DAVID BURKE IS ONE OF AMERICA’S MOST FAMOUS CHEFS, BUT IN HIS HEART HE’S JUST A KID FROM THE GARDEN STATE
BY JESSICA JONES-GORMAN PHOTOS BY STEVEN KRAMER
For the moment, David Burke is between meetings. Awake since 6 a.m., he’s on his third call of the day, waiting to gather his team at the Red Horse in Rumson before shifting his attention to Drift house in Sea Bright and then Ventanas in Fort Lee, finally regrouping at Belmar Kitchen. Wednesday his calendar places him in New York City; Thursday he’s in East Brunswick. On Monday he’ll hop a flight to Saudi Arabia.
“It’s a full court press,” the celebrity chef breathlessly detailed during a recent phone interview, highlighting all of his latest endeavors. He effortlessly ticks off a superhuman schedule as he feeds his neighbor’s cat. “It’s nothing like the old days back then I got home at 5 a.m. seven days a week. But this is a different type of intensity.”
Burke, a New Jersey native who is considered one of the widest known and most respected chefs in modern American cuisine, has been recognized internationally for his revolutionary culinary techniques, exceptional skills, successful restaurant empire, and many TV appearances. A food industry rock star and leading pioneer in American cooking, he has won numerous awards, including Japan’s Nippon Award for Excellence, the Robert Mondavi Award of Excellence, and two nominations for James Beard Best Chef. Burke was also awarded a coveted three-star New York Times review for the River Café and has been a regular guest on TV’s Top Chef.
It all began at a Sheraton on Route 35. “My cousin was a dishwasher there and they needed another kid in the kitchen so he told me to come down and apply,” said Burke, detailing the first time he stepped into a professional kitchen at the age of 15. “I was mowing lawns for a living at the time, and I thought it had to be better than that so I took it.”
By 16, he was on the salad line, and the idea of cooking for a living really began to simmer. He took a job breading food at the Hazlet Lakeside Manor, then quit and hitchhiked daily to La Crepe in the Monmouth Mall, where he eventually served as a prep cook for the mall’s visiting cookbook authors. He was working as a boiler cook at the Navesink Country Club when a high school guidance counselor advised him to leave school a year early to work full time and apply to the Culinary Institute of America. Burke happily heeded the advice, of course, and shortly thereafter traveled to France to continue his culinary training with world-famous chefs Pierre Troisgros, Georges Blanc, and Gaston Lenotre. “Those experiences were beyond inspiring,” said Burke.
Upon returning to the U.S. the cuisiner became a sous chef for Waldy Malouf at La Cremaillere, Daniel Boulud, and Charlie Palmer at the famed River Café, where he eventually ascended to the title of executive chef. At the age of 26, he became the first American to be honored with France’s coveted Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Diplome d’Honneur for unparalleled skill and creativity with his native cuisine.
In 1992, he opened his first restaurant, the Park Avenue Café with Smith & Wollensky CEO Alan Stillman, and in 1996, he became vice president of culinary development for the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. Today, he owns and operates more than a dozen restaurants with plans to launch several more within the next 12 months.
“We’re getting ready to open David Burke Tavern in New York City next week, and last week we launched Belmar Kitchen by David Burke in the Beach Haus Brewery,” he said. “Prior to that, about four weeks ago, we turned the former Fromagerie in Rumson into Red Horse by David Burke, which is a modern American steakhouse and sushi bar. We’re very happy with that restaurant; it’s doing great.”
Burke also recently shifted the menu at Drifthouse in Sea Bright to reflect a more Italian/ Mediterranean coastal cuisine while still maintaining operations at Nauti Bar (also in Sea Bright) and Red Salt Room and King Bar in Garden City. Beyond New Jersey, he helms Woodpecker Pizza Bar & Grill and Mister French on the Bowery in Manhattan, Morrissey’s and Salt & Char in Saratoga, and the kitchen at the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado.
Amid the pandemic, his team also launched two units Cloud Bar and Red Salt in Charlotte, N.C., and Burke took over as culinary director at Son Cubano in May. He also recently opened Orchard Park by David Burke at Château Grande Hotel and David Burke KSA in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“We kept busy during the pandemic,” noted the chef. “We had a lot of things in the works when everything shut down, and we decided to just forge ahead and continue to operate at a high pace. Some restaurants performed and made money, others didn’t. But the seeds we planted during that time are now starting to bear fruit.”
During the darkest months of quarantine Burke kept busy with Zoom cooking classes and pre-packaged meal kits, leaning on the sales of his licensed cookware that retails in stores like TJ Maxx and Home goods.
“People were cooking at home those first few months so sales of our pots, pans, and bakeware really went through the roof,” noted the chef.
He’s an expert in culinology, an approach to food that blends culinary arts and food technology, and he even holds the patent for his unique process of using pink Himalayan salt to dry-age steaks. Sales of Burke’s branded steak sauce, chips, popcorn, beef jerky, coffee, and more also flourished during the pandemic.
Lauded for his industry insight, culinary accomplishments, and candid delivery, Burke, a leading contributor to major news sources and networks such as FOX News, ABC, Forbes, NYTimes, and Bloomberg, took to social media during the lockdown to broadcast his hugely popular and quirky cooking demos, titled #LeftobyDB, with Left to the puppet who bears an uncanny resemblance to Burke, donning unruly gray hair, large framed glasses, and a chef’s coat. Burke also launched a virtual online cooking demo program, #CookinDB IGTV on Instagram @ChefDavidBurke. During this time, Burke’s restaurant launches never ceased.
“We continued planning throughout the entire pandemic and are slated to open 1776 by David Burke this summer in Morristown which will feature a Topgolf Suites component,” he said. “We’ve focused much of our attention on the New Jersey market over the past decade because I just think our brand is good for the suburban market. I’ve been in New York since 1984, and it’s just mentally and economically frustrating. Living and working in New Jersey is a pleasure.”
Throughout the week Burke splits his time between his venues, focusing on maintaining quality control and upholding the same level of expertise across all brands. On weekends, he works the floor and kitchen in the restaurants that need him most currently Red Horse and Orchard Park, which are still in their infancy. After more than 30 years in the industry he still works 16-hour days, seven days a week.
“This is a lifestyle, not a job,” he laughed. “You really have to love this type of work with your entire heart and soul to enjoy it.” So will he ever retire? “In due time,” he concluded. “And even then I’ll still have skin in the game, either as a restaurant owner or by opening a cooking school. I love what I do, and my team and I have worked hard to achieve what we have. This industry is in my blood; I could never fully leave it.”
Chef David Burke