EVERY now and then, Corkman Paul Walsh has to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming, having carved out an amazing new life for himself in America.
Such as the time when he was back home in Mayfield on a break, and had a Facetime video call with his boss — Hollywood actor Mark Wahlberg!
Paul, 37, is one of the star’s main men at his Las Vegas strip restaurant, Wahlburgers.
It’s all a long way from his Cork city home — and the move to the US hasn’t all been plain sailing. Two years ago, he had a massive heart attack while driving and now has a pacemaker and defibrillator.
It was also a roundabout journey that took Paul to Wahlburgers, a chain of 26 restaurants started up by the actor.
It all began 15 years ago, when Paul was 22 and working in Waxy’s bar, now the Thomond Bar, in Cork city and was spotted by the owners of the American-based Irish bar, RiRa.
“When RiRa offered me a job in the States I jumped at the chance,” recalls Paul. “Like most 22-year-olds in Ireland, I was very excited to see how it worked over there, but in my heart, I thought I would be away for one, maybe two years.
“The game plan was to come back home and settle down.”
At that time RiRa, who now have eight Irish bars across the States, were opening up a place in Atlantic City in New Jersey.
“It was a massive culture shock,” says Paul. “There were nine or ten of us there at the time. It was like a Big Brother set up, all of us in a home together! We stood out, and the locals were a bit baffled.
“All of a sudden you had this Irish restaurant and Irish kids walking around looking confused.
“I ended up staying seven years in Atlantic City. I started as a bartender and grew into a role as a trainer then went on to management.”
Walsh then went on to help open up a bar in Georgetown in Washington DC. “That was another culture shock,” he recalls.
But what accelerated his career was his move to Las Vegas.
“RiRa was opening a flagship bar in Vegas. My girlfriend Brittney, now my wife, and I were both nervous, but we went with it.
“Vegas is the epicentre of all things bar trade and culinary. If you want to advance in those areas, Vegas is where you should be.”
It wasn’t long before Paul’s reputation caught the attention of the bosses at Walbergers.
“The guys at Walbergers invited me out and, over the course of the meal, laid out a plan for me. It surprised me because although they didn’t know me personally, they had done their homework.
“It was terrifying. I was leaving the people and business who had brought me to the States and gambling on strangers.
“After that dinner, I talked to my wife, and the next day I decided to take the chance. After that, my career skyrocketed.
“Right now we are expanding; we are simultaneously opening up two restaurants on the east coast. We are also heading to Europe and are opening up in London.
“My wife is from the east, so it is in my head that we go back east or to London.”
For now, Las Vegas is the land of opportunity for Mark and he is loving every minute.
“Every day on the Strip is a hundred miles an hour,” he says. “Once we get busy here, it is insane. Ten hours rush by.
“Getting a FaceTime from Mark Walberg on my phone back in Mayfield is still very bizarre. I am used to it in one sense, but in another way, I am not!
“When I go back home and I am in my local, I am very grounded again but this is my ‘normal’ now, I guess.”
Wahlberg, 47, began his life as a rapper called Marky Mark and went on to be a movie star, in films such as Boogie Nights, Planet Of The Apes, Ted, The Departed and The Fighter — earning Oscar nominations for the latter two.
he has branched out into his TV production as well as co-owning Wahlburgers, which has featured in a reality TV show
Paul says: “When Mark comes into the restaurant, you feel a star power. There is a lot a lot of security and people freak out. But when you talk to him on a one on one basis, he is very down to earth.
“His brother Donnie, from the ’90s band New Kids On The Block, comes in with his wife, Jenny McCarthy (an actress and model). He has a huge personality, a super nice guy and she is a lovely lady. There are no airs or graces about them, and they are very good to the staff. They go above and beyond.”
Walsh was in Las Vegas on the night of the shooting there last year, when 58 people died. “It was awful. You can see a massive effect on the community,” he says.
“Everyone living and working in Vegas knows someone affected.
“My wife is a first responder and was called in on the night. Needless to say, she had a very rough night.
“It affected the Strip and the businesses. Multiple conventions cancelled. The thing is, it has never been safer to be here, but the fact is it factors into things when you plan events.
“It is something I don’t think I will ever get used to over here but it has become an everyday reality.
“Growing up in Cork, I genuinely thought it was the greatest place ever. But when I met my wife ten years ago, it changed everything.
“When I came here first, it seemed like an extended vacation. But with my wife, America became my home. I got a routine and life became normal. It is not just a crazy adventure.”
Paul has now lived in the US for 14 years, and, sadly, lost both his parents to cancer over the last decade.
But he says those events, and his own brush with death when he had a heart attack, have only increased his drive.
“Losing my parents greatly affected me. I have sprung into my career and am driven to be successful in my field.
“I get home about once a year too see my family. On my last trip, the first thing I noticed was that the standard of restaurants was incredible.
“I wandered into Cask on MacCurtain Street and the level of mixology, around the city in general, was amazing.
“When I was bartending in Cork I always looked to the States as the elite, the cocktails and the craftsmanship, but going home now into the bars in Cork, these are not bartenders, they are mixologists.”