Tastemakers is a series dedicated to major restaurant chains' executive chefs and other under-recognized experts who shape how America eats, dishing on what they're cooking, food trends and more.
Shaun Curtis thought he was an expert on Buffalo's Café when he became executive chef 15 years ago. Then he took on two new titles: COO and franchisee.
Holding three positions at once – as an executive, franchisee and chef – is rare in the industry. But it has given Curtis, 35, a unique advantage in decision making, not to mention a deep understanding of what it takes to make great wings.
When Curtis first joined the Georgia-based chain in 2000 as its first executive chef, he was just out of culinary school. "My first interview was with the founder of the company and I just started telling them stories of my past and memories I had at Buffalo's," he says. Buffalo's Cafe was founded by Ralph Perrella in 1985, in Roswell, Ga. Today the company has more than 25 locations, the majority of which are still in Georgia.
Soon, Curtis became much more than a chef at the company. He worked in brand development, before becoming a vice president and eventually assuming his current position as COO. He has seen the company through two ownership changes, most recently the 2011 acquisition from Fatburger's parent company, Fog Cutter Capital Group. Executives and coworkers cycled in and out, but Curtis remained.
"I joke about it sometimes with people that it's kind of like a horror movie where they always leave one person alive at the end to tell the story," says Curtis. "Now, with our current ownership, the company is stronger than it's ever been."
After Buffalo's Café's most recent acquisition, Curtis took his involvement one step further and became a franchisee. A former corporate location was available for refranchising, and Curtis, who had helped operate the location while it was company-owned, decided to take over.
"It definitely opened my eyes and made me a lot more open-minded in making decisions and getting others' opinions," says Curtis. "On the flip side, it drastically helped with working with my franchisees... It's given them a new respect level for me."
Previously, Curtis was able to justify pricey new purchases for franchised locations as ultimately necessary, without much thought. However, when the money was coming out of his own pocket, he was able to understand franchisee complaints and explain to them why the costs were necessary – or to corporate why they weren't.
However, at the end of the day, the restaurant business all comes back to the food. At Buffalo's Café, that means the chicken wings. Curtis says size means everything when it comes to cooking the perfect wing. "Getting a wing that is way too big, you just can't cook it right, you can't get the right amount of crispiness. Getting a wing that's way too small – there just isn't enough to eat."
Step two in crafting the best wing: Buffalo's three-step cooking process that allows for perfectly fried, extra-crispy wings. Using multiple deep fryers, Buffalo's overcompensates in crispiness in preparation for the slathering of sauce.
However, "the sauce is only partially important," according to Curtis. "It's how you cook the meat, what meat you're using that really makes the difference."
That's what Curtis says truly sets Buffalo's Café apart from the competition. The chain never freezes its wings, allowing for consistent texture and color. While a lot has changed for Curtis and Buffalo's Café over the last 15 years, that's one thing that he promises will remain constant.
"The evolution of the taste bud has become more refined, and it makes it a little more challenging to come up with new and innovative things," says Curtis. "But, at the same time, that's why I love being a chef."