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“No.”

Chef Paul Wahlberg has a pretty direct answer when asked whether he’s become comfortable with his celebrity as the star of Wahlburgers, A&E’s reality show series about the eponymous fast-casual burger restaurants he owns with his partner-brothers Mark and Donnie Wahlberg. Last week Wahlburgers celebrated its fifth anniversary, and the Emmy-nominated TV series launches its latest season on November 16. But even after years of practice, and a lifetime watching his entertainment biz bros handle Hollywood, it’s still a little hard for Paul Wahlberg to digest the celeb-chef thing. He doesn’t love doing the publicity circuit; during an interview at Alma Nove, his upscale Italian restaurant across the street from the original Wahlburgers, the chef sometimes sits on his hands to avoid moving about the room. (“I get fidgety!” he chuckles.) He’s as press shy as his famous brothers are limelight-loving, and he laughs at the irony that, just a few days prior, his brother Donnie broke a Guinness World Record for — wait for it! — taking selfies on a New Kids on the Block cruise.

“I’m still not comfortable in that world, though I count my blessings from it,” says Wahlberg of the fame machine. “Still, if I get caught up in the celebrity part, I’m not doing my job.”

His job, he says, is simply to cook. That’s where he feels at home, even if the demands of a TV show and booming burger chain require other kinds of attention. Since opening the first Wahlburgers location in Hingham in 2011, the brand has expanded to about a dozen locations around the country — from Vegas to Orlando — with dozens more international outposts under agreement with franchisees. And the television show, which follows the comic travails of the Wahlberg clan as they run the family business, has garnered a loyal following that surprises even the chef. He’s had fans drive hours just to get a patty melt and a boozy frappe, a dedication that, frankly, makes him a bit self-conscious. “I had one couple drive here nonstop from Nova Scotia. I couldn’t do enough for them,” recalls Wahlberg of two exceptionally devout diners. (That’s an 11-hour drive, if you’re curious.) Of course, all those TV-bred expectations are a double-edged sword. “You have people who think it’s the best thing ever. Then you have the people who say, ‘it doesn’t live up to they hype.’ But it’s not meant to be hyped. That’s not what I’m trying to achieve.”

Whatever the show suggests, the chef says he just wants to show folks a good time at Wahlburgers, whether by doling out tried-and-true burgers (topped with fixings like “government cheese,” a nod to hardscrabble times growing up in Dorchester) or seasonal variations like the just-launched fiesta burger (pictured above), a half-pound patty made with Southern spice mix and topped with jalapeños, pepper jack cheese, chipotle aioli and sweet pepper and smoked onion salsa. The chain has also branched out to non-burger items like smoked mozzarella mac-n-cheese with bacon and open-faced Sloppy Joe sandwiches slathered in cheese sauce.

Fast-casual comfort food is very different from what Wahlberg offers at Alma Nove, which actually opened a year before the first Wahlburgers. Alma Nove is more of an upscale suburban date-night spot, focusing on refined Italian cuisine — bolognese with herbed mascarpone is a signature menu staple — with occasional meandering along the Mediterranean coast: think grilled octopus with Portuguese chorizo or braised lamb shank with couscous and cucumber-feta gremolata, a Greek-inflected standout from the new autumn menu. At Alma Nove, Wahlberg gets more creative, making things like rabbit belly roulade for a salumi platter. You know, stuff you probably won’t see on Wahlburgers.

“I want people to take me seriously as a cook,” says Wahlberg. Wahlburgers may get the TV ratings, but he says it only represents one side of his career. “Alma Nove is the food I love to make. Wahlburgers is the food I love to eat.”

What the restaurants have in common, though, is a focus on comfort fare that Wahlberg hopes will feel like family dinners — whether a casual cookout at Wahlburgers or a more formal feast at Alma Nove. In fact, ask Paul Wahlberg about food, and it seems that most roads somehow lead back to memories of home and growing up in his now-famous brood. His earliest cooking memory: making French toast after school. A dish he’s craving lately: His grandmother’s pork sausages and applesauce. (“Her version of bangers and mash.”) The first thing he really learned to cook: chicken bianco, to impress a high school girlfriend. A favorite dessert: harlequin ice cream, which he remembers his mother slicing like cake from the cardboard box on birthdays. The name of Alma Nove also nods to family; Alma is his mother’s name, and nove, or “nine,” is her number of children.

So unsurprisingly, Wahlberg show more introspection than outsized ambition when talk circles back to the timely topic of Wahlburgers’ fifth anniversary. Did he ever expect his burger joint would become a Hollywood-fueled international business? “I try to not think of it that way,” says Wahlberg. “I just think of the next burger going out the door. All the other stuff is above my pay grade.” Okay — well, where does he see things in five more years? He shrugs, like a humble Boston every-dude straight out of — well, a Wahlberg movie. “I just hope to see another sunrise.”

[zagat.com]

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