Compliments to the Chef: David Burke
By Nan Lyons
Cook, inventor, author, entrepreneur, decorator, and culinary dramatist in chief. Those are just some of the qualities that David Burke keeps securely under his Chef’s toque. When he focuses on any one of them the results can be astonishing.
Through the years I’ve gotten to know Burke’s restaurants, at least the ones in New York, and have found that they run the gamut from audacious to zany. You might say he specializes in theater of the absurdly delicious.
The Townhouse, Burke’s most formal restaurant, in the East 60s, is sophisticated and chic, lacquered to a high gloss and for a whimsical spin, Technicolor glass balloons sway from it’s ceiling. As for the menu, he can go from opulent to outrageous faster than a speeding zucchini.
Fishtail, again on the upper east side, is filled with brainiac food of every description, designed to push the most imaginative of Burke’s aquatic envelopes. One of Fishtail’s most popular entrees is called Angry Lobster , and who wouldn’t be after suffering his incendiary sauté pan.
In a more casual vein Burke opened a welcomed oasis in Bloomingdales that serves weary shoppers just enough sustenance to help them go on spending. It’s clear that each of Burke’s restaurants has a completely different “MO” — not to mention philosophy — but they all serve the chef’s most requested dessert, cheese cake lollypops with raspberries and bubble gum whipped cream. Escoffier might not have always approved of some of Burke’s choices but you can bet Dr. Seuss would have made a standing reservation.
David and I met for a soupcon of conversation at the newest and I might add the very coolest of his burgeoning culinary empire, The Kitchen. It borrows the edgy feeling of an industrial space from it’s edgy SoHo neighborhood. However, David himself seemed decidedly non-edgy as he looked around at the crowd beginning to collect for lunch. He told me that he really liked the atmosphere at The Kitchen because it was so accessible. On his drawing board was an outdoor terrace for the summer, his first in the city, to serve drinks and mini plates of some of his showstoppers.
David Burke’s career began in ernest when he returned from studying in France with Pierre Troisgros and George Blanc, the crème de la crème of French Chefdom. He landed at the River Café under Charlie Palmer’s brilliant direction and the rest is culinary history. Burke himself lives in Jersey but he seems to be eyeing lower Manhattan as his next residential adventure. When I asked about down time for him or his favorite travel agendas he said “ I try to take my kids on vacations with me. We might spend some time in Nashville but as for me I really haven’t gone many places I don’t have a restaurant, like Chicago”.
David owns the Primehouse in Chicago as well as the Fromagerie, in New Jersey. I think from the way he spoke of Fromagerie it might have been his favorite, but keep that under your Camembert.
As for his interest in diversions and hobbies he told me “my work is my hobby”. So much for relaxation. But when I asked if he collected anything the answer would have made a museum curator’s head spin. Old Masters, Young Masters and any Masters that cost many zeros. These he sprinkles liberally around his restaurants as food for the spirit.
The only other thing that turns David’s pilot light on is inventing. He did a fair amount of it some years ago and is known for culinary innovations such as flavor sprays and flavor transfer spice sheets. These fall under the category of Culinology (the blending of culinary arts and food technology). Who knew?? As he spoke of his gastronomic discoveries he seemed just a bit wistful. It seems that he no longer has the time for inventing. Too many new restaurants to open, too many lollypop flavors to introduce and too many Old Masters to acquire. Still, it’s clear that no matter how many pots David Burke tries stir at the same time he will always be a man for all seasonings.
David Burke Townhouse/ 133 East 61st
Fishtail/ 135/East 62nd/
David Burke Kitchen/23 Grand Street/ Bloomingdales/ 59th and Lexington
Nan Lyons is the co-author of “Someone is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe” and the author of “Gluttony” and “Around the World in 80 Meals.” She lives in Manhattan.