Does the name David Burke ring a bell? It should. He’s everywhere in the culinary world.
Burke has competed on both Iron Chef and Top Chef, won countless awards and accolades, and has amassed quite the collection of restaurants that he owns and operates, from Las Vegas to Chicago to NYC to our very own New Jersey. Oh, and he writes cookbooks and dabbles in culinary gastronomy as well, branding GourmetPops (ready to serve cocktail lollipops) and Flavorsprays to enhance your cooking with less fat and more flavor.
I had the opportunity to speak with Chef Burke a few weeks ago about his time as a private chef in Norway, cooking for Prince Charles and Julia Child; his train ride travels around Europe, and his most memorable meal ever.
EPS. Did you grow up cooking with your family?
DB. Growing up my mom cooked simple things, nothing too fancy. My dad ran marathons so we ate really healthy. He even tried to convince me that wheat germ was sugar! I didn’t really cook much growing up, I think I had one thing I would make; peanut butter and banana sandwiches dipped in French toast batter. I didn’t really start cooking until my late teens.
EPS. How did you get into cooking?
DB. I started out as a dishwasher in a restaurant where my friend worked, and just slowly worked my way up from there.
EPS. Did you always know you wanted to attend culinary school?
DB. No not really. My dad signed me up for a cooking course (William Sonoma style) to make sure it was what I really wanted to do, and I got hired there on the first day to do prep work for the class. That’s when I got more serious about cooking professionally. I met Julia Child for the first time there. Years later I cooked for her in one of my restaurants. She was an incredible lady. She was an amazing woman, with so much passion for food and cooking.
EPS. Is she as vivacious in person as she is on TV?
DB. She was 6’5,’’ the woman was huge! I must have given her six courses, I said, you know I don’t want to feed you too much, and she looked me in the eye and said ‘bring it on,’ so I put three more courses out.”
EPS. What an amazing experience! So you attended culinary school after that culinary cooking center class?
DB. Yeah, so I graduated from high school early by one year, then went to the CIA, and then did my apprenticeships. I interned at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas before graduating from the CIA, there used to be a really impressive restaurant there, I don’t know what its like now. After that I moved to Norway to be a private chef there.
EPS. Norway! That’s so cool, how did you get that job?
DB. Well I was one of the top two students in my class at the CIA, so when this dignitary from Norway called the school looking for a chef, they sent me. I did all the prep in their home in Oslo, making stocks and freezing them in ice cube trays, doing all the prep for them for the summer at their summerhouse on the Fjords.
EPS. Did you cook traditional Norwegian food for them?
DB. No, they wanted traditional French and American food. I did a lot of cooking for big groups of people there. You know, cooking a whole salmon in the dishwasher because that was the only thing big enough to hold it. I cooked for the owner there; he flew in by helicopter. I didn’t really know who he was at the time but I knew he was someone important. He was really nice, polite to everyone. I do remember though, I roasted a prime rib for his dinner, and I sent out thick cut, American style slices. Prince Charles was alarmed because he’d grown up with smaller European style portions, you know, war time rations. He forgave me once he knew it was a honest mistake.
EPS. Were you able to travel during your time in Norway?
DB. Oh yeah, I took a one-month train pass around Europe. I went to Amsterdam, Brussels, Munich, Strasbourg, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Dublin, Paris, the whole deal.
EPS. Wow! What an eye-opening experience. What was your favorite city you visited?
DB. Munich was amazing, really blew me away, Strasbourg too. And Amsterdam was a pretty cool place for a twenty year old to be. Copenhagen and Paris had the most to offer from a culinary standpoint. I worked in a bunch of restaurants around Europe for a month or so at a time, all over the place really. I went to pastry school in France, before moving back to America. It’s those experiences in Europe that kind of demystified cooking for me. All the techniques I learned made the way I cook now possible.
EPS. Do you still draw inspiration from your time traveling and working around Europe?
DB. Oh definitely, I’m still inspired by those travels and the traveling I do now. I travel all the time.
EPS. You’ve opened up so many restaurants around the country- is it a challenge balancing them all?
DB. Yeah, it is hard to balance it all; I’m constantly on the move, traveling around from place to place, trying to stay up to date with all the new trends that are always popping up. There's always someone trying to make a move for your spot, always competition. It’s a lifestyle as much as it is a job, and its 24/7, 365 days a year. Nights, holidays, weekends, you name it. But it’s a lifestyle I’ve gotten used to after thirty years in the business.
EPS. If you could open up a restaurant anywhere else in the world, where would it be?
DB. Paris. London or Paris, but probably Paris. Hong Kong would be amazing, but its half way around the world- not so practical.
EPS. Chef’s don’t have very much free time- but what do you like to do on your day off?
DB. I like to go out to eat for dinner when I have time off, see what other chefs are up to. But other then that I don’t really plan my days off. But when I travel for work, I like to add a few extra days at the beginning or end of the trip as a kind of vacation. I’m heading to Hawaii and Ireland this summer.
EPS. What would you want your last meal to be?
DB. Really good roast chicken, really good scrambled eggs with caviar, and a big ice cream sundae with all the fixings. A good roast chicken is harder to get than a good steak.
EPS. Where and what was your most memorable meal?
DB. It was in a small restaurant in France when I was traveling. I was eating alone, at a table by the window, and it was pouring rain outside. They served me course after course of incredible food. Those eggs I mentioned with caviar were there, oysters, pigeon made an appearance, seven courses and half a bottle of wine, amazing service. That’s my most memorable meal.