Industry Insiders: David Burke, Foodie Wizard

David Burke builds a foodie empire, parties in Vegas, drinks up a new name, and pours some out for Jerz.

Point of Origin: I was born in Brooklyn, and left there as a one year old, and went to the Jersey Shore. Although I trained at the Culinary Institute of America, I traveled to France where I spent several stages with notable chefs such as Pierre Troisgros, Georges Blanc, and Gaston Lenôtre, but eventually returned to the US as a sous chef for Waldy Malouf at La Cremaillere, and then worked for Charlie Palmer at River Café. Charlie hired me as [his] number two, which is how I got back to Brooklyn where I lived for ten years. Two years under Charlie, then five years as a chef.

Occupations: In 1992, I opened the Park Avenue Café with Smith & Wollensky CEO Alan Stillman. My first cookbook, Cooking with David Burke, was published in 1995, the same year I became Vice President of Culinary Development for the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group. In 2003, I teamed up with Donatella Arpaia to open davidburke & donatella. My second book, David Burke’s New American Classics, was published in April, 2006. I then purchased Fromagerie, a fine dining restaurant in Rumson, New Jersey where my culinary career began under founders Markus and Hubert Peter. David Burke Las Vegas opened in the Venetian hotel 2007. Back in 1996, I launched David Burke at Bloomingdale’s, offering both a full service “Burke Bar Café” on one side and a “Burke in the Box” take-out/eat-in on the other … then David Burke’s Primehouse in the James Chicago Hotel.

Any non-industry projects in the works? Table to Table in Bergen County: Each year we honor a chef and a restaurant. Everybody thinks Jersey is Siberia, but all of the money we raise goes to feed the poor, and the support is good. Claire Insalata Poulos partners with this. Everything is tied to the industry, QVC in pots and pans, and we’ve shot a pilot of a day-in-the life of what goes on in the life of a celebrity chef, budgeting, staying ahead of the curve, working out consulting projects, and the fun part of the night when you let out some steam. I fly all of my chefs for a weekend in Vegas. It’s actually funny; it captures the people and the corporate office. We’ve got a television project going with the Gordon Ramsay temper — it’s not the focus of the show, but it sells. We’ve got a little bleeping there about the mashed potatoes.

Favorite Hangs: I’ve got to tell you, I like the neighborhood restaurants like Geisha, Aureole, and of course my own in Bloomingdales. I live in Jersey, and there are two or three places I go: Grissini in Englewood Cliffs; River Palm, Armando, J.D.’s, a rib joint, and a Korean barbecue place I can’t even pronounce (that does sushi and bbq). And I try new restaurants in New York. I don’t tend to go back because there are so many new restaurants to try. I’m not a nightclub guy, I’m just too busy to hang out. When I go to other cities, I dine out more than I do in New York — you’re never in a rush when you go to a neighborhood restaurant with Springsteen.

Industry Icons: I got to tell you, I’ve worked for Alan Stillman and Buzzy O’Keefe, and without Buzzy O’Keefe, I wouldn’t be here. Alan taught me a great deal about managing, marketing, and knowhow. I like Drew Nieporent a lot; he’s a down-to-earth real guy — he got his hands in the kitchen in the front, so he’s got his finger on the pulse of what’s happening, and we’re close. Annie Meyer, and of course the chefs I’ve worked for like Daniel Boulud, Wally Malouf. I like some of the service guys: wine guys like Josh Wesson, and Joey DeLissio who has been at the River Café before I was, and is one of the best out there. My son is now in restaurant school as of Monday — he didn’t tell me he was going to apply, as he didn’t want me pulling strings for him at the CIA, so he started at Johnson Wales in Providence in restaurant management. I always tell him to work for the best guy, and he wants to do it all himself. My other son is a junior at the University of Vermont.

Who are some people you’re likely to be seen with? I’m really friendly with all the chefs, and if I’m out, Rick Moon, Wally, Terry Brennan — when I see guys, most chefs connect. Daniel and I see each other at events, Drew and I get together as families; his brother and I are on the board of a charity together.

Projections: We’re at a turning point in the community and company: We bought Donatella out recently after five years, we’re opening a fish restaurant, and we’re expanding the fast-casual and the steak concept. We’re reinvigorating the lollipops, flavor sprays, pots and pans line, another cookbook … But we want to take it at the right pace — we’ve opened very quickly, but the future means having a great core of people around you. We’re hard workers, but it’s hard to keep your hand on everything. It’s a big family of restaurants, and we want to build nice restaurants with nice people working for us. The goals are quality and profitability.

What are you doing tonight? I’m picking a name for my new fish restaurant. We’ve been playing with 20 names for 45 days, and tonight we’re getting together 10 guys and a bottle of wine to wrap our hands around the new restaurant and chef. Tomorrow is designers, a writer for the day, catering on a yacht. We’ve got a catering company opening next January in New York City. Rumor has it that we’re going to be consulting for the new Yankee Stadium. I’m a Mets fan, but … when the Yanks win, it hurts my business! I’m a Giants fan!

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