It’s been said that introverts are ideally suited for the job of “executive chef.” Assuming that’s accurate, then the fact that internationally renowned and multi-award-winning celebrity chef David Burke has had so much success throughout his long and storied career would appear to make Burke into something of an outlier. Having talked with Burke for an exclusive interview, as well as his staff in the days that followed — in addition to having read through other interviews that Burke has given over the years, it seems only reasonable to speculate that the prolific restauranteur, who was running the kitchen at New York City’s now-historic River Café by the time he was 26, is one heck of an extrovert.
Of course, you may have already sensed this about Burke, particularly if you’ve seen him on “Top Chef” or “Iron Chef America.” Or perhaps you’ve seen footage of Burke cavorting with his puppet alter-ego slash sous chef, “Lefto.” Lefto provided creative kitchen “assistance” to Burke at a time when pandemic-driven restrictions had turned restaurants into veritable ghost towns, according to his rep. But there is also a lot you don’t know about this self-confessed “culinary prankster,” enthusiastic community booster, amateur puppeteer, and family man. Read on for the untold truth of David Burke.
David Burke was named a 2021 Entrepreneur of the Year
According to his website, chef David Burke is currently the chef/proprietor of 20 restaurants around the world. That is impressive in and of itself, but even more impressive is that six of them first opened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, July 26, Burke was honored by Ernst & Young as one of its “Entrepreneurs of the Year” for 2021, and in particular, Burke was named the honoree with regard to “Community Impact” (via Ernst & Young virtual awards ceremony). The “Community Impact Award honors an individual for their extraordinary business leadership and dedication to the community and charitable presence, especially during the height of the pandemic,” explained Ernst & Young Managing Partner Anthony Sgammato.
“We know fulfilling your vision over the course of triumphs and challenges, not to mention a global pandemic, is nothing short of spectacular,” Sgammato said, addressing Burke. During the height of the pandemic, Burke use dining-room-downtime to ship meals and offer groceries at some locations, his rep recounted to Mashed. His not-for-profit “Feed the Heroes,” raised money from those efforts and then “turned those dollars into meals for the frontlines and those in need,” he told James Lane Post. “If our community is healthy, our business is healthy as well,” Burke stated in accepting the 2021 Entrepreneur of the Year award. “We nurture, we feed. There’s no off season for us. We lead by passion.”
David Burke has this one very important thing in common with both Bruce Springsteen and Anthony Bourdain
David Burke is a dyed-in-the-wool Jersey boy. Of his 20 restaurants, eight are in the Garden State. Though he was born in Brooklyn, New Jersey is where Burke makes his home these days (via The New York Times). One of four kids (he has an older sister and two baby brothers, one of whom is also a chef in Rumson, where Burke’s Red Horse restaurant is located), Burke was raised in Hazlet, a middle-class “down the shore” town (as Jersey folks refer to anything located near the beach). It’s also considered a bedroom community for people who work in New York City, as Burke’s father did, as a subway conductor and driving instructor. His mother worked at a local hotel and where Burke eventually got his first job as a dishwasher, according to an email from his representative.
Burke still chooses life in New Jersey, despite that three of his restaurants — including the renowned David Burke Tavern, which has made appearances on “Top Chef,” — are New York City destinations. In talking with Mashed, Burke made it apparent that he has a fondness for and loyalty to all things Garden State. New Jersey natives will be happy to learn that includes Jimmy Buff’s legendary hot dogs and New Jersey’s own unique version of the “sloppy Joe” (which is actually a decadent, triple-decker deli-meat sandwich).
David Burke’s children didn’t follow in his culinary footsteps
Burke’s younger brother may also be a chef, but David Burke’s children didn’t follow in their father’s footsteps. None of Burke’s three children, all of whom are now adults, have been bitten by the culinary bug — and certainly not in the way that their dad was (Burke suspected he wanted to be a chef from childhood, despite pushback from his dad, as we’ll discuss in a bit).
That being said, Burke’s son Connor, did, at one point, dip a toe into the hospitality business, according to an emailed statement from Burke’s rep. Connor worked with Burke for a time in restaurant management but has since gone back to school to pursue a degree in information technology. Further, Burke’s other son, Dillon, is co-owns a social media company called Front of House that focuses primarily on hospitality brands. The brand’s name actually refers to anything “customer-facing” in the hospitality business. Burke’s daughter, Madeline, is the one whose career choice, at least at this point, seems furthest removed from the culinary world. Madeline recently graduated from Tulane Law School and is currently studying to take the bar exam.
David Burke’s father is his constant inspiration, but wasn’t thrilled with Burke’s career choice
Chef David Burke is living proof that thinking of your dad as a hero is not reserved for kids. It was clear from speaking with Burke that to a certain extent, his father has served as a muse. For example, Burke told Mashed that his father’s cancer diagnosis inspired him to raise money for cancer research, including through the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation. And it appears his father may have spurred Burke to prove himself as a chef — albeit via reverse psychology.
“When I got in the restaurant business, it was a bad choice of career,” Burke told Mashed. “It was in the late ’70s and you didn’t get into it because it was respected, you didn’t get into [it] for the money, you didn’t get into it for the fame.” Not surprisingly then, Burke’s dad didn’t take it well when he learned his 17-year-old son planned to attend culinary school. “It was like telling your father … ‘I want to be a janitor.'”
When Burke confirmed his dad’s worst suspicions — that his son had dreams of running a kitchen, his dad had this to say: “Why the hell would you want to be a chef? Are you stoned?” Nevertheless, Burke followed his calling — and still finds himself taking cues from his dad’s personal preferences, such as defending eaters of well-done steak … with ketchup.
Chef David Burke is devoted to raising money for cancer research
David Burke had supported the raising of cancer awareness and funds for cancer research via the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation since at least as far back as 2014. That was the year he was honored at the Foundation’s 12th-anniversary soiree, along with clothing designer, Betsey Johnson, among others. When Burke’s father was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, it only reinforced Burke’s commitment to the cause. In the years since then, Burke has not only been an honoree, but he has also been integral to the Foundation’s fundraising, including its annual “Hamptons Happening” event in New York’s tony Hamptons area of Long Island.
In addition to doing his part to generate interest in the Foundation and its annual Hamptons soiree, Burke has donated his catering services to the event itself and his personal hospitality services to the highest silent-auction-bidder for the same. For example, Charity Buzz reported that for 2017’s private auction, Burke donated dinner-for-12 in a private dining room at one of his restaurants and threw in a special appearance by the chef — i.e., himself. At the 2021 event, Burke donated a personalized cooking lesson to the highest bidder, according to an email from his rep.
This may be real reason David Burke didn’t beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef
When the “Iron Chef” chairman pit David Burke against Bobby Flay (via IMDb), either would have been a safe bet to win. Both attended prestigious culinary schools and apprenticed with world-renowned chefs. Still, Burke might have had the edge in that he was (and still is, as he reminded Mashed during our interview) the only American chef to win the prestigious “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” (aka “MOF”), a long-standing international competition to identify the world’s best “craftsmen” in their respective fields (via EHL Insights). Nevertheless, Flay triumphed. Although Burke told Mashed, “I honestly I thought [Bobby] did a better job,” it’s plausible that Burke may have lost for having gone “rogue.”
As Burke explained to Mashed, the theme was lamb. However, when a judge confessed to not actually liking lamb, Burke shifted his focus. “I had a dish called Angry Lobster that was so beautiful — served on a bed of nails,” he recalled. “So I made Angry Lobster and put it with lamb fritters.” As he told us, his thinking was, “Let me show this dish to America, I don’t care if I win or lose. I want to show them what we can do, because at the end of the day, nobody cares if you win or lose on the show, it’s who put out the best product.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Burke told Mashed that he thinks it’s time for a rematch.
David Burke has an unusual theory on why some people like well-done steak
When Chef David Burke defended former president Donald Trump’s decision to order his steak well-done from BLT Prime (Burke’s restaurant inside the Trump International Hotel in Washington D.C.), he did so at the risk of alienating steak lovers and Trump’s political enemies alike. If you’re wondering why Burke would do such a thing, the reason, as he told Mashed, is his dad. “My father eats well-done steak and my father’s a good man,” Burke told Mashed. ” I would never tell my father that he doesn’t know what he’s doing when it comes to food because he put food on my table for years.” Moreover, Burke believes he understands why some people prefer their steak well-done.
“When my dad was a boy, there were no refrigerators and there were no ice trucks and there were no refrigerated vans and the supermarkets didn’t have refrigeration, so the meat was rancid a lot of the time,” Burke explained to Mashed. “If you ever get food poisoning from eating a rare steak … because the refrigerator was the windowsill, you might want to order your steak well-done.” Not only does that make sense, but it stands up when you consider, as Burke told us, that “they eat well-done meat all over the world, especially in Third-World countries where there’s no refrigeration … because they kill bacteria so you won’t get sick and die.”
David Burke has a predilection for serving food that literally moves
Although David Burke might be willing to take a stand for those who prefer their steak cooked-through, a quick perusal of his website indicates he’s equally invested in elevating raw food such as sushi to new heights. But sometimes, even “raw” isn’t dramatic enough for Burke, whose creative mind seems perpetually set to dreaming up new ways to thrill those he feeds. At times like these, Burke has been known to serve food that is still ALIVE when it reaches the table.
“We used to do little baby crabs the size of a snail,” he told Mashed. “We would put these live crabs underneath warm peppercorns and we would put hot oysters on top of the peppercorns, but as you were eating them, [the crabs] would crawl to the top. They would start coming out of the ‘sand’ — really the salt and pepper — and all of a sudden you’d see a little baby claw come out.” Another time, he “pranked” chefs Thomas Keller and Joe Bastianich by serving them a watercress and escargot soup with live snails “slapped” onto the rim of the plate such that “they stuck to the rim and their heads shot out because it was hot.
“We didn’t torture the snail,” Burke clarified, “but we surprised everybody.” Burke has also been known to put crickets on pizza and in ice cubes. We are assuming they were not live — at least in the ice cubes.
The inspiration for David Burke’s “bacon on a clothesline” was actually a snack food you might remember from childhood
Each of David Burke’s restaurants has its own set of “signature menu items.” For example, Salt & Char in Saratoga, New York’s signature menu items include “Duck Confit Potato Skins, Pastrami Cured Salmon Gravlax, Highest Quality of Aged Meats, Black Angus, and American Wagyu.” But one menu item that Burke says is on every one of his menus, regardless of whether or not it’s listed as a “signature” item, is some version or another of his signature, Clothesline Bacon, whether “Candied Bacon on a Clothesline” or “Clothesline Peking Bacon” or some other iteration. So, where did Burke get the idea of hanging bacon from a clothesline? The inspiration, as it turns out, was “fruit leather” — a dried-fruit snack that ’90s kids might remember fondly.
As Burke told Mashed, it was at a charity event he was catering in Vegas. Burke was making various “leathers” out of berries, mango, and ketchup to serve as a “wrapper” with foie gras and duck. To dry the leathers, Burke employed a wooden drying rack, and while he and his team were hanging the leathers from the clothesline-like slats, he thought of hanging some of the ducks as well. And that led to the realization that if duck was good, bacon would be even better. “That’s how it was born,” Burke told Mashed, “by a mistake.”
David Burke is an avid collector of art, and artist himself
In a 2016 article with the title, “David Burke, Celebrity Chef: Collector or Hoarder,” The New York Times took a tour of Burke’s light-filled penthouse apartment in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but it turned out that the highlight was not Burke’s kitchen. In fact, Burke’s home kitchen is of the “compact” variety, which makes sense given that, apart from a lot of pandemic-related home cooking, Burke tends to use his kitchen for making not much more than coffee and “reservations.” What was far more noteworthy was Burke’s “stuff,” and lots of it. “I’m not a hoarder,” Burke told the New York Times. “But I like collecting art and things I don’t need.”
Such things include 1,200 cookbooks, full lines of Cuisinart and Illy appliances, a dozen blown-glass balloons, a vintage Bugatti model racecar, lithographs by Picasso and Chagall, glass-art by Dale Chihuly and various works of sculpture such as a missionary bell and a driftwood figure Burke referred to as his “butler.” But something that only careful watchers of Burke’s Instagram account may realize is that David Burke is also an artist in his own right. For example, in the photo above, we see an example of Burke’s handiwork from July 2020. “Needed some color for the snack bar at @DrifthouseDB … and decided to do it myself,” he wrote, via Instagram.
David Burke views his cooking as analogous to writing a song
If there is one thing that tends to unify all of Burke’s restaurants, other than Burke himself, of course, it is an emphasis on menu items that do more than just please the senses. To Burke, delivering sensory pleasure via food is important, but it’s not enough, he told Mashed. Burke wants his food to “tell a story,” the way, say, “writing a song” can. That’s how, for example, Burke came up with the idea of serving “crème brûlée with chocolate in a glass sugared candy dish that had a lid on it,” so that when you opened the lid, you discovered that inside was a chocolate butterfly. That way, as he explained to Mashed, “When you lifted the lid at the table, you got a surprise.”
“My whole menu is designed around stuff like that,” Burke added. “When we design dishes, … we try to have a theme to it, a reason.” For example, during the pandemic, Burke served a “couch potato,” which is a potato stuffed with short ribs, bacon, mushrooms, onion, jalapeño, sour cream, and cheese. “Even without sports,” Burke wrote as a caption to the photo of the couch potato on Instagram, in reference to the pandemic-related cancellations of many sporting events, “the couch potato lives!!”
David Burke hired his landscaper as a dishwasher in order to open one of his restaurants
As restaurant owners across the country attempt to re-open their venues, many have found themselves faced with an unprecedented challenge: that of securing enough restaurant workers to permit them not only to open fully but also to serve the public effectively (via Fox Business). As Burke told Mashed, “we’re open, but we’re struggling to get the right amount of staff and the right people in the right positions.” Compounding the problem is that “people are trying to make up for lost wages last year by opening and going full force without a full workforce,” Burke told Fox Business, with the consequence being high staff turnover due to burnout.
And apparently, not even his trusty puppet alter-ego, Lefto has been able to keep up with all the work. To open his Rumson, New Jersey restaurant, Red Horse, Burke had to go to his personal landscaper, as well as his former housekeeper, and basically beg them to work for him in the kitchen, he told the New York Post. That being said, the “hours have been so grueling and tensions so high” that the landscaper, Tony Edele, who “found himself clocking 90-hour weeks,” has quit and returned more than once, according to Burke. However, Burke totally sympathizes. “We give him a day to cool off and [he] comes back,” said Burke, praising Edele for his hard work overall.