Shrimp burgers and hot-chicken secrets: Q&A with Nashville chef 'Big Shake'

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

Nashville chef Shawn Davis first picked up a pair of kitchen tongs when he was 12 years old. Since then, he hasn't put them down and his passion helped secure his appearance on ABC's "Shark Tank" TV show, where his "Original Shrimp Burger" got national attention. Even though he failed to secure financing for his burgers on the show, the moment of fame was pivotal.

Davis' signature burgers landed on supermarket shelves before he opened his restaurant, Big Shake's Hot Chicken and Fish, in 2013. Within months, he and his wife signed a lease for a second location in Franklin, Tenn.. Then he opened restaurants in Goodlettsville, Tenn. and Alabama.

Today, Big Shake’s is a franchise with planned locations throughout the southeastern U.S., including one coming to the Gulch neighborhood of Nashville. That shrimp burger is one of the restaurants' best-selling items.

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Southern Kitchen sat down with Davis for a Q&A about how the TV show buoyed his career and more.  

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Southern Kitchen: I understand your shrimp burger was a reaction to your daughter going pescatarian.

Davis: She was 10 years old at the time and she came home with a (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) magazine and demanded a change in our diet from us.

So it was an ethics thing?

Yes, it was the ethics thing. She definitely had an opinion and said she didn't want to eat meat anymore. So that was our beginning to the world of being a pescatarian.

Chef Big Shake and team.

What was your reaction initially?

As a father, my reaction was maybe she'll forget about this tomorrow. But she stuck to her guns and I started making various dishes to try to accommodate her needs. We started making shrimp burgers, she enjoyed them and I guess the rest was history.

How did that become something you became known for?

It was really beating the pavement. A couple of places in my community started buying from me and it started to catch on. My wife said that we should try to start making some  real money from this. That's when I picked up the phone and started calling grocery stores around the country, which was kind of a dead-end. 

Why do you think grocery stores weren't interested?

Because there's some guy calling on the phone harassing them about taking a look at my product like any other lunatic. 

Then I had an opportunity to go on the second season of "Shark Tank" and really put my product on display for the country to see. I had a tremendous response from the public and investors.

After the show aired, I had 100% close rate for some strange reason. Crazy, right? We were able to leverage that TV appearance to get our products on the shelves.

Where can people find your products?

We were in about 3,500 grocery stores at one time but we decided to pull the product and keep it in our restaurants because the grocery business is a rough business. You're fighting against big corporations and big brands that have been in those same freezers for years. We also sell through Cisco and some other pretty big players in the food service industry.

What were you doing in the restaurant business at 12 years old?

Being a nuisance to my mother and father. When I was 14 or 15 I started working on the line as a prep cook and then became a sous chef and then became the head of the kitchen when I was 16. I love the industry. It was almost a savior for me because I was not going down the right path. 

Hot chicken tenders and fixings at Chef Big Shake's Hot Chicken and Fish.

When you say you're going down the wrong path, what do you mean?

I just grew up in a rough area and gravitated towards things that any other kid running around in the 1980s looking for things to do would do. So, my mother recognized that very early and got me out of there and put me into the restaurant business. 

Why do you think the restaurant business instills discipline?

Once you see someone enjoy your product and say you did a great job, I think that alone is the driving force. You want to be disciplined, you want to make sure you keep doing better and better.

What's the secret to your hot chicken?

We provide some of the best peppers from around the world, including Carolina Reapers and ghost peppers. Our basic level of hot chicken is called "crybaby" if you just want a little buzz on your tongue. And then it goes to "stop, drop and roll," which is a little bit more aggressive. You're gonna sweat a little bit, right? Then we have "Rambo,' which really keeps up the heat and the eyes are definitely gonna start turning red, but it's gonna be so good. 

What makes excellent Nashville hot chicken?

First of all, you have to start with awesome-tasting fried chicken. Your basic Nashville seasoning is going to be cayenne pepper and some brown sugar, some cumin, some garlic powder, some onion powder, plus flavor profiles and ingredients you like yourself. Then use clean vegetable oil.

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich at Chef Big Shake's Hot Chicken and Fish.

Why do you think Nashville hot chicken has gotten so popular?

We're the foundation. Obviously, everybody can say they make the best fried chicken, but come to Nashville, Tenn. You'll find a whole lot stories about chicken houses, fried-chicken shacks and people frying chicken for a living. We kind of do it the best.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com