Chef Paul Wahlberg on the Debut of ‘Wahlburgers’

By Scott Kearnan
January 21, 2014

Reality stars have a reputation for being the most fame-hungry camera hogs around. But even with a new show set to premiere Wednesday night, it’s clear that chef Paul Wahlberg is no ham.

“I had nothing to do with it!” declares Wahlberg when asked about the impetus for Wahlburgers. Premiering Wednesday, January 22, at 10:30 PM on A&E, the show follows the Boston-bred chef and his gone-Hollywood brothers as they manage the ins and outs of the eponymous Hingham burger restaurant they co-own. “Paul… is the most talented one in the family,” praises Oscar-nominated brother Mark in the first episode. Maybe, but he’s certainly the most camera-shy.

“This [TV] is not what I do,” says Paul Wahlberg. “My brothers had the idea and asked me if I wanted to get involved. Actually, it was more like they said, ‘By the way, you’re getting involved.’ But they did it in a nice, almost-asking way.” He laughs. Fair enough, but once cameras rolled for the nine finished episodes, surely he got used to all the lights, camera and action?

“Not even a little bit!” says the chef.

Yet he’s the unwitting star of Wahlburgers, which in its first two episodes focuses largely on Paul and Wahlberg matriarch Alma (for which his upscale Italian Alma Nove is named) as they run day-to-day business at the restaurants. There’s a lot of emphasis on the family’s working-class-to-first-class trajectory; chef Paul is the fifth of nine (nove, get it?) siblings but the first to graduate from high school. While the others were dodging flashing blue lights, stirring up sometimes-violent trouble on the streets of Dorchester, Paul was working his first catering job at age 16. Then came stints at the Charles Hotel and The Four Seasons, followed by nine years as executive chef at Bridgeman’s in Hull. Hollywood was never on his radar, but his “bossy” (he means that with love) brothers finally managed to shove him into a larger spotlight.

One they’re happy to share on Wahlburgers, of course. As the season kicks off, Donnie shows up to introduce his girlfriend, actress and The View co-host Jenny McCarthy. Mark jets in for a red-carpet movie premiere. And the whole family debates locations for a second restaurant; Mark and Donnie are insistent on going big and building an international burger empire, while Paul and Alma have their heart set on home and opening the next spot in Boston. Spoiler: as with everything, mom calls the shots. (Paul promises Zagat that the exact new Hub location will be revealed as the series unfolds.)

“The business does need to get bigger. But it needs to happen slowly, and Boston is the next logical step. This is our home,” says Paul, who seems disinterested in chasing fame and glory. Wahlburgers reveals him as an anxiety-prone workaholic who sweats the small stuff. (Behind the scenes, his cool-as-cucumber brothers aren’t that different, he says. “They’re just very good actors.”) Though he understands why some toques turn to TV to amp up their star wattage, he says he has no interest in using Wahlburgers as a springboard to endorsement deals and branded cookware. “Would anyone really want my face on their sauté pan?” laughs Wahlberg. “I don’t begrudge anyone who goes in that direction. Everyone ticks a different a way. But what I want to do is be a chef. It’s honestly the only thing I know how to do. My focus is on the restaurants.”

He’s proven he can handle the entertainment world too, at least for now. But after absorbing the famous family dynamic on Wahlburgers, which includes healthy portions of good-natured teasing and even a few tears (when Paul and Alma take a ride by the family’s modest first home), it was easy to wonder: what if the fish-out-of-water recipe was reversed? Could Mark or Donnie cut it in a kitchen? If Paul had to train one of his brothers to take over the restaurants, who would he choose?

“I’d close the doors,” he says firmly. Then he chuckles. “Either one of them could do it, and they’d do a fantastic job. But they’d do everything differently.”

“And that’s okay. I wouldn’t want them to try and be me,” says the cautious new TV star. “The hardest job in the world is to try and be someone else.”