Owning and operating a restaurant isn’t easy. Renowned Chef David Burke owns seven, going on ten. His ability to transform classic American dishes into culinary masterpieces (such as his famous Macaroni and Cheese Tarlette with Mushroom and Truffle Oil) keeps his restaurants booked and his guests wowed. He’s a master of French culinary technique, author of two cookbooks, inventor of new cooking techniques and entrepreneur. Burke also frequents our homes with celebrity chef television appearances and to some, he's known as the “Culinary Prankster.”
In the midst of all this, Chef Burke remains humble and grounded. He’s a Jersey boy at heart and thankful for every bite of success he’s had.
We caught up with him at the sixth annual Martha Stewart Living Radio Thanksgiving Hotline on Martha’s SiriusXM channel to get the inside scoop on the man behind so many menus:
Managing one restaurant is hard enough, and you manage seven, going on ten. How do you balance expansion with quality?
“Quality of people, meaning employees, and quality of product,” says Burke. When hiring, he seeks passionate employees who will take ownership over the dining experience and although challenging for free-thinking individuals like himself, he has put in place and relies on intricate systems to manage his restaurants.
You’re known for making new American dishes with impressive presentation. How do they differ from other new American cuisine?
“I think we have a good handle on presentation,” he says, “making things look very conversational, yet still delicious and sensible. We call that the ‘wow’ factor.”
How did you develop the 'wow' factor?
"I had to compete with a view so my food had to look good,” Burke says of his time at the River Cafe, a New York City restaurant with breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline. “I was forced to say, ‘I’m going to convince these people to look at my food so they’re not just daydreaming outside.’”
What kind of food did you enjoy growing up?
“Basic American food for the 70’s,” Burke says. “We ate pretty simple but healthy food. And my mother baked everything — she wasn’t a sauté cook.” Burke learned at a young age that when you bake everything, there’s a lot of dryness. “Applesauce was a favorite,” he says, along with salad, vegetables, lots of pasta and roast chicken, pork and beef.
Did you have any strange eating habits?
“I’d make pasta sandwiches as a kid, which is kind of weird,” he admits. According to the cooking mogul, anyone can try it. “You just take leftover pasta with some tomato sauce, butter, some bread and make a sandwich.” It may be an amateur creation compared to his dishes today, but the sandwich did teach him a lesson in food: “Tomato and butter is great together,” he says.
If you could cook with anyone in the world, past or present, who would it be?
“Of course there are always the rock stars and Einstein and some famous chefs before us, but I think my first pick would be my two [late] granddads,” says Burke. “That would be interesting for me to let them see how far food has come in this country and how well we’re doing.”
How does an award-winning chef spend his holidays?
“Normally I go to all my places that are open and I thank people for working,” he says. Then, after a holiday meal with his family at his restaurant in Rumson, N.J., Burke says he watches football and gives thanks for all his good fortunes. “This year especially, there’s a lot to be thankful for,” he adds.
Lastly, what’s your reaction to the Guy Fieri controversy?
“I’ve had some terrible reviews in my time — mostly very positive — but they’re hard to swallow (no pun intended),” says Burke. “Sometimes there are some things you can take away and correct, and other times, at least in my case, there were times when it was just a little bit personal.” In the end, Burke says, “The restaurant business is full of those nooks and crannies, hard left turns — he’ll get through it.”
Until then, bon appétit.