THE EXECUTIVE CHEF OF SEA BRIGHT’S AMA RISTORANTE FINDS PASSION IN NEWLY IMAGINED ITALIAN CLASSICS
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
When Robert Burke was just 17 years old, he took a job at La Cremaillere, a charming little French country restaurant nestled in a white clapboard farmhouse in Banksville, New York.
“My brother was a sous chef there, and he taught me how to make all of the soups, dressings, and stocks,” Burke recalled. “I sliced the smoked salmon and prepped the handmade pasta. It was my introduction into the world of culinary arts and I loved the experience.”
Born and raised in Hazlet, Burke welcomed the opportunity to move outside of his New Jersey borders and polish his culinary skills at this posh little eatery one that was completely outside of his comfort zone. And cooking alongside his brother, famed chef David Burke (featured on Iron Chef America and who has cooked steak for President Trump) was one of the job’s greatest perks.
“I took every opportunity I could to learn from him,” Burke said, adding that he followed his brother to the River Café in Brooklyn next, where they both worked for several years until the younger Burke was offered an opportunity at Aqua in San Francisco.
“There I worked with James Beard Award winning chef Michael Mina,” Burke said, detailing his time at the premier West Coast eatery. “It was a wonderful opportunity that really helped shape me as a chef.”
Burke came back the East Coast a few years later, taking a position at the Park Avenue Café in Manhattan. He also worked at David Burke’s Donatella, the Richmond County Country Club in Staten Island, and Fromagerie in Rumson before settling at Ama Ristorante in Sea Bright four years ago.
“I started out running the café downstairs,” he said of his time at the oceanfront restaurant, which features Tuscan inspired décor and sophisticated Italian cuisine. “Last year I moved to the upstairs dining room, where we changed and tweaked the menu to offer lobster, oysters, and filet mignon things that I felt should have been on the menu to reflect the beachfront location.”
Burke, who describes his cooking style as “classic American,” identifies fish as his favorite protein to work with, but spends much of his winters concocting hearty dishes around foundations like veal chops and short ribs (which at Ama, he soaks in a Sambuca gravy). After the restaurant’s winter hiatus (Ama is closed for three weeks in January), he will launch a lighter, spring focused menu that is built around fresh veggies and fish.
“We change the menu three times a year,” he noted. “In February, we will run out the winter menu and start thinking spring…offering a range of seafood varieties.”
Burke’s Bolognese is always a menu staple, however, and the chef says the restaurant’s fresh cuts of meat and homemade pasta remain customer favorites year round.
“Here, we focus on traditional and newly imagined Tuscan classics,” Burke concluded. “We use delicious local and seasonal ingredients in every dish, creating a menu full of foods that people value and appreciate. And for me, that’s the best part of my job making people happy with the taste and presentation of uniquely good fare.”
1485 Ocean Avenue, Sea Bright / 732.530.9760