David Burke

david burke restaurants

As I sat at David Burke Townhouse waiting to meet with the man himself, I noticed all the whimsical objects surrounding me. Between the Queen of hearts paintings and humpty dumpty figurines that shower the main dining room, I couldn’t help but think that this is how food should be – whimsical, nostalgic, a play on things. No one can accuse David Burke of taking himself too seriously. There’s something comforting about the playfulness that this restaurateur brings to the industry, not simply because he has the means to, but mainly because it’s his passion.

If I wasn’t an avid follower of the food world and its culinary greats, I’d have thought David Burke to be a genial stranger, taking a seat at my table and speaking with me as if picking up mid conversation. On his entrance I realized it’s all part of this iconic Chef’s genius. Within five minutes of sitting down with him, I felt the way most feel only after the entrees have been taken off the table and a few glasses of wine have been consumed. Burke had just been off testing things at Bloomingdales, and while I attempted to launch into the logistics of the interview, he had other things on his mind. Had I had lunch? Where was I from? Just how hungry was I exactly? Either way, a smattering of dishes arrived in courses at the table – oversized popovers, salmon crudo, kishu oysters, soft shell crab, frog leg tempura, spring vegetable risotto, and a new sparkling beverage Burke’s been developing for Whole Foods; I was a kid in David Burke’s candy shop.

Burkes makes you excited to eat for the same reasons you were excited about food when you were a kid. You haven’t studied menus online, you haven’t had proverbial discussions about the place’s foie over red wine with friends – it just all looks so good…

You started as a chef, and now you’re a brand. What was the ‘aha moment’ where you knew that was where you were headed?

You know, I don’t think our product line is out there yet the way it’s going to be. I came up with a product – pastrami salmon in 1992 – that was one of the first chef products. Besides something like K-Paul seasonings, chefs didn’t really have a lot of products out. I never set out to be a brand or a product-driven guy. I got restless when I moved from Park Avenue Café kitchen to Corporate, so I created the cheesecake pops and the pastrami salmon…

But when I started cooking in the late 70’s, we didn’t have these goals because it didn’t exist. It’s like a Nascar guy saying he was going to win Nascar when they didn’t have the tracks. It started with moonshiners racing because they didn’t want to get caught by the cops. I went to CIA [Culinary Institute of America) and my goal was to become a very good chef. That was my first goal as an entrance into this business, and then the business changed and the appreciation for food and wine in America became bigger; experimentation became accepted.

We had a lot of pioneers in America – Chefs that broke the rules. Then, dining out became the entertainment. Years ago you ate and then you went to a club or a supper club. Now, eating has become the night out. So restaurants have become the theater. When I wanted to be a chef my dad was like “That’s not a very good choice. A cook right?” “No,” I said “a chef.” He didn’t really understand the difference. Back then it was like ‘what’s the difference between a chef and a cook?’ The culinary industry has really changed. Eating out and the choice of restaurants has become more important, and now TV of course…

I was going to ask you what your thoughts were about food TV…

TV has helped quite a bit in exposure for chefs. Without a doubt. The recognition and the respect.

What do you think of the competitive shows?

Well, some are better than others. I think they’re fun. I don’t want to sound like a wet rag about it; I like them, I’ve been in them, I’ve judged them. I don’t watch them that much because I’m not home. Top Chef can be fun. It’s not easy to go out there and compete. There’s a little drama involved (they definitely add some to that) but I think it’s good. In general it’s very good for our industry. The one concern, if any, is to make sure we’re still conveying that getting into the restaurant business is a dedication, a passion and a lot of hard work. Because I think for the youngsters that see it and sign up for cooking school,  (because they see chefs as the new rock stars) there’s a long way to go to get there. There’s a dedicated path of getting to the level of what you’re seeing. To win an amateur competition on one show is one thing, but at the end of the day business is business. It’s like an Olympian that wins the gold. It doesn’t mean your career is set for life. Now you need to maintain that image.

But TV in general, I’m excited about. I’m hoping to get a TV show in some way, shape or form. It’s just a matter of finding the right thing and the right topic.

So Food TV is something you’re planning to get into?

Absolutely, and I think that there are a few schools of thought on my side. I am a fun prank-y guy in the back, but on the other side I’m really business driven, as well as driven creatively and design-wise. There’s also education. I want to teach. I want to help bring guys forward that I’ve had in my kitchen. I want to put them to the test of mentoring and getting them on a great career path…

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