When David Burke started cooking in 1976, no one made a career of being a chef.
In fact, it wasn’t commonly viewed as a viable career option. But he quickly fell in love with the kitchen and spent free time during high school years working long hours at a country club in Madison.
“I couldn’t learn enough quickly enough, because I had a burning desire to know everything; I don’t know where it came from — I didn’t come from a food family,” Burke said April 24 in keynote remarks at FoodBizNJ, a business-of-food event sponsored by NJBIZ at The Palace in Somerset. “It wasn’t in my plan to be a celebrity chef, a restaurateur, to be anything but the quarterback in my kitchen.”
Burke recalled his hunger for knowledge, which took him to the Culinary Institute of American, then to Norway, France and a return to New York. It’s a love to which he owes his success; he’s now an executive chef many times over with restaurants that bear his name in Sea Bright, New York City and Washington, D.C. — with more to come; an international consulting business; and myriad accolades, including being the first American to be awarded France’s prestigious Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Diplome d’Honneu. He’s also a two-time winner of James Beard Foundation honors for Best Chef, New York.
In Norway, he recalled how his work as an in-home (well, in-mansion) private chef for a member of the Norwegian elite taught him personal accountability.
“I learned that I had to be responsible for my time,” said Burke. “It’s like wrestling. When you wrestle, you’re responsible for the match. You can’t get off the mat and say it’s the other guy’s fault you lost. It’s like that in the kitchen, too, when you’re a private chef. Being an independent chef taught me to be responsible for every peanut. … There was only one person to blame. It was me. That was a lesson I learned and I don’t forget that.”
After traveling around Europe, learning cooking skills on his own dime, he landed a job at the River Cafe in New York.
When owner Michael “Buzzy” O’Keefe offered him the executive chef position, Burke said, he did not expect it. He was only 26, and from his perspective, didn’t have enough experience. He wanted to go to pastry school.
“Buzzy told me, ‘you could do this because all the waiters say you can,’” recalled Burke. “And I hated waiters back then, I did. The waiters were telling Buzzy and the management that the place ran better with me. So I learned that communication with the front was very key — and respect for the front, because I wouldn’t have gotten the job if they said, ‘he’s entitled.’”
Before taking his new post, he went to pastry school in France. His education and passion were the perfect combination. Along with inherent creativity and desire, Burke told the crowd of his other secret weapon — no fear of failure.
He then read a poem tacked to the wall of one of his restaurants:
‘What if …’
is not a question, it is the answer.
In fact, that very response has served as a catalyst for every advance in the history of civilization, because it kick-starts our imagination and awakens our uniquely human primal urge to solve stuff.
To look ‘impossible’ square in the eye and say, “Wanna bet?” Bet even beyond their astonishing power.
These six letters hold infinite allure for a special breed who daily converge as the place to wage war against ‘what is’ and to defy the beige-colored tyranny of ‘good enough.’
But they unleash a two-word arsenal possessed of the might to change the world.
What if …
According to Burke, that question “what if?” applies very much to restaurant industry problem solving. Since leaving River Cafe in 1992, he’s had a strong hand — either as the executive chef, proprietor, consulting chef or culinary director — in about 20 restaurants.
“In the restaurant world, you ask yourself ‘what if?’ If you don’t have the attitude of change, in this day in age, you won’t survive,” he said. “That means looking at minimum wage square in the eye and figuring it out, saying ‘I need two people to wear two hats’ or ‘one person to do this.’”
“I have pastry chefs that made $80,000 20 years ago, they make less money today,” he continued. “The salaries in New York City are going down, while the minimum wage is going up. I don’t need that guy [with minimal experience]. I’d rather get two sous chefs or a chef who can do pastries. Those are the things we have to look at as business owners.”
Burke’s most recent project, Drifthouse by David Burke at the Driftwood Cabana Club in Sea Bright, features his brother Robert as executive chef. Joking that Robert was a late bloomer who wasn’t initially as serious as he needed him to be when he hired him 30 years ago, he said that he’s fired his brother eight times over the years.
“I fired him more than I said happy birthday,” Burke joked. “I’m proud of him, though. He’s really good.”
“In the trenches of the kitchen, firing and rehiring is par for the course,” he said. “But it’s important to keep the cooks you’ve meshed with close.
“Rehiring people that you’ve fired — because once someone knows my style and my thinking, I can’t replace them – I don’t have the time to do that. Keeping your employees is super valuable. And then you gotta pay them a little extra, give them a day off [and] give them a pat on the back.”