Making Magic

IN THE FIRST INSTALLMENT OF OUR LEGENDARY CHEF SERIES,WE DISCOVER THAT DAVID BURKE IS MUCH MORE THAN A WHIZ IN THE KITCHEN.

BY SHIRA LEVINE

For those who dig classic conceptual cuisine outside of the traditional restaurant box setup, David Burke has become somewhat of a hero. In addition to his classic surf and turf joints (like Fishtail by David Burke, pictured at right), Chef Burke holds court with his fancy foods inside a Bloomingdale’s, a bowling alley and an airport. If by chance you don’t recognize the oft-showy culinologist (an expert who blends culinary arts and food technology) with a penchant for whimsically sculpting his dishes to dazzle diners by name, there’s still a decent chance you’ve eaten in one of his 10 restaurants, or purchased his gourmet products. (“Burke in the Box” takeout meal at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport, anyone?) Or perhaps you’ll recall his very near win against Bobby Flay on Iron Chef, or his too-early kissoff from Top Chef Masters.

Chef Burke has been a longtime pioneer in the biz of celebrity chefery, cooking up a career that “blurs the lines between chef, artist, entrepreneur and inventor.” His factory of fabulous foodspots tantalizes taste buds through a slew of dramatically different spaces, with entertaining concoctions appearing on plates throughout New York, and in New Jersey, Chicago, Connecticut and Las Vegas. Then there’s David Burke Townhouse, David Burke’s Primehouse, Fromagerie, David Burke Prime, Fishtail by David Burke and David Burke Kitchen. Burke is also the mastermind behind Pastrami Salmon, GourmetPops, flavor-transfer spice sheets and various flavor sprays and oils. He’s got two cookbooks and even DAVID BURKE Magazine. We managed to catch this Renaissance man at his local greenmarket, shopping for fresh, in-season finds.

You have so many titles! Chef, entrepreneur, artist, inventor…. Which do you feel describes you best?  

I’ve always felt at home in the kitchen. I was a dish washer in high school. I’d work on the weekends, and that’s when I fell in love with the idea of working in a kitchen. I get real excitement from the energy and creative teamwork that happens in there. So all of the other things I am today came out of me working in the kitchen. I get a real satisfaction out of putting together a good product for someone else to enjoy.

Many of today’s entrepreneurial celebrity chefs don’t actually do the cooking anymore, but shift their focus to the business side of things.

I still do cook in my kitchens, but it’s been a natural progression for me to be in and out of the kitchen when need be. I made an early decision that I was going to conquer one level of this business at a time. After I reached the level of what I truly felt was “me as a good chef,” then it was time to be partner in a company. Then the next course was to start my own company. I was one of the first chefs to do that. That road had not been paved yet. It was the late ’70s and the beginning of modern American food and of chefs as businessmen.

A lot of the David Burke dining experience is about setting the scene, and your restaurants each have very specific, thought out designs. Would you describe yourself as fashion forward?

When you work in the kitchen it’s nearly impossible to be fashion forward! But we do take a lot of pride in the ambiance and décor of the restaurants, especially Townhouse and Kitchen. I was very involved in helping decorate them, but I’m not a designer. Kitchen is supposed to feel dark and woodsy, comfy—like a home. Bloomingdale’s has an intimate neighborhood feel. Our steakhouses are more masculine. What are some other ideas you’re currently excited about? We have a moveable garden in a parking lot at the Rumsfield, New Jersey restaurant. This summer we’re going to put each of the gardens in little red wagons so they can move around easily. When guests walk into the restaurant, they will be greeted with a bushel of tomatoes and basil plants that they can cut themselves and bring to the hostess. Then we’ll prepare it at the table as part of their appetizer. I just love the idea of that.

What’s your overall food philosophy?

I’m always looking to cut out the middleman as much as possible. It’s what is most economically sound for us. I am always in a local produce market myself. We’ve done it with our bread, our dairy and our produce. Fish and seafood are next.We’re also currently building a dry beef company with my patented salt treatment. Our beef comes from right here in New Jersey. I bought a bull five years ago in Kentucky so I would know exactly where my beef comes from and can ensure the quality of what we’re serving.We have the product down to the genetics, for the perfect marbleization and grading. It was superior planning on our part. We always want to know where our stuff is coming from.

Do you think all the recent hype around “local” and “seasonal” is silly? Haven’t good chefs been doing this all along?

The seasonal and local thing has been done forever, but it hasn’t been touted. It’s being emphasized now because of the the state of the economy, and high fuel prices. All the recent PR is good, especially since it helps support American farmers, but it’s always been what we try to do. However, you have to understand, it’s hard to do local in Chicago in the winter. It’s absolutely what the mom and pop shops should be aiming for, but it’s hard for big [national] chains to do it. It’s tough to be 100 percent local; you might simply over the counter Viagra not have a good local person for something you need.

How do you please loyal customers who request something that isn’t in season?

In New Jersey we have a lot of clientele who want calamari, but it’s not local there. In those cases we make exceptions—it’s what the customers want! But when it comes to fruit and people wanting raspberries or blueberries year round, we suggest maybe trying a dish with mango or pineapple.

Your menus run the deliciously garish gamut, from Bowlmor Lanes’ badass burger replete with applewood-smoked bacon, spicy tempura shrimp, cheddar cheese and blue cheese slaw, to David Burke Kitchen’s pretzel crabcake with  tomato, orange and green peppercorn.What do you love to order when you eat out, and what do you like to cook at home?

I love ordering Peking duck! For myself, I love to prepare pasta. I’ll make gemelli with sweet sausage, tomatoes, olive oil and butter. When I cook for friends and family, I love to prepare a whole roasted fish, chicken, squab or turkey. My favorite is roasted squab foie gras, cabbage with corn bread and pickled onions.

Is there anything you wish your guests would be a little more adventurous about trying?

Game birds, sweet potatoes and kidneys!

Maple Bacon Dates: Yields 20 stuffed dates

INGREDIENTS:
1⁄4 pound peanuts
2 1⁄2 ounces honey
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or 1⁄2 minced jalapeño
20 Medjool dates, cut in half
10 strips of par-baked smoked bacon
20 seedless grapes
1 egg
Flour
Breadcrumbs

METHOD:
1. Heat peanuts, honey and cayenne pepper until caramelized. Cool and puree.
2. Stuff puree into Medjool date half, then wrap with a half piece of par-baked smoked bacon.
3. Lightly beat egg. Dredge grapes in flour, dip in egg wash, then breadcrumbs. Place into a deep fryer filled with hot oil and fry until crispy.
4. Place grapes, and then bacon wrapped dates, on bamboo skewers and serve