A conversation with chef David Burke
Archetype is Archer’s venue for introducing his favorite finds. Chef David Burke doesn’t fit into a category as much as he defines several. He is chef, inventor, restaurateur, concept creator, celebrity, and forever student of food possibilities. Chef Burke will also open his soon-to-be-named new restaurant concept inside Archer Hotel New York later this spring. To meet Chef Burke is to meet an example of the ingenuity at the front of the United States’ increasingly prominent place at the table of world Food and Beverage. Follow the links in this post to learn about the ingenuity making Chef Burkes’ some of the most sought after tables in the U.S. Read this interview as part of our series with David Burke, and you’ll also begin to become acquainted with a very welcome new neighbor in the Midtown Manhattan Garment District.
Unique from some celebrity chefs, David Burke’s skill has been his calling card from the beginning. Chef David Burke’s career began as it should have with long years on his feet after studying at CIA, learning the classic culinary techniques in France, thereafter cooking under the mentorship of chefs like Charlie Palmer (The River Café) and Waldy Malouf (La Cremaillere), and receiving multiple awards for his culinary excellence. Surprisingly, with all of his hard work and time spent towards running his restaurant group, he remains true to himself and has an unguarded sense of humor and an approachable personality. He is one of those charismatic people you hope you’ll be seated next to at an event.
“…I would recommend this business to someone who has a passion for it. It requires an artist’s mentality. You can’t count hours, and you can’t count holidays and days off. You can’t count money or be a victim. You just have to go after it.”
Archetype (A): What has changed about you as a chef since your early days? In the beginning, the rest of us didn’t know you were a great chef yet. How did you get from there to here, and what is different about what you do today?
I think that the competitiveness in NYC and the opportunities I had at a very young age had something to do with it. I never believed I was a great chef, but I worked hard and I still have more to do. That is what’s really cool about food. I don’t know how to make a great Peking Duck yet (there are so many kinds of food out there), but I will continue to perfect the technique, learning from others, until I am pleased with the result.
Now, there is so much more involved for me: from concept to design, to architecture, inventing and branding, I do a lot of things in addition to cooking. From a food standpoint, I started winning awards when I was young and I’m grateful for that.
There are some chefs out there who are great or could be great. I know that, for me, it involved a little bit of being in the right place at the right time and having some opportunities. And I’ll give myself a little bit of credit for hard work and taking risks. I work hard. I am never afraid to take risks.
Risks with flavors?
Risks with flavors, food combinations and presentations. Yes.
What makes you feel the most proud about you are doing? (Spoiler alert: He is not going to say he is proud of being famous, that he feels good about how many restaurants he owns, or give a list of who always takes his phone calls.)
My influence over other chefs in regard to their style of cooking feels good. Sometimes I’ll go out and I’ll be eating something, and realize I invented it. Like last night when I wanted to tell the person I was eating with that I invented the garnish on our plates in Japan back in 1988 – but I thought she’d say, “Yeah, right.” It happened when I was out with my son the other night – there were lotus chips on the plate – he knows, so he just laughed with me.
You mentioned your son. You have two kids contributing to The Burke Group with you. Being a chef could require lots of missed birthday dinners and holidays not celebrated on the actual holidays. Is being a chef like being an actor in the way that some actors hope their kids won’t go into their line of work?
I have two sons involved. One in the Beverage end of things and one in Fashion and Social Media. They have a passion for their ends of the business. They didn’t spend all of their time in high school hanging around in the kitchen, but they did help out in a coatroom here or there when they were kids, and they both developed passion for their specialties and a serious interest in the industry on their own. They work hard.
I would recommend this business to someone who has a passion for it. It requires an artist’s mentality. You can’t count hours, and you can’t count holidays and days off. You can’t count money or be a victim. You just have to go after it.
You have trained in some not fun-and-games kitchens in France and all over. You have also won awards for being “cool” and “a prankster.” Which is it? What is your personality like in the kitchen?
It depends on the maturity of the kitchen and the age of the restaurant. Mostly I’m all business in the kitchen. Hard working, disciplined and demanding – but fair. I do like to kid around, but I always do it as part of a high level of function. I believe in coaching with intensity.
So, no “Silent Kitchen” in the Burke Group?
The silent kitchen, I don’t like. I’ve never worked in one like that. Communication, camaraderie and a little bit of small talk is okay. It’s not a game of chess. There is concentration, but making good food is more on a sport level instead of a chess game level.
Your style is also pretty friendly, Chef. You share real secrets when you are interviewed on television. Why do you go ahead and tell the whole country exactly how to make a burger hold together and taste caramelized and juicy all at once? Most chefs sort of perform on television in a way that makes it difficult to reproduce their dishes.
I like to give people tips – some of what I know. I think people are afraid of cooking. It’s only food! Only one meal out of how many meals you’ll have in your lifetime?
People need to know what they can and can’t get away with. Can you cook the spinach in advance and heat it up? How can you use sauces to help you serve six or eight people at your house? What about resting and slicing steaks? There tricks that production houses use to serve lots of people at once.
“Teaching people allows people to get to the next step or level of what it is that they want to create.”