened here, then it explodes.

How much of the Shake Shack London produce you’re using will be British?

RG: We spent the better part of the last year and a half figuring out the supply chain here. So we spent a lot of time in small farms in Scotland and with the right butchers and the abattoirs and everything – we’ve found some great sources of beef. And we’ve taken an approach that we’ve taken with every Shake Shack – in that this one needs to feel like Shake Shack and taste like London. We’ve spent a lot of time learning about London and teaming with some people we really respect.

And what about your concretes? They’re different at every Shack Shack aren’t they?

RG: The biggest thing is that we teamed up with the St John bakery. They’re going to make a brownie for us and a biscuit – and we may use their doughnuts for a coffee and doughnut flavour. 

Our frozen custards are a big part of the Shake Shack experience. The frozen custard base is the same [as the States], but all the fresh sauces and mixes are made for here. The Union Shack is chocolate custard with St John Bakery, chocolate hazelnut chunks, fudge sauce, Paul A Young chocolate chunks and sea salt. There’s also the Drury Lane Jam  - vanilla custard, a local strawberry jam, St John Bakery brown sugar biscuit and fresh banana.

DM: With frozen custards we’re trying to do what we do with burgers. We’re not inventing anything new but it’s about being a little more thoughtful in how you source the ingredients. Frozen custards are a Midwestern thing – St Louis is where I grew up – and there they’d just mix in M&Ms and stuff like that and people love it – it’s fun. But why not source the chocolate and dairy a little bit better and have a really good bakery make the product that goes in there? It’s a great way when we come to a new city to support and learn from what people are doing there.

RG: We tasted several bacons, and the bacon for the SmokeShack (a ShackBurger with cherry pepper relish and bacon) will come from Jimmy Butler (from The Blythburgh Pig Farm on the Suffolk coast) as well other select British Free range Wiltshire farms.

Will your amazing (admission - we have a serious addiction) potato rolls be the same as in America?

DM: Yes, those we’ll be shipping over.

One of the real selling points of the Shack menu is your wine and beer. What will feature on the London drinks list?

DM: We will have Shackmeister Ale from Brooklyn Brewery but the balance of the beer list will be local. So some examples are Kernel, Thornbridge and Meantime’s London lager. We’ll still bring our Shack Wines from Napa Valley made for us by Frog’s Leap vineyard.

So why have you decided now is right for Shake Shack in London. Or did you always have your sights on London?

DM: We never really allowed ourselves to say the words, but for many of us it was a fantasy for a long time. For years there have been invitations to open one of our fine dining restaurants here. The fact is we’ve never opened one of our restaurants outside New York except for Shake Shack.

shackburger2Does that mean you’re not looking to open anything other than a Shake Shack in London?

DM: We’re always looking for more excuses to come to one of our favourite cities more often – but there’s no fine dining plan anywhere in the near vicinity to come here. I would never say never but we’re somewhat humble and the question is does another city really need us? There’s so much really good stuff going on with independent restaurants in London, what do we really have to add to that dialogue? If we can ever answer that question in the affirmative and we think we have capacity then someday it could happen.

Will you be opening more than one Shake Shack in London?

DM: We wouldn’t go to any city anywhere unless we thought there was capacity for at least two. Because otherwise you can’t afford to have the right management on the ground. You have to believe that the city, if all went well, could support at least two Shake Shacks.

[Danny later adds that it’ll take a while to find another site and they have no plans right now for a second one in London]

DM: I can’t wait to see how people will respond to Shake Shack in London.

It’ll be mobbed.

DM: Do you promise?

[Hot Dinners feels confident and makes said promise]

We’ve been talking about London’s restaurants, but what about the city’s burger scene. Are you aware of how big a deal the burger has been here over the last few years?

DM: We are aware and what we’re not interested in doing is creating a market – it’s enough to be who you are. But what’s fun is that it’s all different. You start with the notion that a burger is just meat between two pieces of bread and then you have a whole bunch of choices, what kind of bread, how do you cook it, what kind of cheese, how big, what are you going to garnish it with. People are having fun saying that for a little bit more money than fast food they can have an experience with their burger. They can see a culinary imprint. We are hopeful that, now that people know that burgers can be really good, that we will be part of that rotation.

RG: There are so many burger joints in London and we’ve been to nearly all of them and we’ve created some good friendships there. Like while we’ve been here in London trying their burgers, the people at Patty & Bun were in New York at Shake Shack.

DM: But that’s been happening in the fine dining world for ages. No-one ever says aren’t you afraid to open a new trattoria in Rome. There’s a cross cultural learning in the fine dining world, the chefs love each other. I don’t know why people think it’s a winner-takes-all-market when it comes to burgers. I could get that if we’re talking about gulls eggs – there are only so many places I’m going to try those.

Leaving London aside for the moment, what are you plans back in New York? You closed Tabla and sold Eleven Madison Park. Are you going to be opening anywhere new?

Tabla had a fantastic 13 year run. It was our biggest restaurant in a city that doesn’t love Indian food the way London does. The fact we were able to keep 283 seats full for 12 and a half years is amazing. But its time was up. The chef at Tabla then came along to open North End Grill. We sold Eleven Madison Park not because we wanted out of the fine dining business but because it was the right thing to do for two guys that wanted to start their own company. And for whom having a three star Michelin restaurant was a really important foundation.

The Dining Room at the Modern recently got three stars in the New York Times, although it's been open since 2005. Reviewers in London very rarely return to a restaurant once they’ve reviewed it. Were you surprised/thrilled by the review?

Everyone wants to get to a restaurant first but first is not always when a restaurant is at their best. It’s like wine – if everyone rushed to taste wine straight out of the barrel, they’d be missing what happens as the wine evolves. 

DM: I don’t know enough about the London market. We felt so grateful – we’re always looking to make our restaurant better over time. In New York it’s a shame – my guess is that it’s not dissimilar to here – everything is so immediate because of the internet. Everyone wants to get to a restaurant first but first is not always when a restaurant is at their best. It’s like wine – if everyone rushed to taste wine straight out of the barrel, they’d be missing what happens as the wine evolves. The same things is true of restaurants - our whole philosophy is how can we keep making it better? And it felt great that the New York Times recognised that.

Even in a world where everyone has to get there first – isn’t there someone going back to see how the wine is improving in the bottles? It gets back to what is the role of the critic. It’s entertainment. In the old days it was we’re going to be the consumer watchdog because we don’t want you to spend your money poorly. But nowadays everybody’s taking a picture every second so what I want from a critic is someone who can educate me along the way. And part of the education that I think is missing is how is a place evolving. We have a mob mentality from social media.

What I want is someone who’s more thoughtful and knowledgeable than I am. I don’t think we [in New York] are different from you. I just don’t understand why in a world where every critic is writing the same story at the beginning, why isn’t there someone who’s carving out new territory, saying ‘you guys go fight over the dead lion right off the bat’ I’m going tell you what happened to the meat when it aged’. There’s a market for that.

Shake Shack will open in Covent Garden on 5 July 2013. Find out more about Shake Shack London and follow them on twitter.