Published February 22, 2012
Famed chef and restaurateur David Burke isn’t just good at dishing up amazing meals. The New Jersey-born owner of his David Burke Townhouse can also spin a good yarn.
“So, this guy goes down there, measures, and he says, ‘Hey, the balls on this bull are fifty-five centimeters. Want to see?’ “Me?! Whoa! You kidding? Me? I’m not going down there. Who knows what could happen? I could get hurt,” says Burke, laughing so hard he can barely finish the story.
The bull, who lives in Kentucky, belongs to Burke. “We save his stuff and we use it to make great beef,” he explains. “I’m just happy with the bragging rights. I don’t need to see anything.”
It’s an outlandish, unorthodox, outrageous way to guarantee a steady supply of great beef. If we are what we do, then that pretty much describes Burke himself.
If Willy Wonka and Einstein had a baby it would be David Burke.
Burke graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, studied under some world’s greatest chefs—Pierre Troisgros, Georges Blanc, and Gaston Lenôtre, and was the first American to receive France’s coveted Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Diplome d’Honneur—at 26. That explains the great chef part, but not the urge to be in a laboratory, swapping whisks for test tubes.
He’s designed and developed an amazing array of strange, yet practical food items:
Bacon- mochaccino or Memphis-BBQ -flavored sprays? Check. Cholesterol-fighting steak sauce? Check. Instant milkshakes without ice cream? Check. Spice-impregnated “flavor sheets” that season meat, fish or poultry? Check. Cake-in-a-Can in which you mix, bake, serve and store a cake? Check. Patent your Cheesecake Lollipop? Check. Add mouth-feel, “the difference between bisque and bouillon,” to black coffee without sugar or milk? Check. Burke has developed, is developing or currently revamping each of these.
Dishes like Pretzel Crab Cake with Orange Mustard, Green Peppercorns and White Beer Foam scream “molecular gastronomy.” But because Burke embraces his blue-collar roots it’s simultaneously pretentious and unpretentious. All that for pretzels and beer? Hell, yes, if you’re “just a Jersey kid” who always wanted to cook.
Molecular gastronomy blurs the line between kitchen and laboratory -- and Burke’s adept in both. “Some people are interested in sous-viding an egg for two days” (sous-vide involves sealing food in plastic bags, submerging in water and cooking at constant low temperatures) “or turning things into powder,” he says. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. He just wants to do more than make “pretty dishes.” He wants to invent cool and practical things.
His flavor sprays, which Time magazine listed as one of the Most Amazing Inventions of 2005 are both. They’re have zero calories, zero fat, zero cholesterol, zero carbohydrates and are FDA-approved.
Savor pepperoni, maple syrup, chocolate fudge or cheesecake without guilt, calories or food. Spray “butter” on bread and it tastes buttered. Spray blue cheese or ranch on lettuce and your salad is “dressed.” Spray chocolate on broccoli so kids will eat it. Spray it on utensils or the rim of a glass. (He’s currently revamping these.)
Burke was still in high school when he told his dad he wanted to cook. Hi dad was happy he wanted to be something, just not be a chef. “My Dad’s a redneck,” he explains. “He’s from Brooklyn, but he’s a redneck,” he laughs. After Burke’s first Williams-Sonoma cooking class, “Dad says, ‘So, how was it cooking with the housewives?” Good, said Burke, “Williams-Sonoma offered me a job.”
Burke took morning classes his senior year and worked two shifts at a local hotel. He then hung out after work drinking beer and breaking curfew every night. “My dad said, ‘I do not dislike you. If you pay rent, you can stay in this house,’” he says laughing. He thought it would discourage Burke from cooking. It backfired.
You may not have been to David Burke Townhouse or any other of his eateries (David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, Fishtail, David Burke Kitchen in NYC, New Jersey’s Fromagerie, Connecticut’s David Burke Prime and Chicago’s Primehouse) but you’ve probably tasted his earlier inventions: flavored oils; tuna tartare; pastrami salmon; a swordfish chop or savory lollipops.
He was among the first chefs to construct food into fantastical towers. There were salmon and tuna parfaits, “Angry Lobsters,” mismatched plates, consommé in brandy snifters (“it’s soup but it’s thin”), and breadsticks propped up in vases (“reminded me of my kid’s pencil cups.”) His ability to think outside-of-the-box is apparently contagious.
A buddy tells Burke that on Valentine’s Day he used Burke’s Strawberry Shortcake as a body spray. “He says, ‘It was working great. Then my wife starts spraying again. I look up and I see your face.’” Burke’s laughing so hard at this point that he slides off the seat.
“My friend goes, ‘Man, you’ve got to get your face off the label.”